Arctic Exposures-Dr. Steven Amstrups Polar Bear Research in the Beaufort Sea

Posted May. 7th, 2008 by Daniel J. Cox

This begins my first blog for the new section on the PBI web site appropriately titled Arctic Exposures. You’ll be able to view it on the PBI site as well as here on our Natural Exposures blog we affectionately call the Corkboard. For those who aren’t familiar with my work, I’m currently an advisory board member for Polar Bears International. I’m also a professional photographer. My wife and I run a small company that markets my fine art photographic prints and documentary work and we employ two other people besides ourselves. Both of them seem like family. We call our little business Natural Exposures and so the connection to Arctic Exposures is established.

What is Arctic Exposures all about? In short I plan this to be somewhat of a diary. A way to share my adventures as I travel the northern parts of the world to document the arctic, it’s unique and charismatic animals, it’s expansive, hostile, yet fragile landscapes as well as the people who call the north their home. Climate change is happening at a break neck pace in the far stretched corners of the frozen tundra. It’s my goal as journalist to share stories and images that will inspire societies around the globe to better understand the magnitude of the issues the north faces.

On a more long term note I see my work in much the same vein as William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran. One photographer and one painter, both of them using their medium to document newly found wild places for our government in the early years of our countries history. Much of their work is still visible today and it’s value- as a testament to what we once had- is priceless. Posterity is described as, “for all future generations”. Without words and pictures many animals, wilderness areas and those that study them would go unnoticed. So here begins my journey that I hope for you to join. Follow me as I travel by foot, plane, helicopter, boat and any number of other forms of transportation in my quest to document the north.

May 6, 2008- Barter Island, Alaska

The flight from my home in Montana is a bit unusual compared to most. I’m not feeling well. Won’t get into all the details but I’ve recently returned from Africa as well as an excursion to the French Rivera. Though I love Africa as much as I do the north, it seems northern foods are much less antagonistic to my bodies constitution. I virtually never get out of Africa without having to take a course of antibiotics but this time things seemed to go in my favor. Then my trip to the French Rivera. It never crossed my mind to think that there might be bugs from that part of the world, but my doctor tells me that their bugs are just different- not necessarily bad. It seems my body doesn’t like anything out of North America. Long story short, I was trying to get my system back on track and at the same time leave for a two-week adventure in northern Alaska.

A Dr’s appointment threatened to postpone the trip but my wife Tanya worked her magic. I saw a Dr. at 2:00pm and was on a frequent flyer ticket at 4:45pm. A trip that was nearly canceled was now back on schedule. Arrived in Anchorage at 1;00am and my next flight was coming fast in four short hours. I would be leaving for Barter Island at 6:45am that same morning. So goes the life of one chasing a north wind.

Woke to beautiful sunny skies. Temps in the low 40’sF. It was spring in Anchorage. I was thrilled with the weather. I had herd the night before my destination was socked in with a blizzard so I was hoping the fair weather was further north. I boarded the Beechcraft 1900- a fancy name for what looks like a missile with wings. My 6-foot frame had to duck as I entered the fuselage and made my way to the back. Didn’t count but I seem to remember maybe 12 seats in all. These planes to the northern communities are small, tight and used to make me feel claustrophobic. The engines roar to life and I pull the ear plugs out that the gate attendant handed each passenger. We were off in to the wild blue north.

It was an hour to Fairbanks; a short stop there and then on for another 1 and half-hours to Barter Island. You know you’re getting close when you look out the window and the Brooks range rises above the clouds. We begin to descend into a layer of milky white. These planes are so small you can actually see out the front windows of the pilot’s cockpit. We’re blind, nothing but white in all directions. These guys do this all the time though it’s still a bit intimidating. We descend slowly and visibility returns. We’re just above the ice, maybe a mile or so and it extends as far as I can see. Visibility is fine for landing. The Beechcraft makes it’s way to the gravel strip Barter Island considers an airport. The wheels touch and the engines rev back. We’re on the ground in Kaktovik, Alaska.

