More Arctic Ambassador Adventures

Hali attended Keeper Leadership Camp, sponsored by Polar Bears International, in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Eye to Eye with Wild Polar Bears.

After spending what we thought was an unstoppable day on the tundra viewing a mother polar bear and her two cubs, the next day proved us wrong. This time we again saw a polar bear off in the distance of our lodge early in the morning. This bear had no interest in coming any closer, which was perfectly fine with us. Taking in the beautiful colors of the sunrise as we headed out on the Tundra Buggy for the day was enough. However, we were in for quite a surprise!

A bit into our trip, we encountered our mother polar bear and her cubs, so we decided to stop for awhile and see what would happen. Another Tundra Buggy with guests had also stopped, and the bear family had some interest in them. We watched in amazement as the bears slowly inched their way toward them, seemingly headed by one brave cub. The mama was relaxed and allowed her baby to approach the buggy, sniff the tires, stand up to get a better look at the people, and then go back to Mom and sibling to roll around in the scrub brush. A little time later, we got our turn! This time, both cubs decided we were interesting enough to explore and came over to us. NOTHING can describe how I felt looking into a young polar bear cub’s eyes: dark pools of curiosity, completely unaware of the human impact on his simple, yet complex environment. Soon after, mama bear settled down and nursed her two cubs with all of us watching in amazement. The tenderness she exhibited as she caressed her two children was very human-like, and again the tears came a-pouring!

Polar bears are dependent upon sea ice to survive. This specialized apex predator of the Arctic hunts ringed seals and bearded seals by waiting at seal breathing holes from their icy platform. No other food provides the necessary fat needed for polar bears to survive the harsh climate. The bears that live on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, are certainly no exception. Because of the currents and fresh water from the many rivers decreasing the salinity of the Hudson Bay, the ice there freezes earliest in the winter and melts the latest in the summer, making it an acceptable environment for the bears to come this far south. During this time when the ice has melted, the bears seek land, where they fast for the months until the ice forms again.

The bears of Hudson Bay are adapted to this normal fasting period of two to three months (six months for a denning female) and live off of the fat they accumulated while living on the sea ice during the winter. However, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been steadily increasing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, which is warming the Earth and this is causing the ice to melt sooner and refreeze later. Since the late 1980s, the polar bears of Hudson Bay have experienced a one-week decrease in the presence of their sea ice per decade; this amounts to a 22 percent decrease in the ice and also a 22 percent decrease in the polar bear population. And the ice that is freezing each winter is getting smaller. As the water temperature rises, the ice will eventually not refreeze at all in the Hudson Bay, and that will mean no more polar bears there.

Over 90 percent of today’s scientists agree that the increase in global warming is human caused. A certain amount of greenhouse gases are natural and are necessary to keep our planet warm; it’s just that when you exceed the amount that our atmosphere can release naturally, they get trapped and cause all the trouble. The fundamental laws of physics state that the release of carbon into the atmosphere is causing our planet to warm up. As we warm, the ice melts in the Arctic, causing polar bears to lose their hunting ground. While on land, the bears lose an average of 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) a day, so the longer the bears have to wait to eat, the thinner they become.

Female polar bears of good condition weigh between 440 and 660 pounds (200 and 300 kilograms). A bear that has successfully mated will not produce cubs if her body condition isn’t capable of handling another bout of fasting as she enters a den to have her young. Since polar bears experience delayed implantation, her body will reabsorb the fertilized egg if she isn’t physically able to bring the cubs to maturation. Scientists have concluded that a female bear must weigh at least 400 pounds (180 kilograms) in order to produce cubs. Doing the math, one can see that waiting longer and longer to eat will decrease cub births and expedite a population decrease.

The lives of polar bears and the survival of the arctic ecosystem is in our hands. This video on the Polar Bears International website shows the decrease in the sea ice in lapsed time. Look at the dates on the upper-right corner of the video to see the years. There were about 1,200 bears living in the Hudson Bay area in 1984, and the last count in 2004 was 935 bears.

