|What I Know About...Polar Bears|
by Jackie Orsulak
: Waiting for Dinner
You probably have trouble going from breakfast to lunch without a snack. What do you think it would feel like if you couldn’t eat for five months? You would really be hungry and probably a bit cranky.
No wonder the polar bears of northern Canada are cranky. Most polar bears live year around on the pack ice (floating ice) in the far north. They hang around waiting for seals to come up to their breathing holes in the ice. Then it is lunch time for the bear.
The mother seals have their nurseries on the pack ice. Their babies are easy picking for the bears. The bears feast on seals year around. But, in the Hudson Bay in northern Canada, the pack ice melts in July. There are no seals coming up in the breathing holes for the bears to catch and eat—there is no need for breathing holes—and the bears can’t swim fast enough to catch the seals in the open water.
So, the Hudson Bay bears have to come ashore and live without their seal food from July until the ice refreezes in November. All they can find to eat on the barren tundra is a few berries and some kelp. Some of these bears are 12 feet tall when they stand on their hind legs. They must get really hungry.
Polar Bear on Hind Legs
: Mothers and Cubs
Even more amazing are the female bears that are pregnant. In November, when all the other bears are going out on the pack ice to feast on seals, the mother bears are denning down in a snowbank for the long cold winter. They live in the snowbank all winter without eating. In January they give birth to tiny cubs (usually twins). The mother and cubs remain deep in their dens until March.
Though she is not eating herself, the mother is still responsible for feeding her baby cubs. They grow very fast, so they drink lots of the mother’s milk. Imagine how hungry she is when she comes out of the den in March—no seals since last July! She leads her cubs out to the pack ice and begins searching for seals. When she catches one she has to share it with her little cubs. She only gets to eat seal until July, then the ice melts again and she and her family come ashore.
The bears spend the summer months wandering the countryside looking for berries. As the weather gets cooler they return to the shores of the bay to await the ice and the smell of the first seal kill.
Smell of the Seal Kill
: Eat Garbage, Go to Jail
Many of the bears get so hungry that they raid the garbage dump on the outskirts of the town of Churchill, which is in Manitoba, Canada. After eating at the dump, they often wander into the town. There are bear alert signs all over town to warn people of the hungry bears, who could eat a person or a dog.
If they get into town they will be tranquilized or trapped and taken to the bear jail. The jail can hold about 20 bears. Each bear is in his own cage. If he has never been caught before, a tag is placed in his ear so they will know about him if he is caught again. He is not fed because he would not be eating if he were in the wild. If the jail gets too full, some of the bears are “paroled.” These bears are tranquilized, laid in a net and carefully airlifted by helicopter to a remote area far from Churchill.
In Canada they celebrate Halloween just like we do in the United States. The children dress up in costumes (no bear costumes though) and go trick-or-treating. To protect the children, people stand guard at every street watching for hungry bears. Churchill is a very small town, with two main roads and four crossroads, so they don’t need too many guards.
Polar Bear Jail
Helicopter with Two Bears
: Tundra Buggy Lodge
Churchill is a quiet little village until late October, when it is inundated with tourists hoping to see a bear. The best way to see the most bears is to stay in the tundra buggy lodge, which is 14 miles from the city on the edge of the Hudson Bay. The lodge is like a train of tundra buggy cars. There are two sleeping cars with upper and lower bunks, a lounge car where nightly presentations are made, a dining car, a storage car and a special car for Dennis Compayre.
Dennis is a local bear enthusiast. He was the original tundra buggy driver. Now he spends the six weeks of bear season on the tundra in his specially equipped tundra buggy. He has his computer, a satellite dish and a video camera mounted to the roof of the buggy. He controls the camera from inside his warm tundra buggy. The camera takes pictures of the action on the tundra and transmits them all over the world via the Internet. In late October you can go to his website and see the polar bears and other arctic creatures. At one time, he could only broadcast a new picture every 30 seconds. Now he is able to send a more “movie-like” video stream, so one can actually see the bears moving. Be sure to check out this website around Halloween next fall.
The edge of the Hudson Bay is the gathering place for most of the bears waiting for the ice to freeze. Until the ice freezes and the bears go out, most of the bears around the tundra buggy are males and females without cubs. The mothers don’t want to bring their cubs near the big males, as they are so hungry they will eat the babies. The waiting bears mostly just lie around, conserving energy and waiting for the ice to freeze.
Tundra Buggy Lodge
: Bears at Play
Frequently you will see two bears sparring or “play fighting.” They look like big sumo wrestlers playing in the snow. Usually one bear will be bigger than the other. He is teaching the younger one how to fight. They rarely hurt each other this time of year. At mating season in March and April the fighting is much more serious. The tourists are protected in the tundra buggies but have lots of opportunities to take pictures The bears are very curious, sometimes peeking in the window.
