Scientists deploy a GPS collar on a polar bear as part of a study to understand the movements and habitat usage of polar bears as the sea ice changes.

© Dr. Andrew Derocher

4/25/2012 6:03:47 PM

Ulukhaktok Days

By Dr. Andrew Derocher

The sun is out and there’s no wind so, in theory, a polar bear scientist should be happy. The rub is that the wind has been light for so long that every polar bear that passed this way 10 days ago left tracks indistinguishable from those two hours old. We usually find most of our bears by tracking them, but this year, we’ve had to find most by spotting them while flying over suitable habitat. 

We’re based out of Ulukhaktok, a small Inuit community that used to be called Holman: It’s on the western side of Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic. Still lost? Google might help but if you can picture the Beaufort Sea where it narrows in the east and turns into Amundsen Gulf and hits the Canadian Archipelago, then you’ll have a sense of where we are.

Ulukhaktok is a wonderful and friendly town but it’s a tricky place to work when the ice conditions are so challenging.  We’re hoping to deploy 10 satellite GPS collars on adult females. So far, we've put on three and we’ll see if we can get the last seven on before the budget runs out. The goal of this study is to monitor the movements and habitat use of the bears as the sea ice changes. In addition to the work we’ve been doing for the last 10 years in the area, we’re gaining many insights.

This year, I have one graduate student with me, Patrick Mislan. Patrick is working with some of the samples we collect to find new ways of monitoring polar bears. He’ll be looking at stress hormones in fur samples that we collect. Our local assistant is Kenneth Ehaloak. Add in our pilot, Pat Fonseca, and it’s great team.

This is a magical time of year for polar bear scientists and polar bears alike. The seals have pupped, polar bears are fattening up, and the sun doesn’t set until 11 p.m. The only other rub is that the wind will howl tomorrow. On the plus side, once the wind drops, we’ll be able to identify fresh polar bear tracks.

The curfew siren just sounded – time for the village’s children to head home. It seems odd but in a place where the sun doesn’t set in summer for weeks on end, it makes perfect sense. Ulukhaktok is an amazing place and it’s inspiring to think that just a little way offshore, polar bears are doing what they’ve always done: hunting seals.

Dr. Andrew Derocher is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and a long-time scientific advisor to Polar Bears International.

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