Though visibility is okay, the wind is howling. I had heard the USGS biologists I’ll be working with have been pinned down for 5 days due to inclement weather. Helicopters can’t fly in weather planes are fine with. My mission on this assignment is to document Dr. Steven Amstrup and his research project on the Beaufort Sea polar bears. Along with my photography I’ll also be volunteering as a field assistant. I get out of the plane and nearly lose my hat to the wind. Thankfully it’s not frigid. However, it is cold enough to make me reach for my coat as my duffel bag is pitched from the belly of the aircraft. Dr. Amstrup is there to meet me. We’ve become friends over the years and he extends his right hand to mine and follows through with is left with a warm hug.

Dr. Amstrup is the real deal. He now leads the polar bear research for his division of the USGS-his official title Sr. Polar Bear Scientist. He’s been studying these animals since 1980 and though he was recently promoted to Sr. Scientist he does everything he can to be part of the actual collection of field data. Many people of his stature are content to sit in fancy government offices letting others do their fieldwork. Not Amstrup. He’s a hands on kind of scientist and his long, distinguished career reflects this professionalism and unbiased reporting of scientific facts. We gather my gear and head back to the USF&W field house that will be my home for the next two weeks.

May 7, 2008 19F, Cloudy, Windy

Woke this morning to basically the same weather that’s been going on for the last week. Windy, windy, windy! Visibility has cleared some but the wind is an issue for helicopters and so we all keep working on our laptops and once in awhile peering out the window to see if things have changed. You can hear the gusts blowing through the cracks in the house so visual confirmation is more of a habit than necessity.

The crew here at the house consists of a helicopter pilot named Bob, his mechanic we call Doc, Steve’s crew, Eric and Katrina and myself. We’re lucky this season since Doc is an amazing cook and is making sure we all eat like kings. Tonight is a Thanksgiving type turkey dinner with all the fixings. Last year the food situation wasn’t quite as positive. Most everybody took turns cooking meals but often we wouldn’t get in from the field until nearly midnight. When the weather clears and the flying is good you work a lot of hours in a day to try and catch up.

When we’re down like this Steve is on his computer most of the day crunching data and writing about the work he’s doing. The polar bear is being considered for the Threatened species list and so he’s busy fielding interviews, writing papers and dealing with the press. The next few days may be a bit boring if we can’t get out. No photos to share yet.

The day improved and around 6:00pm Steve, his assistant Eric and an Animal Planet film crew took off for the ice to see how things looked. I’m stuck here in the Barter Island Bunk House due to the TV crew thats here for a week. There’s only so much room in the chopper. They’ve brought one of their heavy hitters, Mr. Jeff Corwin. Jeff and I actually met last year here in Kaktovik. He came for the 2007 season to do a piece for CNN on Dr. Amstrups work. My minor claim to fame is I lent Jeff a warm pair of boots last season since he didn’t come very well equipped. I’m going to try and get a few images of the TV boys in action in the next few days and will post them here.

The sun is shining now and the wind has died. It’s a beautiful night in the high arctic. It’s one of the reasons I love the north. Quality light for photography lasts for hours upon hours. By summer, June, July and August you can count on as much as eight hours of premium light. Premium light consists of the sun shining and hovering 45 degrees or less above the horizon. In the lower forty eight you’re lucky to get 2-4 hours of premium light a day. Typically two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. Photography is all about light and the lower the sun hangs in the sky the more beautiful it’s effects are on the subjects you might be working with. During the ice free months in the arctic the sun almost never sets. It just dips below the horizon and then starts rising again. It can be hard to sleep but when the light lasts so long and is so gorgeous you find yourself working for hours on end. It can be tiring but so rewarding.

May 10, 2008 17F -Snowing

I haven’t written for a couple of days for a number of reasons. Mainly because it’s been boring as all get out. We’ve not been able to get into the field at all due to difficult flying conditions. On top of that my blogging software was on the fritz so to speak. Long story short I’m back up and running but this entry won’t be all that interesting since I have very little to relay.

