Polar Bears: What December Brings

A young male polar bear is trapped in ice slush.

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International. This was my 10th year of doing so, and, as many of you know, I have seen dramatic changes in the environment and animals that live there in just this decade. This year has provided the shortest ice season in recorded time: the polar bears lost a full nine weeks of hunting time. The water and air temperatures for November and December continue to be above normal, delaying the formation of ice again this year. The polar bears have been hunting during low tide and have been fortunate to occasionally find harbor seals resting among the rocks. The bears must be vigilant that they return to the shore before the tide rushes in.

The bear at rest after escaping the slush.

I watched with great awe as a young male polar bear learned the hard way that the fast-moving tide with newly formed slush ice can be a life-or-death moment. This moment lasted over two hours for him. At great distance we saw this bear struggling to swim back in to safety. The combination of current and heavy ice slush proved to be an admirable preventer. At times his head disappeared under the surface as he rested. Just as I thought the worst, his head would come up again, and he would make a supreme effort to pick his massive paw, covered in ice, out of the water and push himself forward.

The exhausted bear

Eventually, he made it to ice he could crawl across. At well over two hours of enormous effort he reached solid ice. He lay still for a few minutes and then joyously began to dry off, giving an amazingly animated show of rubbing and rolling. Off he then went to cruise the coastline, still in the hunt for food and survival. He seemed to be teaching us that this is now everyday life for our ice bears when the ice is not forming as it should. How many are not making it back to solid footing? This young male polar bear’s effort to survive makes our effort to conserve seem so minimal.

After resting, he dries off in the snow.

The forecast for the Hudson Bay: a thin ledge of ice should be formed by mid- December.

What does December bring for our polar bears in San Diego? Unfortunately, it does not look like the pitter patter of tiny paws will be filling our ears. Although we were all so hopeful, it looks like we’ll be repeating this process next year. Our girl Chinook has become very active and is spending lots of time playing in back and looking longingly over at her two buddies Kalluk and Tatqiq. We did another ultrasound exam this week and found a very healthy girl but no sign of cubs. So we are now looking to reintroduce our fabulous trio very soon. Putting such large bears together does not come without risk. The introductions and the time they spend together will be determined by their behavior. But if the interactions they have been having in the back area are any indicator, our three will be very happy to have each other to cavort with. We have some fun new balls for play, and we will continue to rotate the three in combinations throughout the day.

Of course, Kalluk and Tatqiq will have to now share their mulch piles with Chinookβ€”please excuse the dirt-filled water! (Thanks, Water Quality Team for keeping the filtration running so well!) Keep watching Polar Cam to stay up to date on how it’s going. Just think, breeding season is just around the corner. Here we go again!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: The Latest.

Note: Be sure to click on each image to enlarge it!

Join JoAnne on the next San Diego Zoo WorldWild Tour to Churchill this fall!

53 Responses to Polar Bears: What December Brings

  1. Ms. Simerson,
    We are glad your back at the plunge, I know you must be disapointed about chinook but like you said there always next year just think all the fun will have watching and wondering about little cubs! Your story about the bear stuck in the icey slush broke my heart I was so glad it had a happy ending it must be very hard for people watching not able to intervene and help the bears. This morning a I watched a show on the Churchhill bears they said that the polar bear were comming into town and eating out of the garbage. again my heart broke atleast they dont shoot them any longer they go to polar bear jail for thirty days then they are helicoptered far way from town. My question to you is does a mother polar bear always have her cubs with her when she hunts what happens if a mom goes to town to search for food and shes caught what about her cubs would they end up alone like Kalluk, Tatqiq, and Chinook? You know its not the bears fault they look for food in the wrong places they can not catch there food in the wild because of the ice not doing what it is supposed to because of what we have done the the earth I’m not a scholar but something must be done to preserve what we have left I would hope future generations would be able to see them in their natural habitat not just in zoos .Not that here is any thing wrong with zoos (Look at the plunge) What a wonderfull home they have and all the people that love and care for them I will see you the gang in Febof 2011 looking forward to spending time with the most lovable three bear in the whole world welcome home JoAnne. Barbara

  2. JoAnne, welcome back & thanks for the update. How painful & helpless you must have felt watching that polar bear who was trapped in the ice slush! I’m so glad everything turned out okay.

