Of all the encounters on Svalbard it was the events on Storoya that will stay with me. We arrived at the island in the early hours of the morning, and having secured a safe anchorage the crew were resting. I was awake and keen to scan the new surroundings so ventured out onto a deserted top deck. It was an austere vista that greeted me. A landscape of cold, coarse beaches, low-lying grey rock outcrops and a huge white dome of ice that smothered any features of the interior. The only spots of colour in the bleakest of panoramas were the warm browns from a collection of walruses, and several off-white creamy boulders dotted around amongst the bands of rock and strands of snow.
Just occasionally the boulders would move. More Polar Bears. I counted thirteen across the island, and these were just the individuals I could see from my vantage point above the bridge. How many were around the corner, or dozing in a hollow, or behind a rock?
After breakfast we boarded the zodiacs to explore the shoreline. Rounding a point of rocks where the first walruses were, we soon drifted quietly in to a small cove. It was like entering an arena with all the key players assembled – more walrus and bears, with Pomarine Skua, Red Phalarope and Arctic Terns having bit parts. A section of the beach was tight with a group of tan-coloured walruses, comprising of females and young. These were not the huge males that we’d seen earlier in large loafing parties on Moffen and Lagoya. These were slighter tusked mothers and their stubby tusked young. These were altogether more vulnerable animals.
Three bears were in view, two either side of the walruses and one further inland. The tension was palpable. The bear to the left stood to stretch, starting a wave of panic through the young walruses and they hurriedly entered the water. In marked contrast, the more assured mothers just raised their heads.
Soon, the first two bears moved over the brow of the beach and out of sight, leaving just one bear to the right. Then a curious thing happened. The other zodiacs moved away and further along the shore. I asked our zodiac handler Heidi if we could wait a while and see what happens to the remaining bear. My intuition was to be patient and stick with the action in front rather than looking further afield. She agreed and we moved closer to the resting bear.
He was dozing with a few intermittent yawns and seemed unconcerned with us.
Then he stood, stretched, and started to walk along the beach towards the walruses. His pace was slow, deliberate and unwavering. I was expecting a surge, a charge, but at no time did he vary his speed. He calmly walked nearer and nearer, ever menacing like some killer zombie or Frankenstein’s monster, but this was no piece of fiction. This was real life on the very edge of the world.
Not for the first time in recent years, my video camcorder could capture more than I ever could with some hastily made sketches from a moving boat. I watched and filmed, not knowing what was going to happen, and witnessed a riveting sequence of tense interactions between bear and walrus, where both gave each other the distance and respect which fearsome tusks and claws demand. It was the most compulsive and inspiring encounter with wildlife I have ever had.