Today's Polar Bear Program
Each day we shoot, edit and upload a new polar bear program from Hudson Bay, Manitoba.
A light south wind continues to blow, and the temperature has increased. Significant amounts of ice have disappeared from Hudson Bay. Any polar bears that are not already on ice in the middle of the bay will stay ashore for many more days. The forecast calls for at least a week of weather that's not favorable for ice formation. On this last day of our 2008 expedition, we find more than a dozen bears on the tundra. Many of these are large males, and two are doing a two-step dance in which one is working hard to avoid a dangerous fight. We also follow a female and cub who work continuously to avoid the large bears. The female is burning up precious energy trying to keep herself and her cub safe. She is thin and is likely no longer able to nurse her cub. The female must reach seals within three to four weeks or face starvation - for both her and her cub. Unfortunately, the weather forecast calls for more warm weather and another south wind. This is the end of our time on the tundra for 2008. We may return and do this again in 2009. If we do it again, we hope our 1080p video will be used both for the web and broadcast television to help raise awareness in advance of the Copenhagen climate meetings. We welcome your comments, help and support for the 2009 season. Thanks to Frontiers North Adventure, Polar Bears International, Fujinon HD lenses, Apple Computers, Scott Dickerson (for all the great web work!) *- and especially to my wife Lisa for letting me come out and play with the bears again.
We wake to a strong south wind that is blowing snow across the tundra. It's also blowing ice away from shore. Bears that are already on the ice are being carried closer to seals. Those still on shore will need to wait for cold, calm weather or for the winds to blow on shore. Hudson Bay is warmer now than it was twenty years ago, and as a result, much colder weather is required to freeze the surface water. For polar bears, the delay is serious, and it is resulting in an average decline of over one percent per year for the Hudson Bay population (22% decline since 1987). Unless the climate cools, the polar bear population here is in trouble. Late in the day we see several mothers and cubs walking back from the ice. The open water has deterred them from heading out into the bay. Most have stopped nursing because their fat reserves are gone. Today's loss of ice creates an additional stress, because now they must return to the Cape and work to avoid some very large and hungry bears.
At the very tip of Cape Churchill, we see half a dozen heavyweights. These polar bear are healthy and still carry good reserves of fat. About 10% of Hudson Bay is now frozen, and the bears are ready to head out in search of seals. They are restless – walking out to the edge of the ice and then back to shore again to rest. Others are also ready to join them – arctic foxes. Today we see several foxes scurrying around the bears. They are looking for food on shore, but they are also only a few days away from their first meals of seal leftovers. Polar bears provide foxes with nourishment through the winter and spring, and foxes occasionally help polar bears too. Both animals rely on their sense of smell to survive the winter. Join us for today’s program, we just finished the edit a few minutes ago (it’s a little late because we ran out of gas out on the tundra!), but it’s now ready for viewing.
After a fourteen-hour trek, we awake in Manitoba's best place for viewing large bears - Cape Churchill. This is the coldest part of the bay, and it's also the best place for polar bears to head out in pursuit of seals. As such, it's the domain of the largest, most powerful bears in all of Manitoba. We are with the Tundra Buggy lodge, the outfit that supports the non-profit conservation work of Polar Bears International. Our work here- along with PBI's- is to share both the beauty of the bears and conservation information that will help better interpret these amazing animals, their habitat and the stresses upon them. Each day we are filming, editing and posting to the web a new, same-day HD program from the Cape. It's all free, but we do hope folks will support the non-profit work PBI does for the bears. This afternoon, we drive our Tundra Buggy to a group of willows where we find two sleeping polar bears. We wait for almost four hours, and just before sunset we discover that in fact there are two more polar bears in the group - they are nearly completely buried in snow. We zoom in on them, and amazingly, we can see that they are taking fewer than four breaths each minute. Polar bear researcher Ian Stirling is with us, and he explains that when food is not available, polar bears enter a "walking hibernation" during which time they can slow their heart rate as low as 20 beats per minute and respiration as low as three breaths per minute. See the end of this cold and windy day for yourself!
