Sea – ice is still in the frigid waters close to Churchill’s coast and these hearty travelers have been exploring via zodiac and Sea North Tours. I always looked forward to the early and exciting Churchill Arctic summer season with ice floes remaining in the Churchill River out into the Hudson Bay. These awesome features provide an extra thrill factor with Arctic terns and various other sea birds perching on the jagged ice chunks atop the floes. Even an occasional seal will nap on the ice surface. The surrealistic mix of sun, sea and ice combines to form a sub – Arctic natural environment at its best!
Beautiful blue pools within a massive ice floe near Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Blue azure pool on an ice floe near Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Early September, high up on the Arctic’s North Slope, there is a feast truly hard to imagine! Around 80 polar bears gather each year along the rocky, frozen shores of Barter Island, just off the village of Kaktovik, where hunter-harvested bowhead whale remains await the hungry bruins. Since polar bears are generally known as solitary predators, this unique occurrence has peaked the interest of biologists in the north.
A small Inupiat hunting community, Kaktovik seemingly rests on the edge of the world, No roads or train tracks reach this northern outpost and packed sea – ice for nine months of the year isolates the town from most of the world. However, September beckons throngs of scientists and wildlife photographers to the speck of a town to document the incredibly voracious and unusual behavior. With more polar bears turning up year after year, biologists and climate researchers are working to solve the mystery of why this continues to draw a massive congregation of polar bears. Unlocking the clues of this migration is becoming paramount. The South Beaufort Sea polar bear population more and more is choosing to forage on land rather than the traditional sea – ice environment.
Inhabitants of Kaktovik, much like those of Churchill, Manitoba, become intertwined in their lives with the animals once the feast is over. The bears then meander towards town to see what else they can find. Perhaps dessert.
Todd Atwood is the lead polar bear scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Through his studies and research in the Arctic, he has estimated that polar bear numbers have declined 40% in the South Beaufort Sea area since 2006. Atwood is on a mission to find out the reason for the drastic decline.
Black bear in Churchill with what’s left of a lesser snow goose in his mouth. Rhonda Reid photo.
This close – up photo of a black bear in Churchill with the wing of a lesser snow goose in his mouth has many people excited to see the rarely seen animal. This bear species does reach into the far north but are not often seen at this close range.
Bears of all varieties are becoming more apt at gathering food in the wild. Voracious polar bears in Churchill have been observed on seal – kills all year round and scavenging eggs and tundra berries. Occasionally a beluga whale carcass will feed a dozen bears for a few days. This recent trend in feeding is quite possibly an adaptive survival technique due to the warming climate and reduced sea ice season. Since polar bears have a shorter time on ice hunting seals they need to find alternative food sources in order to maintain a year – round body healthy body weight.
An assessment of Manitoba government statistical documents point to increased polar bear encounters with people in Churchill, the self proclaimed polar bear capital on the shores of Hudson Bay. As a result of increased interaction between polar bears and humans the numbers of incarcerated bears has nearly doubled since 2013. That year 36 animals were captured and taken to the polar bear holding facility, or jail, compared with 65 this past year.
Polar bear lift in Churchill. Justin Gibson photo.
Over the past three years the numbers of documented cases of polar bear encounters in Churchill has risen from 229 in 2013 to 351 last year. All aspects of the current numbers point to increased activity between bears and humans in Churchill.
Daryll Hedman is the regional wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation. His view on last year’s record for the number of polar bears caught in the populated “control zone” of Churchill indicates that even the authorities that deal with these animals on a regular basis are somewhat alarmed by the data. “Three hundred and fifty-one — for occurrences, that’s a high number,” he said.
Hedman and other experts are pointing to climate change as the culprit and resulting decreased sea ice as largely to blame. Over two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears live in Canada though experts are claiming that within only a few decades we could have a massive decline in numbers. With later freeze up in Arctic waters and thawing coming earlier in the spring, polar bears are competing for fatty seal meat within a tighter window. This impacts cubs trying to survive their first year the most. According to Andrew Derocher, a leading polar bear authority from University of Alberta, fewer cubs are making it through their first year out of the den. They simply are not getting the extended seal – hunting training on sea ice that they once were.
Polar bears spending more time on land are more likely to migrate to inhabited areas like Churchill in search of food. These encounters are happening more often and earlier in summer. Not that long ago polar bears rarely appeared in Churchill before August. Now early July seems to be the norm.
“What’s the tipping point?” Headman said. “What’s the threshold that they can go without food? When they’re on land, they’re not eating.”How long can they sustain themselves without getting onto that sea ice platform to hunt seals again?”
Seals, particularly ringed and bearded seals, don’t care too much about the polar bear’s plight of reduced sea ice. True, seals need the ice – pack and ice – floes to build their dens to birth and raise their young. However, they would not mind one bit if there were no polar bears around to stalk them in their blowholes and crash through their dens on the ice in order to devour their young and occasionally adults as well. No, as far as seals think, polar bears could disappear all-together and they wouldn’t have to keep one eye open constantly while they are dozing on the ice in between dives below the surface.
What seals don’t know is they also need to worry about global warming and reduced sea ice in the Hudson Bay and other far northern Arctic regions. Without the ice surface there would be nowhere to build their dens and rear their young near accessible food sources in the ocean. Well, who knows, maybe they do know this and we’re not giving them enough credit. Anyway, the end result is, without sea ice, polar bears cannot hunt their staple prey of seals and seals cannot rear their young pups that are eaten by polar bears. The complex web of life.
Polar bear with a seal kill. Rinie Van Meurs photo.
Polar bears also take adult seals by getting the scent from a distant blowhole utilized by seals to surface periodically. Seals form these access holes in the fall when the ice is softer and less thick. They maintain them throughout the colder months by constantly surfacing and descending in order to prevent ice layers from forming in the hole. Polar bears get very low as they approach the hole and sometimes even dive in to snatch the seal with their sharp, agile claws. When a bear emerges with the kill, they will often share with other polar bears that approach very timidly while nudging the hunter with their noses asking in a way to partake in the meal.
Polar bears gather to feed on a beached whale carcass. Daniel Cox/Natural Exposures photo.
Polar bears are opportunists. In essence they have the ability to find alternative food sources when needed if seals are unavailable. In recent years polar bears have been observed seemingly more active on land or in shallow coastal water hunting seals and beluga or other whales. Scientists wonder if this is a reaction to the shorter sea – ice season. Are polar bears adapting to changing climate conditions?
Only time will tell with regards to the polar bear’s ability to adapt to changing climate and ice conditions resulting from global warming. Seals will have to adapt as well in order to survive and propagate their species. Also, just maybe humans, the wildcard in the equation, can reduce carbon emissions to reverse the trends we are seeing now in the Arctic!