Thursday, October 27, 2011

My encounter with polar bears in northern Canada

This little guy, an estimated 800 lbs., approached our tundra buggy. Maybe he could smell our lunch. Female bears can grow as large as 900 lbs., males up to 1,500. (Photo by Cynthia Linton)

I was looking a hungry polar bear in the eye from just four feet away – and he was looking back.

My feelings were a mix of awe, empathy -- and fear. I knew his huge claws could rip me open and his powerful jaw could crush my skull. But he looked so nice!

I was on the open-air back of a tundra buggy and safely out of reach above him, but still he took my breath away.

This polar bear encounter was in Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, where polar bears congregate and wait for the ice to re-freeze in late autumn.

They had drifted south on ice floes and gone ashore when the ice all melted in late July. Polar bears eat fat-laden ringed seals and can only catch them from the ice, when the seals poke through from the sea to breathe. So no ice means no food.

Months without nourishment
These bears – we saw 18 in two days – must wait with nothing to eat for 4 months. They have loaded up on seal blubber to get them through their long fast. Pregnant mothers who retreat to dens to give birth must fast even longer – about 8 months, the longest known period without food for any mammal.

As ice now melts earlier and forms later, the bears of Hudson Bay have been showing signs of stress. Body weight is down and mothers are having fewer cubs.

Polar bear jail
Sometimes (several hundred times a year recently) bears wander into Churchill, likely in search of food. They’ve been known to kill people so their appearance is cause for alarm. The intruders used to be shot, but now are treated much more humanely. If shooting off noisy flares doesn’t drive them away, they’re tranquilized with darts and confined to “polar bear jail” until near the time the ice freezes in November. Then they’re tranquilized again and airlifted hanging from helicopters about 30 miles away.

If a mother with cubs is captured, she and the babies are released more quickly so she can care for her young. Mother polar bears nurse and protect their cubs for their first two years. They try to avoid the adult males who occasionally will attack and eat the young ones.

Last week, when I was in the tundra near the bay, male bears were lying around or slowly ambling, trying to conserve their energy and beat the heat (which was about 30 degrees F). There was no snow on the ground except for patches, as the temperature had, until that week, been too high for snow.

Studying the polar bear
It isn’t known exactly how many polar bears there are in the world. Estimates range from 20,000-25,000. But in the western Hudson Bay area, bears are tagged and tattooed in an effort to get an accurate count. The population there has dropped 25%, from 1,200 in 1987 to 900 in 2004, according to a Polar Bears International volunteer, who was with us on the tundra buggy.

Other research, to learn the impact of oil spills on the bears, was conducted in Churchill, according to our driver-guide. Bears were put in a pool with an oil slick. The idea was to learn if the oil would hurt the bears’ natural insulation, which helps them survive extreme cold. Within days several of the bears died, a totally unexpected result. It turns out they licked the oil off their fur and ingested it. The experiment stopped. (I was unable to verify what he told us, but it sounded plausible.)

The U.S. Geological Survey concluded in 2007 that with climate change and sea ice trends, two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population could disappear by mid-century. And they could be completely gone from Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea.

That’s the reason I flew to Winnipeg and then on a charter plane to Churchill – and wore three layers of clothes, double socks and fur-lined boots for 3 days. I wanted to see polar bears in the wild while I could.

The bears we saw showed no aggression. They apparently hiss when annoyed and none we saw did that. Our bear (the one who approached the buggy and stood up to get closer to us) was one of the curious ones. Others gave us a glance and lumbered by or just stayed where they were and snoozed. When they are so nice it's easy to be sad about their uncertain future and it makes you want to reach out and pet them.

Not a good idea.

Some other polar bear facts:

*Their skin is black and absorbs heat through their fur.
*Their feet have hair on the bottom and their tiny ears are well-covered with fur, to protect them in the severe cold.
*The front paws grow up to 12 inches in diameter and are webbed to help them swim.
*Once in the water, however, bears can’t keep up with seals. They need get them on the ice.
*When born, cubs weight only 2 lbs.
*Polar bear cubs have a 50/50 chance of survival.
*It's against the law to feed the bears, no matter how hungry they may be.

Some of this information comes from Kieran Mulvaney‘s “The Great White Bear,” recommended reading for the trip.