© BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International
3/23/2016 5:42:48 PM
Svalbard: Second Den Site
By BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations
Yesterday we started early and again flew over fjords typically chock-full of ice, now with rolling white caps on the open water. The sight, although very dramatic, was sad to see. Without ice, seals have no platform for their birthing dens; and female polar bears expecting to feast on seal pups when they emerge with their cubs in spring will find nothing.
Our flight path took us beyond the fjords near Longyearbyen and up over several mountain ranges to a place in the northern part of Spitsbergen, the largest island in Svalbard. Upon arrival at our landing zone, we found a large flat beach area about one kilometer from one of the polar bear dens we are studying. The entire area was filled with driftwood and gravel piles formed by waves crashing on the shore. Across the fjord the mountains appeared to just jump out of the water and reach for the sky.
Offshore, instead of a vast platform of ice, we saw only small floating chunks with a few resting seals. We spotted several ringed seals (the polar bear's favorite), harp seals, and even a bearded seal. If mama bear could catch and eat one of those after exiting the den she would be happy for some time, but this isn't easy in open water.
After unloading the helicopter, we decided to ski in the direction of the den to get a better look. We pinpointed the den's likely location, and then we went back for our heavy gear.
To make the task of transporting our equipment easier, we created a kamutiq, a simple sled often seen in the Canadian Arctic. A kamutiq has two runners made of wood with horizontal slats holding the runners together. The beauty in a kamutiq is in its simplicity. Instead of fixing the slats to the runners with a modern fastener, rope is used to tie each individual board. Although time-consuming to create, the rope allows the entire sled to flex as it travels over the landscape. It is a brilliant creation by the native peoples who call the Arctic home.
Because materials are limited in Svalbard, we created our kamutiq out of pallets, stick lumber, and broken skis given to us by a local rental shop. This creation worked perfectly and was extremely helpful in deploying our bulky gear.
We also added climbing skins to our skis. The skins allowed the boards on our feet to slide forward but not backward. With help of the kamutiq and the climbing skins, we were able to pull the heavy camera and solar panels into place about 300 meters in front of the den.
From there, the setup went quickly, as our team had already done this once before. To ensure little movement from the gear, we held everything in place with steel cables and 12-inch" nails pounded directly into the earth below.
After double-checking all wires and the camera, we left for our lunch and pick-up spot. To ensure we did not disturb the polar bear family, we skied 1.5 kilometers down the beach to get further away from the den location. This gave us the opportunity to see more of the Spitsbergen landscape.
Now with two camera systems in place, ready to record the behavior of mothers and cubs when they emerge from the dens in the next month or so, it was time for me to start making my way back home. I will miss this beautiful place and the amazing researchers I have met along the way-and look forward to the knowledge gained from our remote cameras.
The Svalbard Maternal Den Study is a joint project of Polar Bears International, the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Special thanks to Ouwehands Zoo and Yorkshire Wildlife Park for providing funding.