Polar bears are blessed with an extraordinary sense of smell. It's critical to their survival on the arctic ice. A whiff of seal, the scent of fresh prey, mean food and survival for the bear.
When a 40-foot Fin whale carcass washes up, stinking and bloated in the late summer sun, it feels a little like cheating. Still, it was an opportunity too good to refuse, either for us or the bears.
We motored for six hours to reach Sallyhammna. The bears had to walk, but it seemed worth the effort. The table was set and the guests have arrived.
Our first mistake may have been anchoring downwind of the carcass. We had a lovely view of a parade of bears swimming out to feed on the whale which lay grounded in the shallows, floating on the tide. The boat, already rank with the scent of wet socks and unwashed long johns and dubious cooking skills, now stank of cetacean road kill too. We smell worse than a fish monger's dumpster. During a sanitation strike. In August.
But the bears seem to mind not one whit.
We count as many as twelve in the surroundings hills, though it's hard to keep track as waddle off into the snow to sleep off their blubber hangovers. They swim out to the whale one or two at a time, ceding their spot to any bigger bear that comes along. It looks like tough going though. The blubber has gone slimy and fibrous and soupy and the bears struggle to get a purchase even with their sharp teeth. All but the smallest loner cub, who comes out during the small hours of evening and scuttles away at the first sign of competition, look well fed and glossy. They gorge, then go off to swim and play in the 36° water.
It's not a bad life if you can suppress the gag reflex.
August 18, 2009 - Sallyhammna, Spitsbergen Island, Norway