You join me on an innovative population survey of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, led by scientists from the Government of Nunavut. We’re here to improve our understanding of how the bears will survive in a climate-altered future.
“Bear! Starboard at 9 o’clock”. In the excitement, it takes a fraction of a second to realise that the crackling voice through the headphone in the back of the helicopter is my own. I’ve spotted the first bear of this year’s survey. It’s a big male, he’s heard us and he’s on the move. We have a good visual on him so our pilot Gerard brings the helicopter in to land and Mike, the laboratory technician, and I jump out with the emergency bag.
Polar bear biologist Markus shifts to the rear seat, darting rifle in hand, and they take off. We see the helicopter hovering over the bear: Markus gets him in the haunch with a single biopsy dart, which falls immediately onto the ice. The whole process takes less than three minutes. It’s harmless to the bear and less intrusive than tranquilising and marking it.
We collect the dart which has a very valuable piece of polar bear hair, skin and fat. Mike will dry the skin sample before sending it off to a genetics laboratory for analysis. The sample will give us an unique genetic ‘fingerprint’ of that bear so it can be recognised in a population survey if it’s counted again. The fat sample is frozen and will be sent off for diet analysis to give us a picture of the health of the bear and what it’s been feeding on over the winter months.
All in a day’s work
We’ve been back in the air for another hour and Mike suddenly calls out over the headphone, “Bear at 3 o’ clock, now 4…!” as we swing around to spot it. Excitement mounts as I realise it’s a family group – a mother and two very young cubs. They were probably born in December and have only been out of the den for a couple of weeks. We don’t dart cubs of the year (CoY) but Markus gets another harmless biopsy sample from the protective mother before we’re back up in the air again.
Over the course of the next few hours, we dart a further two bears, but we lose one dart as it falls into a crack in the ice. We’ve been out for about nine hours and spotted six bears in total. We’ve flown nine transects of about 40km at 300 ft above sea level, travelling at 100 mph. It’s been one amazing day, a truly inspiring introduction to polar bear fieldwork.
During the next week, we undertake a further two missions and biopsy four more bears, as well as recording sea ice data and sightings of seals and musk oxen. Then it’s time for me to head home: Markus and the team have another month of surveying ahead of them, during which time they’ll encounter about 90 bears in total.
With my bags packed, I go for a last walk out on the frozen Arctic Ocean. It’s 11pm and the sun is still lingering just above the horizon. It casts shades of orange, red and purple across the icy landscape. I’m alone, and my hands are thrust deep into the pockets of my jacket, gripping the 142-decibel polar bear deterrent – just in case.
The beating heart of our planet
As my footsteps crunch through the layers of crisp spring snow covering the sea ice, my thoughts turn to home and to my son: the sunset reminds me of his blazing orange hair. At two years old, he’s the same age as a polar bear cub preparing to leave its mother and strike out on its own. Perhaps also the same age as the cub I caught a fleeting glimpse of on my first night in Cape Sydney.
I desperately want my son to grow up in a world where sea ice still covers much of the Arctic Ocean throughout the year, and where polar bears continue to roam across their entire range in healthy numbers and thrive alongside Arctic people.
The Arctic is changing. And it’s changing faster than almost anywhere else on our planet. Sea ice is in decline during all seasons, particularly the summer. That’s seriously concerning, because the seasonal sea ice dictates the rhythm of life up here in the Arctic. It supports entire ecosystems, from plankton to polar bears and people. And at a global scale, the annual freeze and thaw of sea ice represents the beating heart of our planet.
In order to help conserve and manage polar bears into the future, we need to understand them now. And we can only hope to do that through a combination of traditional knowledge and new technology.
The traditional knowledge comes from people such as the Inuit, who have lived alongside polar bears for many thousands of years, and who have a deep and unparalleled respect for the Arctic’s highest predator. And the ‘new’ comes from innovative research techniques such as biopsy darting for genetic marking and fingerprinting, which I feel immensely privileged to have been involved in.
Climate warming is predicted to drive change in Arctic wildlife at an unprecedented rate. So it’s exactly this sort of study led by the Government of Nunavut which we need to do more of across the Arctic. This will help us understand how polar bears are responding to climate change now, and what we need to do to secure a future for these icons of the ice.
WWF-UK is grateful to the Government of Nunavut for the opportunity to participate in this field study.