When the polar bears visit for the first time, they show a magnetic curiosity towards the ship. In their almost featureless and frozen home, we have arrived as a vast, colourful and pungent intruder. Even to the human nose, the odorous fog of diesel, cigarettes, disinfectant and cooking can be overwhelming. To the bears – whose noses are so sensitive that they can smell a seal from a mile away – it must be extraordinary.
We are visiting their home on the sea ice of the Central Arctic as part of the Mosaic expedition, which intends to spend a year attached to an ice floe to study the constantly changing environment around the North Pole. The ship we arrived on has embedded itself deep inside the ice with the aim of drifting with it for the next 12 months. (Read more about why the ship is spending a year frozen in the Arctic ice.)
A mother and her cub approach the ship at the end of the second week of the expedition. They stop a couple of metres away from where the hull has broken the ice into shards and slush. The adult looks directly up at us and cranes her head back, nudging the air as she sniffs. Her cub does the same and then hides behind her, peeking around her back legs at us.