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.