wild polar bears


Climate Change: Polar bears, Sea Ice, and Beyond

Kalluk enjoys last year's snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Kalluk enjoys last year’s snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Climate change is back in the news and, unfortunately, the news has not been good. A number of recent reports indicate that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has reached unprecedented levels. At over 400 parts per million, we have reached a number that would have seemed unimaginable just decades ago. But while the scale of this problem is immense, the real power for changing the current trend is within each of us. The choices we make—what we buy, how we spend our time—can lead to dramatic differences in our carbon footprint. It is possible to reverse the current trend if we all commit to changing our daily habits.

There is a vast array of information now available that outlines the many-faceted ways that the changing climate will impact people and ecosystems all over the world. From extreme weather to climate warming, the reach of climate change is broad. And the reason our climate is changing is known: human activities have driven the release of unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that effectively blankets the Earth, increasing the amount of heat that stays in our atmosphere. And while we typically associate carbon dioxide emissions with the burning of fossil fuels, such as gas and coal, there are other sources as well that are not as well known. One of the largest contributors to atmospheric carbon is deforestation. Each year, the burning and clearing of tropical forests contributes over 2 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere.

At the San Diego Zoo, our mission is to connect people to wildlife because that connection can be a powerful force for conservation. I can speak from personal experience as to the power of that connection. Destined for medical school, my career path shifted dramatically because of a chance connection with wildlife. For me, that connection started with the polar bear, a species whose plight has provided some of the defining images associated with climate change, a species whose future we hold in our hands.

As a graduate student, my first field season was spent working out of a remote field camp on the western Hudson Bay, about 15 miles east of Churchill, Manitoba (a.k.a. the Polar Bear Capital of the World). This area, so nicknamed because of the large number of polar bears that congregate there in the fall, was also home to an incredible array of wildlife, including Arctic nesting birds, large herds of caribou, and beluga whales. While polar bears are most numerous and visible during the fall, the bears actually start coming ashore during the summer as the ice on the Bay begins to melt out, and the bears are forced ashore to begin a long fast.

Our field research was primarily done on foot, with miles and miles of walking over the course of the long Arctic summer days, and the possibility of bumping into a polar bear meant that safety measures were taken seriously and practiced regularly. The most basic and important safety measure we had while walking in the field was to scan the horizon with binoculars every few minute, in hopes of spotting any polar bears in the vicinity while they were still a good distance away. On the day I saw my first bear, it was relatively early in the season for polar bears, but the ice had begun to break up on the Bay, a harbinger of polar bears to come. Scan after scan, I saw nothing and continued with my work. And then suddenly, I looked up, and saw a young male bear easily without binoculars, less than 50 feet away. How long had he been following me? Luckily, I was able to make my way safely back to camp. And while it was truly scary to see a bear so close, it was also an event that left an enormous impression on me. It initiated my love of the species and cemented my passion for conserving wildlife and wild places.

Around that same time (the mid-1990s), biologists studying polar bears in the Canadian Arctic documented changes that were occurring within that population of polar bears. These scientists found that reductions in reproductive parameters were correlated with the warming air temperatures that had been documented between 1950 and 1990 and, most importantly, with an increasingly long period where the Hudson Bay was ice free. Because polar bears are completely dependent upon the sea ice for their survival, the directional trend toward less and less ice was of great concern. Twenty years later, I am happy to say that the polar bear is one of the species that I get to study, but saddened to say that the Earth’s CO2 emissions have continued to increase and that the impacts of climate change on polar bears have intensified. No other species better illustrates the impact of climate change on wildlife. Like a real-life version of the game “Break the Ice,” the polar bear’s habitat is disappearing, the ice literally melting at their feet. Their fate is in our hands.

