Whoa, incredible view of Niagara Falls from my hotel room!
Here for a bit with G Adventures for their annual “G Stock,” where they invite field guides from all over the world to gather in Toronto/Niagara for a week of parties, dinners and meetings. More of the former, hopefully less of the latter.
But seriously, this view!
photo by Alex Cowan
This week marked my first visits to The Explorers Club as a member and it was a BLAST. Such a beautiful place, and I love being able to wander through the halls, in and out of rooms once marked off limits.
Looking forward to meeting lots of fascinating people through the Club in the years to come, and treating my friends to drinks on the terrace as often as possible.
The hopeful tale of the skinny bear
What does it really mean to “Save the Polar Bears?” Do they need saving? What is their relationship to sea ice, and the ever-changing rate at which it melts and moves in the summer season? Alex explains it all below…
This small and very skinny Polar bear was observed on Isispynten, the main island in the Isisoyane group (the name Isispynten dates from a time before glacial recession left it as isolated islands instead of the previously existing point). The bear swam ashore (photo by Kevin Morgan) and then made its way along the shoreline and inland.
Isispynten hosts thousands of nesting birds; commonly it is explored by Zodiacs rather than on foot and so the birds remain undisturbed and exist in abundance. The bear took advantage of this, hoovering up dozens of eggs as the parents mobbed it furiously. It was even observed charging Eiders and the rare Brant goose (itself a remarkable sighting), swiping with its paw in an apparently desperate quest for food.
Normally bears are found living and hunting on sea ice, though they are happy to come ashore if necessary. The map of the archipelago above shows sea ice extent on the day. Sea ice is represented by the green, yellow, orange and red colours (the colours represent the concentration of ice, with green representing very scattered ice and orange and red representing what is probably the best bear habitat)
As can be seen, at this time Isispynten was south of the southern limit of sea ice. It has probably always been the case that there have been polar bears that for some reason don’t follow the northerly recession of sea ice during the summer, but eventually get left behind on land. For example they might remain on a patch of fast ice that lasts long after the pack has retreated for the season. Whatever the reason, it is common to see these bears, with their favoured prey of seals being unavailable, eating eggs from nests or chewing on bird or Reindeer carcasses. It has long been thought that this is an energetically unfavourable lifestyle, with simply lying down and waiting for the ice to come back being comparable in its cost/benefit balance, though recent work has suggested that this lifestyle might be more sustainable than we thought.
Regardless of whether a Polar bear can survive on eggs for the summer, it is not controversial to state that being on the ice and hunting blubber-rich seals is far better; it is noticeable that this is often where the fattest and healthiest-looking bears are seen. So this particular bear wasn’t in a good location, but had the potential to survive the summer and find itself back amongst the ice in several months time.
I don’t know how this bear got so thin in the first place — one possibility is that it is young and inexperienced and had been hunting unsuccessfully for some time. If this is the case then being far from the ice was probably not the cause of the skinniness but did mean that he or she will have no opportunity to rectify the situation and its long term survival is far from assured.
There is a hopeful end to this tale however. As can be seen in the animation above, in the weeks following our visit northerly winds steadily pushed the blubber-rich sea ice south until it had firmly packed in around Isispynten, where it remained for some time. This doesn’t mean that this bear started eating, but it meant it was back in its favoured environment and had a fighting change of finishing the summer fatter than it started.
It is always interesting to note that many of the thin bears we see are seen on land far from the ice, but heartening in this case to know that this one was back in the ice sooner than expected.
Polar bear jumping over a lead
For an animal that probably weighs 700-800lbs it’s pretty sprightly!