    I can’t wait to see our three bears romping around, and playing together again. It’s suppose to be a nice weekend so I may just have to come spend the day, and hang out w/them. Also, I’ve got a new camera I need to break in. Will they all be together on exhibit by then?

    Moderator’s note: Keepers will see how the introductions go, but please come visit and say hello to our bears!

  3. Come on JoAnne I think its about time to contemplate the possibility of introducing Tatqiq to a bit of ‘romantic’ interest πŸ˜›

  4. wow! what a story! I got tired just reading about the poor bear who was swimming for his life! :)
    Maybe ‘love is in the air’ this spring! :)

  5. …or maybe getting Kalluk a ‘harem’ of gorgeous female bears to play with :D…..

  6. JoAnne…Thank you for all you do with the bears. You are amazing! I’m sure everyone shares my excitement in having our trio back together although a little sad that there will be no cubs. At least we have next year to look forward to. Happy Holidays from all of us in Colorado to you and the whole staff at SDZ!

  7. I know that the keepers must have checked Kalluk to make sure that he has viable sperm.

    Is there some reason or reasons that Chinook would not get pregnant? Could she possibly be sterile?

    Bai Yun, the Giant Panda, seems to get pregnant easily and I wonder if there is a great difference in the breeding and conception in polar bears.

  8. JoAnne, Thank you for all you do with the bears.

    This may be a silly question, but Chinook has been with T&K before, and for years, so why is putting her back with them cause for concern? Surely they couldn’t have forgotten one another in the few months that she’s been on her own?

  9. JoAnne, an excellent account. I was just in Churchill with Natural Habitat, and it is true there has been substantial change since my first trip there 10 years ago. My 3 minute video is up at naturalrealmtravel.com and offers some comments along with photos and video. Thanks for your work!
    hank perry

  10. Polar bears are notoriously hard to breed in zoos, maybe for reasons that only they know. Kalluk and Chinook did only go through the one breeding period, in February as I recall. There might be some clue there as to why no cubs resulted. It is interesting, however, that Chinook’s body seems to go through all the preparations, even when there are no cubs. Or maybe there were cubs, but for some reason her body decided not to go forth with the fertilized eggs. Maybe some internal signal. Certainly it was not for lack of expertise or loving care.

    As for the bear trapped on in the slush, I’m sure it was a cliffhanger, but I also think we sometimes underestimate the resilience of the bears. He made it and learned a lesson, but it’s a dangerous age for his generation. Many sub-adults die before they learn these lessons.

    For Barbara above: A mother polar bear who leaves her cubs runs of big risk of seeing them preyed upon by other bears. Successful mothers are ultra-protective for a good reason.

  11. My heart sank when I saw the first picture. But then I was so glad when the polar bear managed to break free from the slush. It seems to be colder in the Scottish Highlands in the UK than in the Arctic at the moment.

    I am looking forward to seeing Chinook back with her friends again. And welcome back JoAnne.

  12. Thank you Diane # 10
    Like I said I’m no scholar. I went to Brooks Fall National Park to watch the grizzlys catch salmon the mothers were fishing and the cubs were not that close to them they played while there mothers fished then mom would bring them fish thats why I thought momma polar bears would hunt for food and bring it to her cubs like the grizzlys Im sure they kept them within eye sight but to me they looked far away at times thanks for your comment. I guess i never really thought about the dangers of little ones as a matter of fact every picture Ive seen of momma polar bears their cubs are always found by there moms. Barbara

  13. I just wish someone would fund UK zoos to keep polar bears, what use is a zoo without the worlds largest land carnivore ?? Fortunately the ever excellent cam from San Diego offers some consolation…I’d really miss my daily look ins on Kalluk and co and being able to post on the blog.

