In the news, we have been hearing a lot about the impact of climate change and global warming on the polar bear. Some articles have mentioned bears found swimming far out at sea and the increasing incidents of bears found drowned.
So it was particularly suitable that our first sighting of polar bears on this Students on Ice (SOI) expedition was of three bears swimming amongst the ice floes. Though this was my 9th consecutive SOI Arctic expedition, and not my first sighting of a polar bear, for me it was an exciting new experience today to see a female with two large cubs swimming in the sea. And it was satisfying to see no sign of panic. The bears simply kept their course and we on the ship just slowed down to keep them close.
As a biologist, interested in the behaviour of Arctic animals, I am used to spending long hours watching and recording how mammals behave. But I am more used to observing polar bears on the land. My previous experience with polar bears was at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Research Station at Bathurst Island. It was located on a ridge overlooking Polar Bear Pass, a broad, well-vegetated valley inhabited by muskoxen, caribou, and many species of breeding birds. There we saw mostly single polar bears crossing the island, one a month on average, and usually at a distance. We saw them scavenging from dead muskoxen, chasing caribou, hunting lemmings in the snow, and sleeping for many hours. As we never carried firearms, we were always wary of bears and some of the researchers had some scary incidents with bears in camp, and out in the field.
So to watch these three bears today, carrying on their normal activities in spite of hundreds of eyes and cameras beamed on them, was most refreshing. To see the cubs playfully rolling on the ice floe, tackling each other and the mother, and then huddling together to sleep in a big furry heap, was a good and unique experience.
But I wonder how many of our students, used to seeing such wildlife shots on TV and in the incredible documentaries we have access to, are really aware of the rare privilege we had today?
After we left the bears, I talked with Madeleine Redfern, the former Mayor of Iqaluit. She pointed out that the Inuit Elders and hunters speak of bears that spend considerable time in the open ocean. They are known to the Inuit as “water bears”. This shared communication with the Inuit and Inuvialuit educators and students on this expedition is something I really look forward to on these trips.