Polar Bears Mess with Cameras

3/26/2011 1:52:48 PM

Polar Bears Mess with Cameras

"Those grubby bears!," was all Rusty had to say as we pulled up to our camera to see the tell-tale signs that one polar bear family had been more than just a little curious about our camera system.

A polar bear noses the camera

Though it has been extremely rare for bears in our study to show any interest in our cameras or solar panels, it proved to be too much of a temptation for this adventurous bunch. Luckily little damage was done (though they did steal a power cord), and in the process we obtained rather comical close-up footage of mother and cubs. The large footprints and claw marks under our feet made us even more wary than usual, though the tiny impressions of the baby bears were anything but intimidating. We made quick readjustments and returned home.

Mother and cubs

We suspect that the bears by now have left the safety of the den for good—which probably explains why our camera was suddenly free game. I took out my binoculars and scanned beyond the barrier islands out towards the sea. Within the lagoon the ice is tame, with only the occasional crack to remind us that that the solid surface is temporary. On the sea ice, however, chaos dominates. Massive chunks rise up from the floes from where they were squeezed by unimaginable pressure, like scraps of steel protruding from a train wreck. These pillars cast shadows in the distance, making them appear dirty and jagged. We followed the footprints of the small bear family, leading away from the candy land world of fluffy, white snow, directly towards the menacing maelstrom of ice. Good luck, grubby bears.

Maelstrom of ice

Though the ice still intimidates, the weather has been another story. Rusty and I are about ready to head out onto the ice in shorts and sandals. A heat wave has struck the Arctic, and temperatures that were 20 to 30 below are now between negative 5 and 10 degrees above zero. We have actually seen melting water and slush outside—unheard of this time of year. The locals tell us it has been a winter full of extremes. We were welcomed to the North Slope with one of the biggest blizzards in fifteen years, and now we are ending our stay amidst a tropical paradise. Of course I suppose warm weather is relative. I grew up in the desert Southwest, and 10 degrees never would have qualified for warm there.

Heading out to set up camera

In the last week we received notice of some possible dens on the east side of the slope—late bloomers apparently. So it appears we may extend our work for a time, and hopefully be able to document a few more bear families. While we are excited to return home to friends and family, this has been a great adventure and challenge, and I don't mind another couple weeks at all. While here we have had the chance to give presentations slope workers. This has been a lot of fun for us, and I am amazed at show of interest and the number of questions we received. Anyone with their own bear story was eager to share it. We actually had to give additional presentations because workers in camp requested it. For a bear with an uncertain future, it gives me hope that good neighbors and people who care are close by. Not all species are fortunate enough to be so admired.

Photo Credits: Bear Nosing Camera, ©Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.com; Mother & Cubs, ©Mike Lockhart; Sea Ice, ©Alysa Mcall; Scientists on Snowmobile, ©BJ Kirschhoffer.

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