The bear was near the horizon when we first saw it.
A dot in the water, barely visible above the waves, it was not, initially, obviously a bear at all.
“Look at the size of that seal,” exclaimed the mate, raising binoculars and prompting the captain to do likewise.
There was a pause as the two men pondered the distant object, perhaps realized what they were looking at, dismissed the thought, returned to it, and finally conceded what was increasingly clear.
That a polar bear should be in the vicinity should not, on the face of it, have been particularly remarkable. We were, after all, anchored just off the north coast of Alaska; however one defines the Arctic — and scientists, geographers, and oceanographers debate many conflicting and complementary delineations — we were undoubtedly in the heart of it and deep within the polar bear’s realm.
Yet the initial confusion was understandable. Polar bears are creatures of the ice; but, save a few floes drifting past in the current of the Beaufort Sea, there was almost none to be seen — just mile upon mile of open water.
We had come in search of the edge of the Arctic Ocean sea ice. The boundary where open water progressively yields to its frozen counterpart is an oasis of marine life, one that our passengers, biologists from the University of Alaska, were keen to reach. But the ice edge had retreated to the north, earlier and farther than normal; it would take us many days of steaming to reach our goal. There was no way of knowing how long or how far this particular bear had been swimming, but its chances of ever finding its species’ preferred habitat were all but nonexistent.
It was a Sunday morning. The scent of freshly baked bread and of the breakfast that was cooking in the galley wafted from deck to deck and into the crisp arctic air. It filled our nostrils as we tumbled from mess room and cabins, hastily pulling on fleeces and coats, to watch as our visitor approached. The aromas stretched far beyond our green hull, wafting into the distance, their decreasing strength more than compensated for by the extra sensitivity to them on the part of the bear — which, it was increasingly clear, was not simply swimming in our direction but making a determined beeline for us.
It paddled closer, close enough that now we could see it clearly, its paws working feverishly beneath the surface of the water, its long neck straining to keep its head above the surface, its eyes fixed eagerly on the steel grail ahead of it, its small ears flat against the side of its head. A passing ice floe provided welcome respite and the bear took advantage, clambering out of the ocean, its fur thick with water. It shook itself briefly, walked from one end of the floe to the other to stay level with the ship as the ice drifted past, then plunged back into the water and paddled closer to us once more. Another floe arrived, and again the bear climbed upon it, rested there until it began to drift out of range, reentered the water, and swam toward us again.
Two or three times it repeated the process, each occasion appearing to be progressively more taxing as the bear fought to drag its waterlogged weight onto the ice, its shoulders seeming to sag ever so slightly with each repetition and the growing realization that any hope it might have had of clambering on board was destined not to be realized.
Eventually, it gave up. Having hauled itself onto a passing floe for perhaps the third or fourth time, it chose not to subject itself anymore to the rigors of swimming in the Beaufort Sea on a hapless quest. Its mouth open, it tore away its gaze, looking alternately down at the ice beneath its feet and into the distance, anywhere, it seemed, except directly at the object of its desire and frustration. And we watched as it stood there, forlorn and defeated, drifting into the distance.