They also love to roll in the snow. My favorite bear was “Olga”; we called her “Olga” because she did a forward roll for us much like a little gymnast. Little she is not. See her next to those tundra buggy tires? Those tires are 7 feet tall. Dennis said she probably is about four years old.
The tundra is very flat, so you can see the bears wandering around from far away. There are no trees to block your view. There is just the scrub willow that you see in the pictures. A little south of the city there are a few pine trees. Why do you think they only have branches on the south side of the tree?
In November the air temperature never got over zero degrees. Sometimes the wind was blowing 60 miles an hour. We could never survive for long in those conditions, but the bears have beautiful white coats to keep them warm. The hairs are translucent to allow the light to pass through to the skin. Their skin is black to absorb the sun light.
The tundra is different than the North Pole. There isn’t a lot of snow. They only get 16 inches of precipitation (rain or snow) a year. That is how much rain falls in a typical desert. The tundra is like a northern desert. When it does snow or the wind blows hard, the bears make a day bed and hunker down for the duration of the storm. Frequently a small bear will make a nice bed, only to have a big bear come along and chase him out of the bed and lay down. There are definitely boss bears in the group.
Normally polar bears are very solitary animals, but the Hudson Bay bears are different. They are much more social during this waiting time of year. The other polar bears in the world don’t have a “waiting time.” They can eat anytime. Then, one day in November, a bear will kill the first seal on the pack ice, the other bears will smell it from 20 miles away, and all the bears will leave the land and float on the little icebergs of pack ice for the winter. When they come out of the water, they will roll in the snow to dry off. Then they will sneak up by a seal breathing hole and wait patiently for a seal to come up for a breath. Life in these times is good for the polar bear—but not so good for the seal.
Polar Bears Sparring
Peeking in the Window
Olga the Polar Bear
Olga Somersaulting - Modem
Tundra Buggy Tires
Hunkered Down in the Storm
: Wildlife on the Tundra
There aren’t many other creatures living on the cold tundra. The little companions of the bears are the beautiful white arctic foxes. On our trip to the tundra we saw a rare blue arctic fox. Dennis said he hadn’t seen one in 20 years. Why do you think the bears don’t eat the foxes? Remember that the foxes are very fast and the bears would use up too much energy trying to catch the little fox. The chase is not worth the little nourishment that a little fox would give the bear.
The foxes feed on lemmings during the summer. These little foxes are brown in the summer but turn white for the winter just like the arctic hare. The foxes follow the bears. Once the bears get out on the pack ice and get their fill of seals, the foxes get to eat the seal scraps the bears leave behind. As the bears fill up, they only eat the fat part of the seals and leave lots of goodies for the little foxes. The bears bulk up on the tundra during the winter. Some of the females will gain 400 pounds. They need that extra bulk to see them through their long summer and winter of denning and nursing their new cubs.
There are a few birds that live on the tundra, including arctic hawk, snowy owl, raven and willow ptarmigan. The ptarmigan are like the foxes and hares; they are brown in the summer and white in the winter. From the pictures, can you tell why these critters change color with the seasons? Aren’t the little birds difficult to see?
It is so wonderful to see all of these magnificent creatures in their natural environment. If you can’t go to the tundra, be sure to use Dennis’s website to see the pictures he takes from the tundra buggy.
Blue Arctic Fox
Blue Arctic Fox Prowling
Blue Arctic Fox Prowling - Modem
: Lights in the Sky
In the winter on the tundra we see one of the most magical phenomenons of nature—the aurora borealis (northern lights). On a clear night solar flares from the sun cause beautiful curtains and rays of color to move across the sky. Churchill is in the middle of the aurora belt, so the whole sky is ablaze with color. The night we saw it, the ribbons of light were the color of the green light on a stop light. Sometimes the lights are red, blue, white, green, aqua or a combination of the colors. Go to this website to learn more about auroras:
And, go to this website to see photographs of the aurora borealis.
Last Halloween we saw a rare aurora borealis in North Carolina. We saw faint rays of white and red. It is rare that the aurora can be seen so far south. Some people in Texas and Florida even saw it. At the South Pole, the same phenomena is called the aurora australis. We are so lucky to live in a magical world with all these wonderful creatures and sights. It is up to us to take care of our world and its creatures. This is what conservation is all about. Aren’t you glad you are a part of this world, its creatures and conservation? You can make the world better for every living thing.
About the author:
Jackie Orsulak is a volunteer for NEST (Network for
Endangered Sea Turtles).