Chinook and Kalluk have been breeding for the past couple of weeks, and we are hopeful, as in years past, that this breeding season will result in the birth of a polar cub in the fall. We will monitor Chinook closely for behavioral and physiological signs of pregnancy and learn as much as we can about the reproductive biology of these amazing animals. Keepers, researchers, and visitors alike have an amazing opportunity to observe our bears in the water and on land at the San Diego Zoo, and in so doing, learn about climate change and the impact that this human-driven change is having on wild polar bears and the Arctic sea ice environment. Polar bears exemplify the role of “conservation ambassadors,” and it is hard to deny the impressive nature of their strength, intelligence, and adaptations to life on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Climate change may sound like old news to some. Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes were once a common sight in the popular press, but like most news stories, many people have moved on. Unfortunately, climate change has not gone away, and the negative impacts of sea-ice losses on polar bears continue to eke away at their once-pristine Arctic home. I am hopeful that the reemergence of climate change into the news cycle will invigorate people’s interest in doing their part to reverse the trends in CO2 emissions. I am hopeful also that we all seek those connections to nature and wildlife that are so important for engaging us in conservation issues. We can all make a difference.

For those who love our polar bears, and for those who are interested in learning more about how climate change is impacting the species’ Arctic sea ice habitat, I recommend visiting the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website. This page provides daily updates on sea ice conditions in the polar regions, as well as year by year interactive graphics of the dynamic changes in sea ice extent.

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Our Panda Conservation Program.


Polar Bears: Breeding Season!

Kalluk and the rest of us eagerly await a polar bear cub or two!

We are all on pins and needles to see if the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears, Kalluk and Chinook, will breed this year. They have always been early birds by breeding in March and even as early as February! But normal breeding time for polar bears is April through May and sometimes as late as June, something we won’t even contemplate! From the looks of how flirtatious Chinook has been and how attentive Kalluk seems, our patience should be rewarded.

We are still participating in reproductive studies looking at hormones excreted in the bears’ urine and feces, but for the most part we still rely on behavior observations. One of the very interesting behaviors we see is with Chinook. Typically, a week before actual breeding and continuing right up to actual, we see her have seizure-like spasms followed by weakness in her back legs. The spasms last only seconds and the weakness only a few minutes. If you don’t know what these are, they can be very scary to see!

But there is no need to worry: Chinook is not alone with these. Most of the other breeding female polar bears show the same behavior. I have asked polar bear biologists who have spent many years observing bears in the Arctic and have sent them video of the process, and they are mystified as to its purpose. Perhaps it plays some role in preparing a female’s legs to hold the male during breeding, since males are usually twice the size, and she may bear his weight for long moments. In the last week we have seen Chinook have these spasms, and over the last few days they have increased both in frequency and intensity. This should be a sign that we are almost there!

We all know what follows: waiting to see if Chinook becomes pregnant and gives birth. I have been getting lots of experience working with polar bear cubs over the last few years since Kalluk and Tatqiq joined us as cubs in 2001. I have just returned from a second visit with Siku, the polar bear cub born at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park in Denmark. My first visit was to share what we learned in preparing our polar bear youngsters for life in San Diego. Siku still was not yet walking then and was not quite 13 weeks old. On my recent trip, Siku was now 21 weeks and was walking, running, swimming, and being overall an adorable monster!

Since Siku’s mom did not produce milk, the decision was made to hand raise him, which meant having close contact with him (not a problem when his fastest speed was a quick crawl!). He is now rambunctious and, as polar bears need to do, he is jumping, grabbing, and mouthing everything and everyone in sight. Mom polar bears are well equipped to handle this; human caregivers, not so much!

This trip was to help the team in Denmark move ahead with management that increases Siku’s independence and encourages his natural instincts as a polar bear. He did extremely well with every challenge of independence. You can imagine how difficult it is, though, for the team who has been caring for him all these months to see that maybe he didn’t need them as much anymore, or at least not in the same ways. I must say how proud I was to assure them and show them the close ties we have with our three polar bears and how much that strengthens when you’re not worried about when the next play jump comes from a now 60-pound and often wet white ball of teeth and claws! All meant in fun, but still dangerous for fragile humans!

