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!

Notes from the tundra

News from the Tundra Lodge came early with a “house bear” as Natural Habitat guide Leah McGowan dubbed him. The lone polar bear set up shop immediately and slept the first week away with periodic displays of energy spurred on possibly from wafting gourmet scents from the kitchen car. He was promptly named ‘Frances’ after a guests daughters cuddly childhood polar bear, of the same name.

Arctic fox inquisitive of travelers. Colby Brokvist photo.

Arctic fox inquisitive of travelers. Colby Brokvist photo.

The bear is a mature male with several scars on his nose and another scar above his right eye. He is lean, though not skinny. He seems like an ‘old soul’ wise and patient…. looking up at you with knowing eyes.

By night three for the inaugural lodge group, four, maybe five bears in addition to Frances had wandered into the area. All seemed to be getting along just fine after a few “discussions” on personal space.
Churchill polar bear in willows.

Photo: Colby Brokvist

The tundra still sporting browns and reds awaits the snow soon to come from the north.

Guide Colby Brokvist reporting from Winnipeg after a “wonderful” early season trip gave rave reviews of all facets of his groups’ adventure. A tri -fecta of foxes graced the travelers presence with red, Arctic and even a rare silver sighting. Out at the lodge there have been at least two a night on a steady basis.

Silver fox scouring tundra for lemmings. Colby Brokvist photo

Silver fox scouring tundra for lemmings. Colby Brokvist photo

Truly the highlight of this past week’s wildlife log was a pair of beluga whales just off the rocky coast of Cape Merry. Amazing to spot these babies this late in the season. Imagine being able to combine summer trips with polar bear season? You could get it all at once. Give global warming some time it might happen.

Gordon Point provided some fine entertainment one day with a ringed seal swimming teasingly at a risky distance from white furred bears. Where else on the planet can you find that kind of drama?

Bird-wise…a list of 23 deep included harlequin ducks and a gyrfalcon….both rare for early season trips. So far an off year for snowy owls..still time though. The air has transitioned to the next level of cold which shall digress another 10 notches before the Hudson Bay Quest arrives in March. Cold enough though for most shallow thermakarst ponds to have a healthy icy veil on their surface….not quite strong enough to support an 800 pound animal.

The “port report” …still oil free..has two ships in port and two anchored out at five -fathom hole in the Hudson Bay. Workers are banking overtime hours trying to beat mother nature before she freezes over the Hudson Straits in the far northeast corner of the bay, sealing off the escape route for outgoing vessels. A long winter awaits.



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