Journalist Kieran Mulvaney‘s The Great White Bear: A Natural & Unnatural History of the Polar Bear spans a decade of polar bear research. The book explains how polar bears manage to keep warm on the ice (hollow hair shafts trap heat, black skin increases absorption of sun rays, smaller ears prevent heat loss and a layer of blubber insulates), how they mate when usually thousands of miles apart from one another (females leave a scent impression on the ice), and “carnivore lethargy”—the polar bear variation of hibernation (retreating to dens when they’re hot, hungry and waiting for the ice to freeze).
Come springtime, come mating time, males somehow know where the females are. Somehow, they’ll be on a beeline for miles and miles and miles.
Polar bears have so adapted to the ice that they’re considered marine mammals, and they need the sea ice not just for walking, hunting and mating—but for everything.
The Godfather of Polar Bear Science, Ian Stirling, has authored Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species. Stirling fascinates his readers—he has lived through multiple helicopter crashes, once found his hand in the mouth of a waking bear, and walked across dangerously thin ice to rescue improperly tranquilized bears.
…Stirling has a reputation for being strict with his University of Alberta students about following protocol and making sure the bears they capture come to no harm.
“On one occasion, in the Beaufort Sea in 1986, I was doing the darting of bears out on the sea ice,” says Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta scientist regarded as Stirling’s heir apparent in the world of polar bear science.
“I dropped Ian off to lighten the machine. With a rookie pilot, I had trouble controlling the bear and he went to sleep on a large patch of thin grey ice. I went back and Ian was less than impressed that I’d let the bear go to sleep on such thin ice.
“We landed a ways off and Ian pulled out his long metal ice probe and off we went. I can remember seeing the ice flex under Ian and the water spurting up from cracks as we went along, Ian’s ice probe tapping out a safe route. Only someone with lots of time on the ice could have pulled that off. I’ve never let another bear go to sleep on such thin ice since.”
Twenty-five years ago, when tranquilizing bears to attach radio collars was still experimental and the dosage amounts weren’t clear, Stirling darted a bear a little too heavily. Upon discovering that the bear had stopped breathing, he performed artificial respiration on her until she was breathing on her own. His colleague blurted out, “You know, if you keep doing that, you’re not going to live very long.”
Fortunately, for bears and scientists, today’s drugs are safer and dosages are better calibrated! Because of Stirling’s research, hunting laws were changed, ensuring better survival odds for these maritime bears.
PolarBearGate fills the airwaves. The investigation of polar bear scientist Charles Monnett has fueled climate change naysayers and been called both a Kafkaesque nightmare to discredit an important scientist and a witch hunt to facilitate drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Corporate interests, the media, environmental groups, government employees and the general public are only somewhat assuaged by the Inspector General’s letter on just what the suspension is actually about.
Issues to be discussed included his compliance with regulations that govern federal contracts, as well as disclosure of personal relationships and preparation of the scope of work.
While polar bears are prevalent in the news and in the pages of coffee table books, TravelWild offers its clients two opportunities to get away from the chatter and witness the real thing in the wild—in Churchill, Manitoba and in Spitsbergen, part of the Norwegian archipelago. Call today to talk with Dennis, our polar expert, about a trip that takes you to see these iconic creatures.