No one can predict when the sea ice will be gone for good on the Hudson Bay, but scientists do agree that it will continue to melt if we don’t stop it. As daunting as that thought is, scientists also agree that this can be stopped, and there is great reason to hope if we act NOW! The carbon emissions that our planet can safely handle are 350 PPM (parts per million). We are currently at 380 PPM and steadily climbing. To get this number down to 350, we need to change our lifestyles and all work together toward carbon reduction. There are so many great things we can all do to help the situation, and I plan to address some of them in my next blog post, so please check back. The polar bears are counting on us!

Hali O’Connor is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. You can also read blog posts from the other keepers attending Keeper Leadership Camp.

16 Responses to More Arctic Ambassador Adventures

  1. Fantastic blog Hali. Keep reminding people that it can be fixed/reversed if we all get together and do our part. Canadians really are proud of the Churchill polar bears but don’t all do their part to protect them. If people would only recycle in their houses we would see a difference. I await your next entry. I can picture myself there when reading your words.

  2. Your research reiterates my concern about the dire future for the polar bears. The comment that this fear is “nonsense” is not backed by science. The statement that man is the biggest threat is correct, but not from hunting, but by our daily activities and lifestye, which is more difficult to control.

    I look forward to reading your next blog that will give us suggestions that we can all follow to possibly forestall the demise of the polar bears. I know that climate change during earth’s history has led to extinction of many animal and plant species – most of which occurred before human development. However, it would be truly tragic to learn in hindsight that we could have prevented some extinctions during our lifetime and chose not to do so.

    Thank you for your blog that shares your excitement, joy and the beauty of seeing these magnificent bears.

  3. Before I started watching mother bears with cubs (den cams are awesome!) I used to think we were very superior to animals. I’ve been humbled to see how they are such great mothers without reading any baby books. Now I’m more conscience of my impact on the world and all living tings. I look forward to your suggestions on reducing our carbon footprints.

  4. thanks for the update ….was wondering what the Tundra buggy looked like now I can see it! also wondering whats up with the webcam it’s all blurry and looks like there is scratch marks all over the lens.

    Moderator’s Note: Sometimes the polar cam gets out of focus, or spiders build webs in front of it forcing the cam to incorrectly focus on the webs. It should be fixed now, but let us know if it happens again.

  5. Thanks Hali for your very informative blogs! The Polar Bears are so beautiful and it sounds like you are having the most wonderful adventure. You mentioned that the primary food source are the seals. If the ice continues to melt, wouldn’t the seals still be available for consumption? Do the PB’s ever try to kill a moose or some other type of land animal? The Pandas evolved into basically vegetarians because bamboo was pretty much all there was to eat…. Could PB’s change their diets to what is available?

    Anyway… looking forward to your next blog.. I want to help save all the Bears!!! The world needs more bears!! :-)

  6. thanks it’s better than it was!

  7. Is Chinook now separated from Tatqiq and Kullack?

  8. # 2 correction: activities and lifestyle are more difficult to control. Need proofreader!

  9. That’s a great question Dianna. Polar bears eat primarily ringed seals and also will hunt bearded seals while ON the ice by pouncing on the seal when it comes up to breathe at a breathing hole. Sometimes a polar bear will wait at a hole for days for a seal to pop up. They can not catch a seal in open water and are therefore dependent on the ice to hunt their food. If they are lucky, they will catch a weak or injured caribou or a bird on land and will also munch on kelp, grass, birds eggs or anything else they find, but these foods don’t provide the calories necessary to maintain them in an arctic environment. Occasionally, walruses and beluga whales are eaten by polar bears, but again it would be an opportunistic meal such as a stranded whale in a small pool or a weak, injured or ill walrus that a polar bear could kill without being hurt. Another point to consider is that the seals themselves are dependent on the sea ice to rear their pups, so loss of sea ice also will lesson the seal population.