Siku has lots of toys to encourage his natural learning behavior and is getting plenty of opportunities to learn with his training sessions. At 21 weeks, he has already learned several important behaviors from his keepers such as “sit,” “stand,” “down,” “shift,” “come,” and how to sit on a scale.

In choosing his name, thought was given to the chance to represent wild polar bears and the people who share the Arctic. Siku is from the Inuit language for sea ice. Siku will remind everyone that we are losing our arctic ice due to warming trends in our climate.  Science has proven this warming is caused by the increase of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. Siku and our three polar bears, Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq, are ambassadors who remind all of us of their wild cousins and that we must make changes to help save their arctic home.

As you enjoy watching and hearing about these great ice bears, please keep in mind everything you can do to help. Then do it!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Back to 3.

UPDATE: Two days after this was written, Kalluk and Chinook began breeding. November 2 is the first possible day of birth if Chinook is pregnant! The waiting begins. . .


Polar Bears: What December Brings

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!


Wind, Snow, and Polar Bears

Two young males sparring.

Megan is reporting from Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Returning to the Polar Bears.

There are beautiful, calm, sunny days up here where you start to believe that you might begin to master the art of living in the polar bear’s Arctic home. But then, out of nowhere, the weather moves in. Of course the weather up here has any number of combinations of cold, rain, snow, and wind. And what really keeps you on your toes is that it can turn on a dime, leaving you feeling hopelessly ill-equipped to stand outside, even for a few minutes.

After we left our base camp at the Tundra Buggy Lodge® this morning, we quickly realized that the blue sky of the previous day was not going to be peeking out from behind the thick clouds overhead this morning. How would this weather impact the polar bears in the area? Would mothers and cubs still be out and about? Or would they be hunkering down in the willow shrubs, staying warm and conserving energy?

As we slowly drive along, the wet falling snow that we see outside isn’t really falling: it is passing by our buggy window at a perfectly horizontal trajectory. It is blowing up here! Winds are gusting up to 35 miles per hour and that makes the 30-degree-Fahrenheit (11.1 degrees Celsius) weather feel a heck of a lot colder! Stepping outside to see the bears takes a touch more coaxing in this wind, but seeing their beautiful faces, completely unperturbed by weather, brings us right on out. We have been watching a pair of bears for a few days now. We are not exactly sure “who” they are: our best guess is a pair of 3-year-old male brothers that haven’t yet moved on to their solitary adult lives. But we don’t know for sure. Most bears that you see this time of year out here are hunkering down in the willows, conserving their energy and moving slowly, if at all, from here to there. These two, however, have been sparring for the last few days, pretty much nonstop. They appear to think that they have energy to spare!

Watching these two bears sparring like a pair of well-fed Sumo wrestlers, it is easy to think that all is well for the polar bear. But these two young bears have very little experience, and they are certainly not of reproductive age. Polar bear reproduction requires energy—stored energy, and lots of it.

It is reassuring to see the snow begin to blanket the tundra. Not only does it look beautiful, but it also leaves us optimistic that the Hudson Bay will begin its annual freeze, sooner than later. Once the Bay freezes, the bears that are congregating here will all head out onto the sea ice in search of their first meal in months. Climate change has pushed the sea ice melt in the summer earlier and earlier, which effectively shortens the hunting season for polar bears and extends the length of their summer fast. This shortening of the hunting season is really hard on the bears and can threaten the ability of some female bears to reproduce successfully.

So, although it is nice to be outside on a calm, temperate day here, it feels even better to have the fall weather move in, hopefully bringing with it winds from the north and cooler temperatures. The sea ice is the polar bear’s home, and we know that they are anxious and ready to get back out there.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Teen Arctic Ambassador: Day 2

The second wild polar bear Rachel saw

Rachel is the San Diego Zoo’s 2010 Teen Arctic Ambassador. She is sharing what she learns at Polar Bears International’s Teen Leadership Camp. Read her previous post, Teen Arctic Ambassador: Day 1.

