As a youth I always fancied a proper shark attack scar. I reckoned that as I peeled off my shirt and walked the beach the girls would obviously find me irresistible as they swooned at the huge purple zigzag running from neck to nether regions. I bought a shark attack tee shirt once but it had no effect. Only the real thing would do.
Forty something years later and I still haven’t been bitten by a shark or any large predators, but a couple of weeks ago in the Arctic I came too bloody close.
I had spent days setting up camp on an exposed rocky beach at the northern tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut. We had good weather to fly our gear in, but big winds slowed us down, blew some tents away, made life hard and meant that we worked through most of the 24 hour daylight and only took short naps for rest. Eventually our charter plane brought in the rest of my team who had been waiting at Pond Inlet, along with much needed food and fuel. We had a huge dinner, celebrated being together, made plans and laughed and hooted at the joy of being in such a remote, beautiful place. I was incredibly happy as I warmed up in my sleeping bag – a good job done, the team, aircraft, helicopter and all the gear was in camp. I went out like a light.
OOOF! The air blew out of my lungs as an immense weight suddenly landed on my head, neck and left shoulder. In that instant I knew it was a polar bear. I rolled out of my sleeping bag with my heart rate at maximum. I had never previously gone from resting to maximum in a fraction of a second – believe me it’s quite a test of the ticker. My watch said 0200, the tent was partially collapsed, broken tent poles poking through the flysheet, there was no wind and the only sound was light snow gently settling on the remains of my tent.
I grabbed the flare gun and concentrated on slowing my pulse and listening for the bear. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard it approach. After a minute I had my heart rate under control and moved as silently as I could to the tent door. It took a long time to slowly unzip the inner tent door and then the flysheet as I was determined to not make any sounds. Once it was open about a foot I poked my head out and came face to face with one of the largest carnivorous predators on the planet. Our heads were about 2 feet apart and we just stared at each other. I was afraid to blink. I had the flare gun aimed but was worried that if I fired it would make the bear jump at me. It looked relaxed and in those huge brown eyes I saw only curiosity – or was it pity?
After about a minute of this cross-species staring match it moved slowly up the beach and once it was about 20 feet away I started to dress. The sound of me dressing brought it running back and I figured it was going for an attack. But instead it walked around my tent a few times, lay on the rocky beach watching me and then walked onto the sea ice and disappeared, perfectly camouflaged amongst the frozen bergs. My heart rate zoomed back up to near maximum, I could breathe normally, my tent was wrecked, I had a sore shoulder but boy – was I happy!
By checking out the footprints and tent rips Theo and Jake, our Inuit elders, worked out that my bear was a seven to eight hundred pound female who had jumped on my tent in the same way that they jump onto snow mounds hoping that they might find a seal. She could obviously sense me and by the slimmest of margins she had missed hooking me with those claws.
On the strength of my encounter we improved our bear watch routines and also brought in a fabulous, mostly wild, husky from Pond Inlet who theoretically would raise hell when a bear got close. We became great mates – I loved him for being a smelly, strong, beautiful dog, he loved me because I knew where the food was. But he showed his true affection for me on our last dive when he was so excited on our way across the sea ice that he couldn’t stop biting my legs, making holes in my new drysuit. During the dive he snapped at my bubbles as they appeared in the ice cracks and when I surfaced he gave me a huge bite on the head.
My drysuit goes back for repairs next month and instead of the bird-pulling zigzag scars or life ending polar bear injuries I have a hole in my head and some antibiotics