“You touched a baby polar bear?!??” is the first question that I’m asked now. This is followed straight away by “didn’t the mother take offense to that?” And by ‘take offense’ they mean that “didn’t mother polar bear swipe her massive paws with blades for claws at you and gouge out your insides?” and so I describe a situation that is both sad and cute, irresponsible and corrective but above all else amazing.
This was my third time in Baffin Island and I had not as yet seen a polar bear. I really wanted to see one. Safely, and from a distance, as all visitors to the Arctic wish. The Inuit too still get excited every time they see a nanok (polar bear in Inuktitut). So there we were at the start of our polar expedition attempting the first British traverse of the Penny Ice Cap, a distance of over 250km, rising from sea level to 2000m and back down again through temperatures below -25C and with winds of upto 70km/h. But first of all we had to get to our starting position.
Our starting point was actually some way away from the nearest Inuit community that we could get conventional transport to. That was because the communities are traditionally by the sea (or what is the sea once all the ice melts in the summer) and sea and Arctic coastal regions are stalking grounds for the polar bear. After not eating much for several winter months polar bears are quite hungry – not an ideal situation for us, as unprotected humans, to be in. Thus we started as far inland as we could, arriving there safely by having our Inuit outfitters drop us there by skidoo (snow mobile), a journey of about 8 hours. We had two skidoos, to manage not only taking the three of us and all our equipment, but also to give the Inuit drivers, Billy and Charlie, some equipment redundancy if one of the skidoos failed– crucial given that they could be potentially 8 hours away from their homes and shelter.
We started in the morning of a beautiful sunny still day, the temperature a balmy -15C and we were looking forward to an easy ride out to our start point.
We traveled past massive icebergs, halted in their voyage south by the freezing seas. They towered storeys above us, dwarfing us in their majesty. We stopped in awe and the silence that followed was deafening. We passed seal holes, where, some way in the distance, a seal was sun bathing. Arctic hares raced past us, somehow managing to maintain the same speed whilst shooting up a 50 degree mountain snow slope. We saw the extraordinarily shapes created by pressure ice as the sea froze, forcing us to weave in and out, up and down, to find the easiest way through. Then we came across the tracks of a mother polar bear and two cubs. The tracks were fresh. I remember putting my hand inside the paw print of the mother polar bear and gulping a little uncomfortably as my hand was swallowed up. We followed the tracks and came across a seal den, where seal babies are nursed. We could see where the polar bears had waited patiently, hoping to catch a seal, and their tracks further away into the distance when they had given up.
We continued on our way to our starting position but after a further hour, Charlie shouted “NANOK!” over the roar of the engine, whilst pointing to something in the distance. My eyes followed his finger to see, in the distance, only one white speck amongst many others, against a white snow background…I could not see the polar bear. I was driving at the time and he told me to stop. We quickly changed seats and he accelerated off. As we drew closer I suddenly made out the unmistakable form of the polar bear. Her fur had a yellow tint to it, making her stand out against the white background. She had two cubs with her, undoubtedly from this year’s litter, and still very young. They trundled along beside her, playfully tumbling in and out of her tracks. We moved closer still to get a better view and pictures. Too close!
Mother bear became startled by these two large, noisy machines hurtling towards her and in her fright took off away from us with her cubs following close behind. Her gait was quite comical to view from behind but her speed was incredible. We followed but in our excitement to see these wonderful creatures nevertheless scared her. She increased her speed further, but one of her cubs could not keep up. He slowly fell further and further behind and then he panicked. He stopped, turned and started running in a different direction, at almost 90 degrees to his mother’s tracks. The mother did not look back and was getting further away. We sped up, and tried to use the snowmobiles as a guide to force him back in the right direction. Our large unmaneuverable machines were insufficient to scare the small and agile bear in the right direction, but fortunately, eventually he crossed his mother’s tracks and started to follow them. We stopped and watched.
The baby bear was about the size of a midsize dog. In contrast to his mother his coat was a pure fluffy white, unblemished by life. He was probably only a few months old, born during the winter that had just passed. Female polar bears generally give birth to two or three bears per litter and twins are common. A pregnant bear creates a den inside the snow for the winter in order to rest and nurse her young. It is likely that they had only just emerged from their den and it was the young bears’ first few days in the outside world.