Down time as a natural history journalist is all part of the game. This particular situation is pretty cushy compared to typical down time in the field. Even though Kaktovik is a long way from anywhere, it’s still a little village and the accommodation’s here at the field house are extremely comfortable if you compare them to waiting out bad weather in a tent. Obviously I have the internet which we didn’t have last year. It’s warm, the bed is cozy, we have a TV though I seldom watch it, the people are interesting to hang out with and I’m able to stay productive since I have electricity to run a laptop and edit images from past shoots.

Since we’ve all been holed up liked caged dogs I’ve found an outlet for energy by visiting the local school gym. They have a great workout room and kids are there each day. It’s fun to interact with the local native children. Like kids everywhere they’re energetic, full of life and very friendly. One of the things I’ve noticed about this little northern town is how outgoing most people are here. I’ve traveled to numerous native communities throughout the arctic and Kaktovik is by far the most friendly I’ve ever visited. The people of Barter Island are fabulous.

I mentioned earlier about the boys from Animal Planet being in town and they still are. In fact today they’re out flying with Steve and the crew -trying to get what they need for their show. I knew before I came that my time out on the ice would be limited for the first week or so due to Animal Planet being in town. That’s OK. It’s very possible that they will get what they’re after today and tomorrow and then the rest of the week Steve can relax and concentrate on doing what he needs to do. He and I have worked together so thankfully he doesn’t consider me part of the media and as a journalist that’s just the way I like it. If you have the time to spend with your subjects it makes for much better images. That goes for both people and wildlife. TV crews come and go like a frantic Williwaw. They’re schedules are always tight, their budgets huge compared to a still guy and they travel in packs. They bring camera people, producers, writers, sound engineers. You name it they bring it and whenever it’s time to move it takes hours for them to get all their junk together. Today was a good example. As I headed for the gym at 12:30pm, Steve had given the green light for everybody to start getting ready. I came back at 3:00pm and they had just taken off. Doc, our chopper mechanic and amazing cook walks in to the house and comments, “what a cluster” you know what.

As I sit here writing this the two way radio is abuzz with the chatter from the two helicopters out searching for bears. They seem to have found a mother and two cubs. Yes, mothers and cubs. I have to say I’m more than a bit frustrated. This exact same thing happened last year with another TV crew. I spent two weeks and never got lucky enough to find a mother and babies. CNN comes to town and the one day they go out they get the family unit just like Animal Planet is doing toady. Oh’well that’s nature and it’s good for the bears. People will watch their show more enthusiastically if they can see incredibly cute cubs. The more viewers the better. Wish me luck for the coming week. We’ll get lucky too. It just might be something different. I’ll keep you posted.

May 12, 2008 12F Foggy and Cloudy

We woke to a lot of clouds and fairly heavy fog yesterday morning. Spent the day waiting for the weather to clear. It finally did around 3:00pm. Steve gave us the word and we all began preparations to go out for the rest of the day. Today would be my first chance to try the remote camera I’ve been scheming on for the past year.

It’s been twelve months since I’ve been in a chopper flying and darting bears. You forget about some of the difficulties. It’s crowded but admittedly not too bad. The helicopter we’re using is the Eurocopter A-Star. They’re roomy compared to the old Bell Rangers most of this type of work is usually done with. In fact the only reason I’m able to go along is due to the added room this machine has. That said, four guys and lots of gear makes it a bit cramped. along with my photography I also have to pull my weight. I try to shoot while I help with incidental chores such as recording some measurements for the scientists and shuffling gear to and from the chopper to the downed bear.

