Polar Bears on Ice – The Sea(l) Ice Dilemma

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 seal kill.

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 feeding on a beached whale.

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!

Polar bear season off and running

Natural Habitat guides arrived in Churchill to furnished staff houses set up for operations thanks to long -time veteran operations manager Darcy Callaghan. Guides hit the ground running in this busiest season and not having to worry about basic needs is always a good thing.
Arriving on a Calm Air charter , guides Karen, Justin and Melissa enjoyed comfortable rear seating and looked out into a near cloudless sky down over the fall colors bordering Lake Winnipeg.  Further north, the transition into boreal forest soon melded into a landscape of scattered tundra ponds. Sights that will endure forever in one’s mind.

On the ground  a light dusting of snow highlights bushy branches sticking through, so the tundra has a greyish beautiful color to it.  The three groups landed to a beautiful calm sunny day in Churchill.  On the way from the airport, a white-headed bald eagle & an immature eagle were spotted on the bay side by the radar domes. Shortly after, on the other side, near the railroad tracks, a nice large red fox with a white-tipped bushy tail zig -zagged across the tundra.

Back in town, behind the town complex, a relatively calm Hudson Bay moored three cargo ships about five miles out awaiting a call to port.  Guide Karen and her group visited the Eskimo Museum then drove the back road stopping at Miss Piggy en rout to the rover launch -site. Once out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a clear evening on the tundra gave way to clouds and only a small line of pinkish- orange on the horizon for the sunset. With a few of the shallow ponds just starting to ice over, the light attached itself beautifully. Some light  patches of snow on the tundra did the same.


Earlier in the day a polar bear lurking along the coast, spotted by another group, vanished by the time Karen and travelers arrived. A group of seven ptarmigans picking buds off the willow bushes were sporting full white plumage…seemingly somewhat early for them at this time. Another group of about 30 ptarmigan flew quite a ways along the lake while gliding above the willows, then finally settled down in the bushes. “Interesting and beautiful.”; noted Karen..adding she had never seen such a large group nor had she observed such extended flight for birds that tend to prefer the ground this time of year.

Natural Habitat guides Melissa and Justin’s groups spent the evening on the tundra and  caught glimpses of a polar bear in and out of the willows. they returned the next morning to see the bear peacefully sleeping by the lodge.
More polar bears in the distance out at Gordon Point were seen lumbering along the kelp strewn beach.

The highlight of the day was a bearded seal up on the rocks nearly three hours before low tide, so Karen surmised the seal would be on the rocks for at least another six hours.  Parked in a perfect spot for viewing, the group observed from the rover for awhile, hoping for a bear-seal encounter.  After about an hour, Val ,the rover driver, spotted a bear walking around the edge of the bay from the east heading toward the group. It was on the move the whole time, but unfortunately,  continued on toward the Northern Studies Center to the south-east. Bear bangers were fired into the air to keep the bear moving and he finally  hunkered down in the willows & eventually wandered toward Camp Nanook. Then just as the group was about to leave they spotted another bear (at a distance) walking from the south toward the coast. After watching intently for a good amount of time, the polar bear finally lay down in some grass and slept.

_MG_2936 Back near the lodge, the bear sleeping by the propane tank got up and moved further away until out of sight. The group drove back across Christmas Lake Esker, finding some more ptarmigan, before heading back to launch.

This early part of the season sometimes has fewer bear encounters though the ones that are discovered can be quite surprising and exciting occurrences.

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