Vicki Sahanatien

© Polar Bears International

1/9/2017 1:39:59 AM

From Nunavut to Churchill: A Scientist's Perspective

By Dr. Vicki Sahanatien

My first experience of Churchill’s polar bear season has come to an end. “Season” is a bit misleading as polar bears are in the Churchill region most of the year—onshore during the ice-free season and offshore on Hudson Bay when there is sea ice. The season I refer to is the polar bear viewing season: the time of year when people from around the world travel to Churchill to enjoy watching, photographing, and learning about the bears.

October and November is when it all happens. Polar bears increase their activities with falling temperatures, moving in anticipation of the sea ice return and positioning themselves in areas where sea ice tends to form earliest. Hudson Bay is in the seasonal sea ice ecoregion, where the ice reforms each fall and melts each summer, forcing polar bears to come ashore. The seasonal sea ice creates an annual cycle of famine and feast for the Hudson Bay polar bears; it also brings bears and people together in the same habitat. Churchill residents and visitors alike are excited about and aware of what the polar bears are up to: it’s bear season!

I traveled to Churchill from Iqaluit, Nunavut to volunteer with Polar Bears International. I am one of the polar bear scientists that PBI brings to Churchill to take part in their conservation education programs. It has been a busy two weeks, with evening presentations to visitors at the Tundra Buggy® Lodge, and live chats and Tundra Connections® webcasts from Tundra Buggy One—the amazing mobile media center that goes out to the bears on the tundra. It has been great fun sharing my Nunavut polar bear research and experiences, and to learn about polar bear viewing from Tundra Buggies.

The custom-built Tundra Buggies of Churchill are a unique and an effective platform for safe, near-proximity polar bear viewing. Previously I had only been this close to a polar bear when doing research and the bear was immobilized! It was fascinating to watch the bears move about, rest, and sleep, seemingly unconcerned about the Tundra Buggies, filled with gawking people (including me) snapping countless photographs.

Males, females, and family groups of bears all reacted the same: uninterested or with some interest as they approached the buggy, looking and sniffing around, sometimes touching the buggy, and after a few minutes, moving on their way. The opportunity to watch polar bears in their natural environment was thrilling. Being able to look closely at their fur, faces, feet, and individual behaviors: playing with sticks, nodding off to sleep, mother and cubs interacting (even nursing!), and males frightening off females a whiff of their scent.

I have been checking out the bears’ body condition, interested to see how they are making out after almost three months on land, fasting. Many of the bears were looking a little thin, especially the females with nursing cubs. I am sure they are eager to get back on sea ice to forage for ringed seals, their primary food source. But it will be a few weeks yet, as right now there is only a small bit of new sea ice that forms overnight along the beach; this gets broken by the tide and waves. We need some cold temperatures, not the 0°C or even warmer of the past two weeks.

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