Polar Bears: What December Brings

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A young male polar bear is trapped in ice slush.

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International. This was my 10th year of doing so, and, as many of you know, I have seen dramatic changes in the environment and animals that live there in just this decade. This year has provided the shortest ice season in recorded time: the polar bears lost a full nine weeks of hunting time. The water and air temperatures for November and December continue to be above normal, delaying the formation of ice again this year. The polar bears have been hunting during low tide and have been fortunate to occasionally find harbor seals resting among the rocks. The bears must be vigilant that they return to the shore before the tide rushes in.

The bear at rest after escaping the slush.

I watched with great awe as a young male polar bear learned the hard way that the fast-moving tide with newly formed slush ice can be a life-or-death moment. This moment lasted over two hours for him. At great distance we saw this bear struggling to swim back in to safety. The combination of current and heavy ice slush proved to be an admirable preventer. At times his head disappeared under the surface as he rested. Just as I thought the worst, his head would come up again, and he would make a supreme effort to pick his massive paw, covered in ice, out of the water and push himself forward.

The exhausted bear

Eventually, he made it to ice he could crawl across. At well over two hours of enormous effort he reached solid ice. He lay still for a few minutes and then joyously began to dry off, giving an amazingly animated show of rubbing and rolling. Off he then went to cruise the coastline, still in the hunt for food and survival. He seemed to be teaching us that this is now everyday life for our ice bears when the ice is not forming as it should. How many are not making it back to solid footing? This young male polar bear’s effort to survive makes our effort to conserve seem so minimal.

After resting, he dries off in the snow.

The forecast for the Hudson Bay: a thin ledge of ice should be formed by mid- December.

What does December bring for our polar bears in San Diego? Unfortunately, it does not look like the pitter patter of tiny paws will be filling our ears. Although we were all so hopeful, it looks like we’ll be repeating this process next year. Our girl Chinook has become very active and is spending lots of time playing in back and looking longingly over at her two buddies Kalluk and Tatqiq. We did another ultrasound exam this week and found a very healthy girl but no sign of cubs. So we are now looking to reintroduce our fabulous trio very soon. Putting such large bears together does not come without risk. The introductions and the time they spend together will be determined by their behavior. But if the interactions they have been having in the back area are any indicator, our three will be very happy to have each other to cavort with. We have some fun new balls for play, and we will continue to rotate the three in combinations throughout the day.

Of course, Kalluk and Tatqiq will have to now share their mulch piles with Chinook—please excuse the dirt-filled water! (Thanks, Water Quality Team for keeping the filtration running so well!) Keep watching Polar Cam to stay up to date on how it’s going. Just think, breeding season is just around the corner. Here we go again!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: The Latest.

Note: Be sure to click on each image to enlarge it!

Join JoAnne on the next San Diego Zoo WorldWild Tour to Churchill this fall!