Ice now covers nearly all of western Hudson Bay, and only a few straggler polar bears remain at Gordon Point. For the past five years, the bay has been freezing three weeks later than it did two decades ago, and it thaws three weeks earlier. Polar bears now have six fewer weeks to hunt seals. As we look for bears, we find only two. One is way out on the ice, and the other is an eight year old near a clump of willows-- a bear who's in really good shape. It's the healthiest bears that remain on shore. Mothers and cubs, and those bears in desperate need of calorie-rich seals, are out on the ice edge looking for a way to the seals. Bears who reach seven or eight years of age stand a good chance of living for another decade or more. Younger bears are most at risk from the loss of time on the ice. Winds increase as the day wears on, and we expect solid gales for the next twenty-four hours. Tomorrow, we move our Tundra Buggy from Gordon Point to Cape Churchill. We will drive all day, and we will not post a program. We expect to see more polar bears at the Cape, but ice is forming fast and bears are heading out. To see a map of current ice conditions, click here.
We wake to fog and a steady procession of bears walking out to the ice. Several groups of females and cubs, along with a half a dozen other small bears walk in the distance- all towards the ice. These bears are hungry. They haven't eaten a seal since they left the ice during the summer, and it's now been five months since the last one was eaten. Seals make up over 99% of a polar bear's caloric intake, and they must get back to their feeding grounds soon or risk serious nutritional stress. The late freeze up of Hudson Bay has been a huge problem for polar bears, resulting in a population decline of 22% in the last twenty years. Today, as ice begins to form, bears explore the edge in hopes of reaching seals. We find one bear who returns to the same place and waits - looking down at the ice for over an hour in the morning and then again in the evening. Ian Stirling and Steve Amstrup - two of the world's top polar bear biologists are with us - and they believe the bear has smelled a seal and is waiting for an opportunity for a good meal. It's a day when bears are on the move and the weather is improving. Join us for the show!
We wake to a colder day with windchill of -36F. For us, it's the first real cold of winter, and it's made a bit more challenging since the propane ran out for our heater. Outside a vale of ice fog hides the horizon, and the scene is faded white and dreamlike. Knowing that polar bears are sleeping and perhaps roaming within a few hundred yards but we can't see them is both exciting and a bit spooky. We set out to look for bears just after first light, heading towards the shore of Hudson Bay and find two polar bears sleeping. It's the same sort of scene we saw much of the day yesterday, but not for long. As we hoped might happen, less wind and colder temperatures are a perfect combination for more activity. The bears wake up, and... well see for yourself!
We drive our buggy to the edge of Hudson Bay to look for polar bears, and we find a bear sleeping near a pool of open water. The bay is freezing, but not quickly. At 7F, the temperature is too warm for rapid icing. Today, however, there is more ice than we have seen all year. By mid-morning, the bear we are watching stands and heads out on the ice. Other bears are on the move too. In fact, we spot over a dozen bears within a half mile radius of us - include three sets of mothers and cubs. It appears that the increase in ice along with colder temperatures has made the bears restless. As they move, large bears displace smaller bears. Mothers and cubs are displaced by almost any bear nearby. It's a near-constant shifting of bears across the tundra.
A strong wind blows from the Northwest and snow is falling across the tundra. We spend much of the day looking for polar bears and find most are hunkered down. Expert polar bear researchers we talk with say it's common for bears to hunker down on the first day of a big blow. Tomorrow, with lighter winds forecast, they will likely be more active. In our search for bears, we find two bears near the high-tide line sleeping and eating kelp--something they do occasionally, although it is not a replacement for the fat-rich seal meat they need to survive. The temperature outside is 7F, and we hope for more cold weather for these bears. Hudson Bay was completely ice-free today--something unheard of just a couple of decades ago. Tomorrow, temperatures are expected to drop below 0F.
Wind has been blowing at near-gale velocity all day, and while it feels cold, the temperature is barely below freezing. It's much too warm for Hudson Bay to freeze, and there's little chance these bears will be walking upon any ice to their feeding grounds anytime soon. We film the bears all day, staying mostly with two young males who playfight, rest, and then playfight more. All of our gear has arrived and it's now on the Tundra Buggy (Thanks Apple for the Pro Mac!). For the first time this year, we are using a Fujinon image stabilizer on our big lens, and it's proving extremely useful today as the wind blows hard and the buggy is rocking in the wind. We hope for cooler weather in the coming days, but as of today, there is no ice anywhere to be seen on Hudson Bay. Bad news for these bears.
Winds subside early in the day, and we see more bears walking the shore or Hudson Bay. By midmorning, strong winds return and some bears head out on the ice. Soon, perhaps, the bears will begin their trek on the ice highway into the Arctic. For now, however, bears are struggling.
A beautiful Saturday on the shore of Hudson Bay. The lake is freezing and bears are resting. Many bears on the move.