Our first order of business is trying to locate a radio collar that was attached to a female bruin a few days earlier. It’s responding as if it’s fallen off. This first run reminds me of some of the difficulties of riding the wind. Nausea! I don’t get sea sick easy and although the seas below are now frozen- bumping, spinning and darting brings back that feeling of a light headache and a nauseous stomach. After about a 30 minute game of hide and seek, the telemetry devise finally draws us above the location. Steve had hoped the collar might still be attached and the bear only sleeping but the second best possibility was that the collar was dropped. We land on the barren ice. Ridges of crumpled, frozen slabs of water snake the landscape. A short walk with the hand held antenna and sound emitting box takes us over one of these barriers. It’s 3-4 feet in height and difficult to traverse. It’s ice after all and climbing ice blocks can be treacherous. I’m looking down at a camera, getting set to shoot when I step into a soft mushy spot. My attention diverts to my feet and I see water! Good lord that was a stupid move. Thankfully it was only water on top of the ice, just a few inches deep. I could have been a lead recently, semi-frozen and I would have been fighting frantically for a way out. I remind myself, “pay attention you Damn fool”.

Just beyond the ice ridge is a round, white polar bear tracking necklace lying on the ice. It’s about a foot in circumference and there are foot prints surrounding it. Not the ones you might think. They’re small, they encircle the collar in a perfect, neat little trail. It’s not a deep trail, just one foot in front of the other, snow between the webbed pads but it goes clean around the circular band. Each track is maybe two inches in width. We take a closer look and the only thing we can come up with is a Gull. A Sea Gull of some sort saw this thing, flew into investigate and left. Steve picks it up and we make our way back to our flying machine.

The radio is crackling with lots of chatter. Steve and Bob are in the front of the aircraft tracking like dogs on a game trail. The recent snow we’ve had makes the job a bit easier although we could use more light. It’s gray and cloudy. The worst type of light you can have for tracking. Sunny skies give better definition to the tracks below. It’s working however and about an hour in to the trip we spot our first polar bear. He’s large. Looks like a big male. Steve gives Eric the signal to get ready and he prepares his dart gun. That finished he hooks in to his safety harness that allows him to hang half way out the chopper window to make his shot. We make a pass over the furiously running animal. He’s not happy we’re here. Eric fires and the dart lodges in the bears right shoulder. Bob pulls the chopper back and we gain altitude. The wait begins as the drug takes its course. In about 15 minutes we’re on the ground and the process starts.

He’s large alright. Eric guesses maybe 1050 pounds. They biologists start taking measurements. Steve checks the lip for a tattoo which would tell them if he had been caught before. He has one. His first capture came back in 2003 as a six year old. This can’t be a pleasant event for any animal to go through. The drug used to put them down allows them to be apparently coherent of what’s going on around them. They just can’t move. This huge, massive, powerful animal completely defenseless and I have to say it’s hard to watch. It is necessary however. Not fun but essential. Steve knows from nearly 30 years of research that the bears in this area just aren’t as large as they once were. No official data as to why at this point but with out having historical data there would be no way to know what might be happening.

Eric begins taking blood, Steve measures the skull. Measurements are called out and I log a few of them down on the official USGS Polar Bear Capture Datasheet for Spring 2008. Things such as skull width, heart girth, skull length, neck at shoulder, neck at axis. All of these get measured. I hand the data book to Bob to take over. I grab my camera and start shooting again. This process goes on for nearly an hour. The big old boy is making some subtle moves and it’s apparent he’s on the mend. I have to say he’s not nearly as beautiful as when we first met. His face and lips are splotched with die, a few little blood holes dot his hide, his back is marked with a number and he’s sprawled out like a bear rug- thankfully with the bear inside. It will probably be a few months before he’s back to his gorgeous, majestic self. It’s all in the name of science and our ability to help these animals and the habitat they live in. Time will tell but it feels good to be part of the crew searching for answers.