    There isn’t enough time for polar bears to adapt to an iceless world. If we continue to exceed our planet’s threshold for releasing carbon out of our atmosphere, the ice will melt forever and the polar bear will no longer exist. Other animals would fill in the niche that are less specialized, such as brown bears. As brown bears move into the area and encounter polar bears, breeding could occur between the species which only speed up the loss of polar bears as they would become extinct through hybridization.

    Polar bears are very specialized to live in an arctic environment, so if the ice melts, we will no longer have an arctic environment and polar bears will not exist. Other animals would fill in the area. – Hali

  10. Hali,
    Thank you for your wonderful blogs! I am so happy to hear that you have seen a mom with 2 cubs…how exciting to know that we are still getting some twins :) Enjoy every moment and I look forward to reading about your fantastic adventures. I’ll be thinking of your info as I work Polar Bear Plunge this weekend!!

  11. Question for Amy: In reference to your comment about working the PB Plunge. Are you a keeper or volunteer? I’m just curious because I’ve been considering signing up for the Docent program at my zoo.. and would like to hear comments from people who do this sort of thing… thank you! :-)

  12. I agree with you. Language is insufficient to describe the experience. That’s one of the reasons I described it as ‘life-changing’. You look into the solemn face of this alert, intelligent, sentient, emotional, and complex animal and know that there’s a lot going on there. But we can only guess, and generally we’re not very good at it. They’re like us … and they’re not. Generally it takes you right outside yourself, and you realize — or I do — how insignificant I am in their world. It’s fascinating and humbling. We should forget extraterrestrials and learn about bears.

    I’ve seen females choose to nurse close to the vehicles. I think they must somehow feel a little safer from the intrusion of other bears when they’re close to us. That’s an interesting dynamic. I think we can be a little proud to be seen as a benign presence in their lives.

    Thanks for the fine description of your experience. You’re doing a great thing by making others aware of these ‘bearly’ describable moments.

  13. are there any polar bear cub watch updates??? I am going to be at the zoo in January and can’t wait to come see the new P.B. Plunge!! And HOPEFULLY a Cub!!!Thank you!!!

    Moderator’s note: We’ll have a blog post soon!

  14. Hi! I was going to ask the same thing about Chinook—anything new about her lately? How’s she doing with her ultrasound procedures and anything showing on the scan yet? We’re still waiting on Chinook to give us pregnancy signs!
    Read your article about polar bears and arctic ice. I agree that there is a lot of work to do to reduce what damage we have done to the arctic area, and to make sure that polar bears and seals are still around for the ecosystem to stay balanced. If we go back to prehistoric times, our planet earth has undergone some very extreme weather climate changes naturally over millions of years, but unfortunately, us humans have changed that natural weather climate change that is now manmade, and that has made things worse for the Arctic and Antarctic areas. We all need to do our part to make reductions in pollution, carbon footprints, and other manmade things that have caused this unnatural global warming to set in over the last several years. I can’t do too much except do some recycling of things that can be recycled, but I know that there are thousands of people here in the USA and the world that can do alot more to help the polar bears.
    Off of my soapbox for now! Love the polar bears and can’t wait for Chinook to have cubs!
    Chari Mercier :)
    St. Pete, FL

  15. This morning before coming to work I was watching the news and a commercial came on regarding a car company and it started with a polar bear walking through the country side and then walking into a city and so forth – the polar bear is just behind a man who is getting ready to get into his car that is polution free a hybrid and the bear grunts – the man turns around and the bear stands up and hugs the man for his contribution to helping the conservation of the earth very touching scene – brought tears to my eyes. It was just so well done even though not a possible scene.

    Maybe one day

  16. Dianna from Ohio- Hi!! I am an interpretive volunteer for the Polar Bears at the San Diego Zoo. To be part of this wonderful organization…there are no words. It’s amazing how interested people are in the Polar Bears and how much they thrive off of the information given to them. I love every minute and I highly encourage anyone who loves animals to become a volunteer or docent at their local organizations.

    Moderator’s note: Thanks for all you do for us, Amy! For those interested in volunteer opportunities at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, please visit our Volunteer section.