  14. Welcome back, Jo-Anne and thank you for the update from the north. Thank goodness that bear survived the ordeal, but a sad testimony to the times. I live in New England and our blasts of cold air come from the arctic. This past week has been quite cold so I am hoping it will speed up the ice formation. I am sorry about Chinook not being pregnant, but maybe the third time is the charm? :) It certainly is not far away. For now I hope that all three are able to connect with each other happily, have a snow day and enjoy some quality play time. A good sign that she is looking wistfully at the others and showing signs of wanting to interact. I always love watching them. I think running that cam is the best job imaginable! I could easily sit all day watching them and following them around the plunge or dreamily wiling the day away in deep slumbers!

  15. Holy cow JoAnne, that was one heck of an effort. I enlarged the pictures on my computer and saw up close the bear in the slush and the water not far behind. Thank goodness for the size of his paws to help get him out of the slush. We signed up for the trip to Churchill next fall, I’ve wanted to do this trip for a while now. Too bad about Chinook but maybe next year. And, welcome back!

    Moderator’s note: You’ll have a great time in Churchill with JoAnne as your tour escort, Sue! For others interested in signing up for this tour, click here…

  16. #1 barbara
    Mother polar bears are some of the most dedicated mothers around. The cubs are always near. The conservation officers in Churchill are well trained to help keep Mom and cubs together, whether it is at capture time in town, housing in the polar bear compound, or flying out by helicopter to get out to the ice. The hope is that the cubs don’t learn that people provide food, which is typically not nutritious for a polar bear, and quickly learn that the ice is the best place for a good meal.

    #7 Janice Hunter
    We have so much still to learn about pregnancy in polar bears. At this point we have no reason to believe that Kalluk and Chinook could not produce cubs. Maybe we just need to cross our fingers harder next year!

    #8 Marie
    You’re right, they would not have forgotten each other. When dealing with animals we never take anything for granted, even good relationships in the past. But as you may have seen they are all doing very well together after yesterday’s introduction!

  17. All 3 bears out swimming and ‘wassling’. Fantastic! :)

  18. How lovely to see all three bears out together, splashing around.

  19. Thank you JoAnne & all the helpers/staff who take care of our bears! I was so happy to see Chinook back..she looks happy! Today all playing in the plunge! Happy lil’ campers!!!! :)

  20. Oh, are they back together again? I missed it! Right now I am watching one bear having a rather alluring back rub against a palm or something that smells good on the ledge area!

  21. Thanks JoAnne. I missed yesterday’s intro! :(

  22. oh great!! I’m glad they are all back together again!

  23. Hi! I just watched one of the polar bears swimming in the pool and having a great time with that big blue ball! This bear was swimming with the ball on his stomach, pushing it with his nose, batting it around with any one of his front and back paws, and just pouncing on the ball to get it under water (similar to what they do when smelling for seals in the snow in the Arctic), being very successful doing that, then the ball would pop back out. That was fun to watch! BTW, anyone knows the name of this polar bear in the pool at around 5:30 pm EST (2:30 pm PST) playing with the big blue ball? I still cannot tell them apart! Let me know! I usually catch these polar bears napping when I get on the cam, but I had a very nice time watching this bear having some fun in the pool!
    Read the latest article about the polar bears and found out that Chinook will not be having polar bear cubs again this year! YUK!!! That’s very disappointing! I was really looking forward to seeing little polar bears, but hopefully Chinook will have the third time is the charm luck and have cubs next year! Breeding season coming around again this soon? Have fun!!
    Gonna go for now. Will be back later on!
    Chari Mercier :)
    St. Pete, FL

  24. Joanne: How long can a polar bear hold their breath under water? Thanks, Dianna

  25. Chari, I too have a difficult time discerning between the 3 bears. The one that I can identify is Chinook, when she’s swimming on her back across the pool, from the beach area to the glass wall. It’s really more like floating, as she pushes off the beach area across to the glass, turns around and then swims underwater back to the beach area, to do it all over again! When Kalluk’s black skin was showing on his back, he was easy to identify. But now it appears his fur has grown back. Hope this helps a bit.