May 13, 2008, 28F, Cloudy, Misty, Some Fog

It’s been a day and half since I last wrote. Yesterday was fairly productive even though we didn’t get out over the ice until about 3:00pm. We were about 15 miles out from the Kaktovik base when a mother and cub of the year came into view. Steve was in charge of darting on this day and we moved in to immobilize her. The chopper is certainly unwelcomed from the bears perspective. Most of them run hard and this small female was no exception. The mother and cub split up and we back off wanting them to regroup before we dart her. They rejoin and we move back in. Bob brings the high tech whirly bird directly over the mother and Steve pulls the trigger of the dart gun. The 22 caliber shell ignites and drives the projectile to it’s mark. The dart sticks just behind her head between her neck and shoulders. It’s a perfect hit. We pull back and wait for her to feel the immobilizing effects of the drug known as Telazol. Ten minutes pass and she begins to stumble, her feet and legs are the first to show the effects. The cub clings to her side staying with her every step. Finally she lies down and the cub snuggles in as close as he can get. We land the air craft and gather our gear to start the processing procedures.

Their first order of business is to contain the cub. He’s maybe 50 lbs but he’s got plenty of teeth and claws to boot. He’s not happy and I’m continually suppressing my feelings of concern. The biologits have done this hundreds of times and they do their jobs with with skill, care, efficiency and concern for their subjects. That being said they still need to get a handle on this little white, furry buzz saw. He’s scared and ready to bite when Steve gently grabs the back of his neck. They carefully give him a sedative and within minutes he’s much more relaxed. Some of the samples and processes performed on the adults are also part of the program for the cub. He will get a lip tattoo, some ear tags and his weight checked. He seems to be in great health, he’s chunky, fairly large Steve says for this time of year. He actually weighs in close to 65 lbs. Once he’s done they concentrate on Mom. All of the typical chores are played out on the female. She’s fairly small and weighs in at about 375 lbs.

As the scientists perform their duties the weather starts closing in. Bob, our chopper pilot notices my constant removal of mist from my lens. Mist in the air at these temperatures will get a pilots attention. Bob suggests to Steve that, “we might want to header on home after we’re done here”. Steve agrees. They finish up their work and we make our way back to the helicopter. It starts and pilot Bob goes through the girations of warming it up. We get airborne and the mist begins to show itself on the wind shield of the aircraft. It gets fhard to see and Bob lands the craft, Steve climbs out with a towel in hand and drys the Plexiglas. Bob can now fly safely again and we gingerly pick our way back to safety and the little town of Kaktovik. I’m pleased to be back on the ground and another day under our belt.

May 14, 2006 Cloudy Bright

The day starts off with a Bang! the Federal Government has just announced the Polar Bear will be listed as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. The fog has cleared out on the ice and we’re on our way out the door.

May 16, Very Foggy, 29F

It’s difficult keeping up with writing on a daily basis. The amount of time we’ve been able to spend out hunting for bears is increasing each day. Our last two days started around 11:00am and we return around 10:30 or 11:00pm. Obviously long days but the good news is we’ve been averaging about 2-3 bears a day. It’s draining. All of us are feeling the work load but when the weather is good you have to go.

Yesterday Steve was working on a bear and out of the blue makes a comment about how positive it feels to be doing this work now that the bear has been listed as Threatened. His work load over the past year was intense and a strain on his family life. He mentions that he encouraged his wife that hopefully it would all be worth while and that to try to remember that he was helping save the planet one polar bear at a time. He understands that people really care and are interested in the these animals. The bears notorieity has the potential to make people pay attention and possibly change their habits to help decrease green house gases that are contributing to climate change. Warming temperatures in the arctic are melting the ice pack at a record rate. If you’re interested in knowing more visit the web site by a scientist from the University of Washington, Ignatius Rigor. No ice means no polar bears. They need the ice pack to sustain themselves at their current numbers and to possibly survive at all.

