The Adaptable Polar Bear

JHH5II-12267John and I just returned from a challenging Arctic cruise, one of many we’ve undertaken over the last 20 years. On all our previous voyages, we’ve only ever seen the back end of one bear running away from us…we were on the boat, steaming out of an anchorage in Northern Spitsbergen.

However, this summer’s voyage changed all that: we saw a mother and two cubs in Baffin Island and a lone bear in Labrador, and we didn’t stop much as we were in a hurry to get south after an intense summer in West Greenland. Other sailors who spent longer in Labrador reported seeing as many as 10 and even 15 bears.

So what has changed? According to Judy Rowell, manager of the Torngat Mountains National Park, polar bears in Northern Labrador (most of which is contained in the Park) seem to be flourishing and successfully hunting from land. Which is very good news, since the loss of any species in our world is a tragedy, and the reduction in sea ice initially looked like it could mean the end of the polar bear (and it still could be the end of other populations, such as the one based out of Churchill, Manitoba, for one example).

A while ago I wrote a post questioning Parks Canada’s policy of not allowing Park visitors to carry firearms for polar bear protection. A number of you wrote comments to that post expressing concern about the threat to polar bears from the reduction in sea ice. So we wanted to pass on the good news about the bears’ adaptation to changing conditions.

But the increased number of bears in Northern Labrador in the summer is only heightening the problem I talked about in that post. Before, when the threat of meeting a bear was relatively low, we felt that going ashore with adequate protection—deterrents and, for use as a last resort, a firearm—was a reasonable action both from the standpoint of risk to us and risk to the bear. However, due to the increased number of bears and the fact that they are now in full hunting mode when ashore, we no longer feel that going ashore in this area is a reasonable action for us, and so this summer we didn’t go ashore in Northern Labrador at all.

There is, however, no guarantee that we will be able to avoid going ashore in a future visit, even if it is just to put in a shorefast in case of ice (to pull ourselves into shallower water), a small anchorage, or severe weather. In these situations going ashore would be unavoidable and the risk of meeting a polar bear would be a very real possibility.

So dealing with the issue of encouraging people to visit the Park who are not allowed to adequately protect themselves from a polar bear attack remains a concern. (To the Inuit’s credit they have agreed that a bear shot in self-defense will be taken off their annual hunting quota, thereby having no effect on the total bear population.)

Tell us—and Parks Canada, they read my last post and the comments with interest—what you think. Please leave a comment, but to avoid duplication, please read the original post and comments, before you do.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

8 comments … add one
  • richard Jan 4, 2012, 10:07 am

    i’d be interested in having colin’s ideas about this please…richard in tampa bay (m/v cavu’s skipper, formerly s/v sidra’s skipper)

  • richard Jan 4, 2012, 10:20 am

    colin speedie that is

    • Colin Jan 4, 2012, 3:00 pm

      Hi Richard

      I’m not a polar bear expert, but from some basic knowledge of the problems they face, a number stand out.

      In many areas ( southern sectors in particular) retreating sea ice means bears are spending more time ashore, and less time on the ice. This would seem to me to suggest that almost inevitably there will be more interaction/conflict with humanity, especially if more of us visit those areas recreationally (one of Phyllis’s original points) and if industrialisation increases (oil/gas installations etc.) with its associated human settlements.

      Recent studies suggest that the loss of sea ice reduces prey availability, which in turn leads to malnutrition and starvation, which may affect the females ability to carry cubs to term. As polar bears only produce a couple of cubs every few years, and infant mortality is already high, this may have serious population effects in the long -term. Allied to this are concerns over high levels of man-made pollutants that the bears bio-accumulate from their prey which may also have malign effects on fitness and reproduction – it’s in many ways an unfavourable outlook for the bears.

      The risks from polar bears (as Hans quite rightly points out below) to humans are far from negligible though, even where visitors are permitted to carry firearms. Personally I wouldn’t wish to travel in ‘polar bear country’ unarmed, and like John and Phyllis we prefer our own company (or travel with friends), and so would resist taking a guide with us.

      But – bottom line – if attacks increase due to bears increasingly coming into contact with man, this may well result in even more draconian restrictions for would-be visitors to bear country, in my view, as National authorities try to avoid further fatalities – on both sides.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Westbrook Jan 4, 2012, 1:11 pm

    I particularly liked the caption of the picture of mama bear and her two cubs that read in part: “. . . having to shoot a bear would be tragic, and missing would have ruined our day too.”

  • Hans Jakob Valderhaug Jan 4, 2012, 1:37 pm

    In 2010 a young man was injured by a polar bear in Spitsbergen, only surviving after his friend shot the bear dead. Last summer a British student was tragically killed by a polar bear, not far from Longyearbyen – the main settlement on Spitsbergen. More information can be found at

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/05/polar-bear-mauls-british-death

  • Tom T. Jan 4, 2012, 2:50 pm

    I will argue that it is too early to say that the polar bear is “adaptable”. Firstly, I believe that our understanding of the Labrador population is borderline anecdotal, and the primary drivers of population cycling not well understood. The wildlife biologist Ian Sterling says about 2200 polar bears in Labrador and up since census studies in the 1970s and 1990s (with the qualifier that the population is migratory, and includes Baffin Island, etc). Their primary diet is the Harp Seal, and thus if Labrador seal populations are up then polar bear reproduction is good. Although the bears are probably in “hunting mode” in summer, during the ice free months they typically go into a bizarre metabolic state of “walking hibernation”, and are not scavenging sufficiently to maintain the same metabolic status as in winter months. I’ll hypothesize that ice breaking up earlier each year due to climate change, coupled with a few years of low seal numbers, might devastate the bear population.

    In your photos I saw no bear spray, is that true? I would think that with their keen sense of smell that a shot of spray would be like hitting them on the nose with a sledge hammer.

    • John Jan 4, 2012, 2:54 pm

      Hi Tom,

      All interesting stuff, thank you.

      And yes, when ashore the one time in Baffin, we were carrying bear spray. However, old Arctic hands have advised me that if you let at attacking Polar Bear get close enough to you to use bear spray, you are dead.

  • RDE Jan 6, 2012, 12:06 am

    Hi John,
    Sorry, this post is a bit off topic, but I thought people who follow your site would be interested to read about two of the most incredible adventure sailors of the contemporary era.

    http://www.solotheamericas.org/
    http://www.mikehorn.com/en/mike-horn/expeditions/arktos/

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