  26. For all Kalluk fans, I’ve posted a video on You Tube in which you will be able to watch the antics of Kalluk on 12/10/2010. I was able to sit and film the polar cam at my home as Kalluk put on a show with his big blue beach ball. :)


  27. Is the polar bear on the cam at the moment Chinook – It has been such a long time that I have seen her. She looks great.

  28. Bobbie, Thanks so much for posting that adorable video on Youtube, and providing us with a link to it. He certainly was having a lot of fun wasn’t he!!!!!


  29. Maybe someone else has already asked this — but do you think Chinook is as disappointed as we are that she isn’t having cubs? She must have thought something was happening to her — don’t you think — then “poof” — nothing?

  30. Talk about a long, long bout of PMS!!

  31. There was some curious ‘sniffing’ and what looked like amorous bear overtones I thought…but good to see em all playing in the mud…I love the guilty look on kalluks face absolutely covered from head to foot in filth only the white rings round his eyes showing out…

  32. right now at 4:00pst- I see one ‘fairly white’ bear and one very ‘black’ bear except for a small spot on his nose. bet this ‘black’ bear is Kalluk!
    Oh how I wish I could send a postcard or make it my screen saver!!! :)

  33. some quite interesting cam activity at 6.30 pm English time – Ive never seen so much of the bear’s habitat…but not a bear to be seen.. I wonder if the cam op who seems to have scanned everywhere is wondering if there’s been a bear ‘breakout’, wonder if he/she has a little panic button just in case πŸ˜€

  34. ahhhh there they are are I knew bears were designed for camoflague but I didn’t know they were that good πŸ˜€

  35. Some very intriguing shots today … is the cam op new πŸ˜‰

    I noticed one of the bears (chinook I think) standing on her back legs at the area where visitors can look in paws on whatever the barrier is made of. I was wondering if some ‘naughty person’ was throwing her tempting goodies as Ive never seen any bear take such an interest in the visitors before…is it possible for food to be thrown to them ??

    Incidentally I’m wondering how high tech the area where the cams are controlled from is ..any pics of the ‘nerve centre’ anywhere on the site ?

    Moderator’s note: Polar Bear Plunge features a movable “experience” wall used a few times a day by keeper and bear; the keeper opens up the glass panels and interacts with a polar bear through a mesh barrier, offering treats, as guests stand just feet away. As for the Cam control, that is manned remotely by volunteers and keepers from their computers.

  36. Thanks mod…wish I could get to san diego….

  37. wish I could get there and volunteer all day to work the cam!Can we hook something up from Upstate New York to SDZ!

    P.S. wonder why the water isnt moving anymore … it use to bubble in spots not anymore it’s real calm when the bears are not in it.

  38. Thank you so much JoAnne for your account of temperatures and ice in the wild. I’m happy for that polar and his survival.

    Sad news on Chinook and a cub; but delightful news that the 3 are back together again! Can’t wait to see them when we come for the panda convention in March!

  39. Hi JoAnne, I was watching you just now feeding Tatqiq treats. Just like when you’re doing the ultrasound on Chinook in the video, it always remind me of girlfriend behavior, sort of ‘girlz handing out’. So mild and friendly. You’ve had a lucky life to know bears so close-up. I’m envious.

  40. It is really nice to see Chinook back to doing her lengths again. I see that she has moved to a different area to do them.

  41. Ah I see how the experience wall you described works now mod… Enjoyed watching one of the keeps hand feeding Tatqiq I think it was …but what I want to know now from the keeper’s is – is it true that bears have – what shall we say – very ‘fragrant ‘ breath ? Lol πŸ˜€

    JoAnne responds: No, it is not true that they have “bad breath”! It is quite clean smelling. The only time we find their breath a bit difficult to take is after they eat their whole rabbits; the intestine part is really not a nice smell!