Yesterday’s flight provided a bonus opportunity that amazed us all. Steve mentioned that in his nearly 30 years of flying this project he had never seen anything like it. It began with us hovering above a small, open chunk of water. This time of year the ice is begining to break up and as it breaks leads open up and expose the inky, black water of the sea below. These openings attract polar bears since the seals use them to haul out on; especially if the sun is out. While looking for bear tracks around this lead we notice a seal that isn’t darting for the water. He just lays there and Steve makes the comment it looks like a baby. We land and go to investigate. It is a young bearded seal. He’s unafraid and we approach slow and cautiously, not wanting to scare him. We wait patiently and are rewarded with his mother popping through the thin grease ice. Grease ice is the term that describes newly forming ice. She raises her head from the water and comes to check her pup. He’s not that small but still obviously a baby. She comes closer and their noses touch. He’s still not interested in jumping in to the cold water. This interaction goes on for about twenty minutes and we all make the decision to leave. We don’t want to stay too long. This baby seal was so unafraid of our presence. Had we been a bear the outcome would be different. This is the time of year the bearded and ringed seals have their babies and hunting for the polar bear is comparatively easy. They put on a lot of weight that helps take them through leaner times. During our flight Steve mentioned that there seems to be an unusually good crop of seals this year.

May 18, 2008-18F Cloudy and Foggy

Another day has come and gone. We made an effort to head for the ice today but got to the chopper and called it off. The weather has been difficul to try and second guess these past several days. We’re regularly peering out the windopw to check the weather and more than once we’ve been lured out to the helicopter pad by a passing sucker hole. For those not familiar with Alaskan weather lingo, Sucker Hole is a term for a passing perforation in the clouds that convinces you the day is clearing. Minutes later it’s closed and gone. either blown out to sea or compressed against the Brooks Range. Yesterday we made an effort to get back into the sky and over the ice. We flew from sucker hole to sucker hole, skirting small snow squals and landing here and there for safety. I’m getting more accustomed to this type of flying though I sometimes worry. I ‘m consoled by reminding myself that our pilot Bob Dunbar has been flying choppers for 40 years. He started out in Vietnam-turning 20 years old on the boat that delivered him to the war front. He’s an amazing man with an incredible can do attitude. So many Vietnam vets have no interest in talking about their years in the war and it’s understandable. However, not Bob Dunbar. He’s open about his time serving our country. It’s his many hours as a military pilot that helped sharpen his skills for chasing polar bears- only feet above their head -zigging and zagging across the Beaufort Sea ice pack. Our chopper mechanic and cook, Bob Cole aka Doc, spent three tours in Vietnam as a Navy Corpman as well. So many good people served this country for that conflict. I’m runing into more and more of them due to my ongoing work that requres skilled pilots and aircraft technicians. It’s one of the perks to being a traveling journalist. You meet some amazing people.

The passing storms just wouldn’t give us a break. At one point we landed and sat for about an hour-killing time by telling a few jokes and eating lunch. As we sat there surrounded by ice -seemingly to the ends of the earth- a flock of 200-300 eiders came jetting out of the fog. It was simply spectacular! In the middle of nowhere with ice in every direction you see these birds. It just doesn’t seem possible. There is some open water but very, very little. Maybe there’s more further north but from what we’ve seen they will have a heck of a flight to find it. Obviously they know it’s spring and time is of the essence to get to their breeding territories somewhere not so far from where we sat. As they go blowing by I reach for my camera with the 70-200mm lens and I’m able to grab a couple of frames before they disappear again. Not exactly what I wanted but something close. I’m hoping I’ll meet them somewhere else down the trail of my quest to document the arctic.

We finally decide to pick up and start making our way back to Barter Island. Bob doesn’t like the weather but he assures us it’s not bad enough to stay the night on the ice. Steve agrees and we press on. We have the gear to do make a mobile camp but none of us want to sleep in the cold of the arctic. We hover low and creep along, using jumbled pressure ridges to guide us. Bob won’t fly over a flat, unbroken ice pan. Too dangerous. A chopper pilot needs something to fix his eyes on when the sky is the same color as the snow. If you don’t have solid ground to visually grasp, you can develop vertigo. In a chopper that’s deadly. We limp back to the helipad and I’m thankful to be on the ground safe and sound, ready for an early night back at the house.

