Aerial Survey of the Polar Bears of Hudson Bay

Posted Nov. 17th, 2010 by Daniel J. Cox

I’ve now been in Churchill for nearly two weeks. Haven’t shot many images of polar bears since my time here was set for helping Polar Bears International with the numerous celebrities and other dignitaries coming to Churchill to se first hand the affects of climate change on the southern arctic.

Geoff York on an aerial survey looking for polar bears on Hudson Bay.

Time has flown and the PBI crew has mostly gone. They’re all on their way back to the states and other parts of Canada. One lady, Joanne Simerson and Buggy One commander BJ Kirschhoffer have stayed on.  Joanne will be working the buggies discussing polar bears and the issues a warming arctic will create for these magnificent creatures. BJ will be shooting footage of the bears at Gordon Point this. None of us will be making the trip to Cape this year. Unfortunately this will be the first time ever in the history of Cape Churchill bear viewing that we can’t make it out to Cape due to the ground not freezing. Yes that’s right. the ground is still not frozen and it’s already mid November.

Things are changing fast here in the Arctic. One of those changes is something we’ve all been hearing about and some have been witnessing this year. The bears are doing well so far and they are making seal kills like nobody has ever seen before. For the past five years we’ve noticed an ever increasing number of seal kills in the Churchill area. In all the 15 years prior I had never even heard of  a seal kill let alone seen one. However, that all changed around 2005. Since that time, every year we’ve witnessed or know about several seals being captured as prey and eaten by polar bears. Most of them had been Harbor seals, which had never been known to be in the Hudson Bay until just recently. The typical prey for a polar bear has always been the Ringed or Bearded seals. These two species have evolved with the polar bear and they are relatively efficient at staying out of their skull crushing jaws. Harbor seals are another story. The harbor seal hasn’t evolved around polar bears and thus they’re not as adept at avoiding danger. Often, they become stranded on land by the fast moving tides of Hudson Bay, getting caught unaware as the water slips beneath their silky smooth pelage and leaves them vulnerable to voracious, quick moving bears of the sea.

Trio of polar bears feeding on seal carcass.

Several days ago I shot an assignment for Polar Bears International on a short aerial flight to count polar bears north of Churchill. I was joined  by Manitoba Conservation Wildlife and Fisheries Manager Darryl Hedman along with good friend Geoff York, polar bear specialist for WWF Canada’s Arctic Program. We flew about two hours towards the Nunavut border counting bears and seal kills. To make a long story short, nobody has any idea why there have been so many opportunities for polar bears to grab seals this year. But the numbers are quite amazing. Geoff and I saw several and again this morning I took another flight just five aerial minutes out of Churchill to take another look. Today in a 30 minute flight we counted an additional 6 seal kill sites.  Nobody knows why so many seals are coming out of the water into the waiting teeth of hungry polar bears. The questions are flying and include people wondering what species of seal are they? If they are Harbor seals it makes sense since they are unaccustomed to polar bear danger. If they are their normal prey of ringed or bearded seals could they be sick and needing to get out of the water for some unknown reason? Two days ago conservation officers found a ringed seal a mile away from Hudson Bay and all water, lumbering long the tundra, heading to who knows where. They caught it and took it back to sea. But the questions remains; why are seals coming out of the water in such numbers? See a larger gallery of images in this web gallery.

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