  42. Okay Ive got to ask whats the black and white striped ‘candy’ cane Ive seen one of the bears with is it edible ??

    Moderator’s note: The Polar Team says it’s a hard plastic candy cane toy for the bears to play with. It may look black and white, but it is red-and-white striped. πŸ˜‰

  43. I’m watching the bears play in the water with each other and it brings 2 questions to mind…how long can they stay underwater holding their breath? Also what is the water temp? Thanks and again it’s wonderful seeing them all back together

    JoAnne responds: The longest recorded time was 72 seconds. Polar bears don’t hunt from underwater, so they haven’t developed the ability to breath-hold like other marine mammals such as seals. But holding their breath for a few minutes does seem likely! FYI: we’ve timed Tatqiq at 71 seconds, and she didn’t come back up gasping, just went back under and kept organizing things in the stash pipe. The water is kept between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

  44. So todays lesson Jo is never stand behind a polar bear after luxury rabbit cuisine πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

  45. Off in the distance I can see a lovely white animal rummaging about in the brush and pathways. Is that an Arctic Fox?

    Merry Christmas to the Polar Plunge, both bears and keepers alike! :)

    Moderator’s note: Yes, there are two Arctic foxes living next to the bears. See JoAnne’s post, New Neighbors for Polar Bears.

  46. Mod who’s the grumpy looking koala in the banner to this blog ?..looks a right misery,I could become a fan πŸ˜€

    Moderator’s note: That’s a koala mom, no doubt resting her eyes as she holds her joey πŸ˜‰ Of course, you are looking at the “Animal Stories” banner; the polar bears have their own category and banner under “Polar Bears.”

  47. Merry Christmas to the bears and the staff at the SDZ… Watching the news with all your rain, I do hope things are quiet calm and normal as can be there and that all will be safe during the Holiday Season. Asking Santa for windshield wipes for the lens on the cam!

    Merry Christmas Everyone!

  48. Merry Christmas to everyone at the Polar Bear enclosure. And, of course, to our beloved Kalluk, Chinook and Tatqiq. Hope they get some new enrichment toys to play with on Christmas Day. Wish I was there.

  49. Happy christmas to all and many thanks for bringing our favourite animals to those of us who cant get near a zoo to see them – best wishes to bear lovers everywhere…

    regards and good luck for the new year


  50. Bit puzzled by something Ive just seen…kalluk walked forward a few steps and then waving his head and neck from side to side walked back the same number of steps…he repeated this several times he almost looked as if someones been teaching him a few michael jackson steps…

    seriously is this a sign of boredom ? or toothache or earache.. Ive seen Kalluk do this neck moving thing a couple of times and wondered if it was indicative of his mood. I don’t know if the cam op thought viewers might be distressed by his behavious because after kalluk did this several times the cam view was changed ….

    • It is indicative of his “mood.” He is beginning to have hormonal changes related to his breeding season, and he is quite moody! Kalluk can’t seem to make up his mind if he wants to be a carefree bachelor playing with Tatqiq or persist in wooing Chinook, who really isn’t interested in anything but play, food, and sleep! You will see this behavior every once in a while when Chinook has rebuffed him or we have given her some time away from him.

  51. Would you please ship Kalluk, Tatqiq and Chinook over to my house for a few days? We have lots of snow (blizzard in fact!), birds to watch, icy wetlands across the street with plenty of mud if they want to get brown, and a nice spacious yard with a few slight slopes good for sliding down! I am sure my neighbours won’t mind! I will just tell everyone to stay inside, which they won’t mind with the 50+ mph winds anyhow. It is like Siberia here! Just send their favourite toys and we will dole out the food for them. Carrots are in the house already! Instant snow days!! :)

  52. Debi – so you’re in arctic England too πŸ˜›