May 20, 2008 Semi foggy Looks like it could burn off.

Our last day in the field for this season. It’s been a productive shoot for me although Steve didn’t catch as many bears as he had hoped. The goal this year was 100 bears but bad weather middle of the season held those numbers down in to the 70’s. Our last bear was one of the most exciting captures I’ve ever been a part of. Our day had been productive, capturing three bears total. Our last capture came around 7:00pm. We were heading back to Kaktovik and were still about 27 miles out to sea. A big male came into view and and it was obvious he was different than any I’d seen darted in the past. Our helicopter circled him at about 300 feet. He continued to saunter across the massive ice pan. Unlike the other bears he didn’t run, he just walked slowly and with a purpose. Now and again he would look skyward glaring at the noisy space ship above him. This guy was not scared or outwardly concerned in any way.

Steve gave the command for the capture procedure to commence, “OK Bob I’m loading a dart. 10cc’s should do the trick.” We circled for a few more minutes and Steve related his concern to the chopper pilot of not wanting the bear to get to the open leads surrounding the pan of ice. Apparently many of the bears will head for open water when they’re stressed and should they get , after receiving a dose of the immobilizing drug, things could go very wrong. The rules of the game require safety for the animal at all costs so it was imperative the bear not be able to get to the open water.

Bob swoops in and Steve makes his typical perfect shot. The radio crackles with rushing air and Steve’s voice calmly stating, “Got him, right shoulder”. We back off and climb several hundred feet. The big male is stepping up his pace towards an open lead so Bob puts the chopper into a dive and we head him off, dropping just a meter in front of his nose. Bob is now using the helicopter as a shield, blocking the giant bears escape. What’s so astounding is that it all most didn’t work. Amazingly this huge polar bear just kept coming. Bob had to drop even lower, now only 4-5 feet above the ice. The polar bear just off our nose maybe 10 feet in front of the helicopters wind screen. He finally stops his forward progress and starts moving laterally to the left. Bob keeps his pace flying the chopper sideways and at the same time looking out the window at a ridge of ice just 20 feet off our tail. I’m siting in the copilot chair anxiously assessing the situation all the while shooting a small video camera. Bob’s head spins front to side like the paddle on a pinball machine as he blocks the bear and keeps track of the helicopters tail. The rear rotor smashing into a wall of ice would mean curtains for us all. My mind was in a whirl, processing the excitement and worrying about the danger. All the while I kept thinking, “he’s done this for 40 years. He’s good at what he does. Relax!” Finally the monstrous male begins to stagger and within minutes he goes down. Thankfully he never made to the ice ridge and beyond. He settled in the snow and we made our landing.

He’s a big boy all right. Steve checks him throughly and we all start the game of guessing his weight. When all is said and done we find that he had been through this process more than once in his life. He was originally tagged in Canada clear back in the 80’s. He was 27 years old and weighed almost 900 pounds. His frame made him look larger than that and in his prime he may have been 1200-1500 pounds. Somewhere in the process Steve mentions, “they just don’t get as big as they used to”. We take all of his measurements and then it’s time to head south for Barter Island.

The season ends with lots of work back at the bunkhouse. We had to pack all the field gear, process the blood samples and other scientific data. It’s a long night and I finally hit the sack at 2:30am. This was my second year of documenting this important work of these talented and dedicated scientists and I’ll never forget how fortunate I am. So few people have ever experienced the solitude and beauty of the frozen north, miles and miles from any civilization. When you’re out there standing on the ice there is absolute piece and quite in all directions. Not a sound, not a whisper, nothing. Nothing that is if the wind isn’t howling. If it is you want to take cover. Each of these situations provide their own unique sensory experiences. However, in the land of the polar bear it’s all one and the same. It’s home to this amazing creature of of snow and ice. Without the ice there is no polar bear and through the work of PBI we hope to bring that message to the masses. Thanks for reading this and feel free to add any questions you might have in the comments section of this blog.

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