Barking continuously, the baby bear followed his mother’s tracks. But slowly and inconsistently. At one point he stopped and headed back towards us. His mother meanwhile had not slowed down and was well out of sight. After half an hour we were not sure whether he would find his way back to his mother, and he was too young to survive by himself. Billy, our Inuit outfitter explained “He is too young. He does not know what he is doing.” Billy decided then that the best course of action was to catch him and take him back to his mother on the snowmobiles. Seeing what distress we had caused and having already attempted to let the situation resolve itself, it was the only course of action left and one that we all accepted. The chase began.
We used the two snowmobiles to create a pincer movement. We came in from behind, overtaking the baby bear from the left and right before suddenly closing in, closing the pincer. Seeing his path cut off by the snowmobiles he stopped, barking ferociously, much like baby Simba’s roar in Disney’s Lion King, with his hot breath steaming out of his mouth. With him unsure what to do, we had time to try and grab him. Charlie jumped off the skidoo and grabbed his body. “Great!” we all exclaimed, and hoped for a quick end to this situation. But Charlie didn’t know what to do next, and nor did we. If he tried to pick him up he would be subjected to those great claws and those big teeth – scarily large even though he was so small. Thus we lost the element of surprise, and when the bear realised what was happening he started struggling. Just one movement of his head made Charlie back off, in fear of being bitten. Realising he was free the bear jumped over the overlapped snowmobile tracks that had closed him in and ran off. Charlie gave a futile and comical attempt to chase him on foot – no chance.
I jumped onto the driver’s seat to catch up with Charlie, whilst Billy took control of the other snowmobile and we caught up with the bear to try again. And again. And again. Each time the bear escaped, becoming more confident and bold in his attempts to escape capture – he was certainly outwitting us. We were going to have to immobilise and blindfold him so that he could not see where to attack. Billie was travelling with a spare tent that served as an emergency shelter if their snowmobiles broke down away far from their community, and we decided to use this sheet to capture the bear. Once again, Billie and I in control of the snowmobiles executed, what now became a perfect pincer movement. Charlie jumped out of the back of the snowmobile with the tent sheet and threw it over the bear. This allowed us to scoop him up without him fighting so much and place him in the sled at the back of the snowmobile. Charlie climbed in afterwards holding him down under the tent sheet. His barks became muffled. I jumped back again onto the driving seat and we pushed the two snowmobiles to their limits to try and find the mother. The terrain was fairly flat, but with small undulations created by the sea ice, making the ride at full speed quite bumpy. I looked back at my precious load continuously afraid that the bumpy ride will hurt our bear or enable him to escape. Even though the mother bear was well out of sight following her was quite easy once we had located her tracks. She had travelled a fair distance, covering over 10km in the hour or so since we had last seen her.
As we approached, the mother heard the machines, and started sprinting away at full speed. We swapped snowmobiles so that Billie could bring the snowmobile with the baby bear closer. I watched as they approached to within a few hundred metres of the mother, and quickly tried to release the baby bear. He got caught up in the guide ropes and there was a tense moment as we watched the mother disappearing away and the baby bear unable to disentangle himself whilst being within easy biting distance of Charlie and Billie. After a frantic pulling of the guide ropes he became free and quickly ran away – in the wrong direction. Billy chased him trying to force him in the right direction. But two human legs once again failed against four bear legs and he could not keep up. We could only watch. After running away in a panic he saw his mother who was now half way up a valley edge about 2km away and followed. He moved towards her, his barks becoming fainter with the distance he got away from us. Though we were a few kilometers from the mother we decided to move further back to allow her to relax. Turning back to watch from a safe distance we saw the mother stop and hearing her cub’s cries waited at her vantage point up the valley wall. The baby bear, with his cute shuffle, caught up with his sibling and together they climbed the hill after their mother. We turned away as we saw the three of them crossing the slope together, the mother walking in front, and the two cubs not far behind.
It was a happy reunion and one which we sheepishly celebrated. It was a situation that we had created and one that would not have occurred had our desire to see these fantastic creatures been satisfied by seeing them from a distance. We, as individuals and as a species, have a responsibility to wildlife and must recognise the effects of our actions. Even though I was thoroughly thrilled to have been so close to a wild polar bear I was sorry that this situation had emerged, and I hope that there were no long-lasting negative repercussions of the baby bear’s proximity to us humans.