Imagine yourself in one of the most isolated places on Earth, where trees struggle to grow against the harsh arctic conditions. The wind blows across the ancient permafrost layers, and the majestic apex predator, the polar bear, roams free.

Our adventure began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where teens from around the world met up to begin our mission of environmental stewardship. Our initial action project was focused on societal influence, where we participated in the 350.org 10/10/10 campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of atmospheric carbon levels above 350 parts per million. After listening to previous Arctic Ambassadors, we realized our full potential to make a difference to our planet’s environment. With those enthusiastic thoughts, we went to bed early, eager to begin our adventures in Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

This morning we woke up 4:30 to catch our flight to Churchill. We were too excited to catch up on any sleep or jetlag on the flight and instead enjoyed a spectacular sunrise. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the fresh arctic morning chill and were escorted to our Tundra Buggy® for the day. Before we knew it, we were encountering our first wild polar pear.

Most of the Teen Arctic Ambassadors

This experience can be described with a myriad of emotions such as: enlightening, awe-inspiring, beautiful, connected, inspirational, overwhelming. Words just cannot describe the power and magnitude of this encounter. Arctic biodiversity also included sightings of ptarmigan, snow buntings, falcons, and snow geese.
This experience could not have been possible without the generous support from Four Points Sheraton, Winnipeg, Calm Air, Frontiers North Adventures, and Parks Canada.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

From the Orange Team: Grant, Gus, Olivia, Simon, Brian, and Rachel. Read posts from the other teen ambassadors.


More Arctic Ambassador Adventures

Hali attended Keeper Leadership Camp, sponsored by Polar Bears International, in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Eye to Eye with Wild Polar Bears.

After spending what we thought was an unstoppable day on the tundra viewing a mother polar bear and her two cubs, the next day proved us wrong. This time we again saw a polar bear off in the distance of our lodge early in the morning. This bear had no interest in coming any closer, which was perfectly fine with us. Taking in the beautiful colors of the sunrise as we headed out on the Tundra Buggy for the day was enough. However, we were in for quite a surprise!

A bit into our trip, we encountered our mother polar bear and her cubs, so we decided to stop for awhile and see what would happen. Another Tundra Buggy with guests had also stopped, and the bear family had some interest in them. We watched in amazement as the bears slowly inched their way toward them, seemingly headed by one brave cub. The mama was relaxed and allowed her baby to approach the buggy, sniff the tires, stand up to get a better look at the people, and then go back to Mom and sibling to roll around in the scrub brush. A little time later, we got our turn! This time, both cubs decided we were interesting enough to explore and came over to us. NOTHING can describe how I felt looking into a young polar bear cub’s eyes: dark pools of curiosity, completely unaware of the human impact on his simple, yet complex environment. Soon after, mama bear settled down and nursed her two cubs with all of us watching in amazement. The tenderness she exhibited as she caressed her two children was very human-like, and again the tears came a-pouring!

Polar bears are dependent upon sea ice to survive. This specialized apex predator of the Arctic hunts ringed seals and bearded seals by waiting at seal breathing holes from their icy platform. No other food provides the necessary fat needed for polar bears to survive the harsh climate. The bears that live on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, are certainly no exception. Because of the currents and fresh water from the many rivers decreasing the salinity of the Hudson Bay, the ice there freezes earliest in the winter and melts the latest in the summer, making it an acceptable environment for the bears to come this far south. During this time when the ice has melted, the bears seek land, where they fast for the months until the ice forms again.

The bears of Hudson Bay are adapted to this normal fasting period of two to three months (six months for a denning female) and live off of the fat they accumulated while living on the sea ice during the winter. However, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been steadily increasing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, which is warming the Earth and this is causing the ice to melt sooner and refreeze later. Since the late 1980s, the polar bears of Hudson Bay have experienced a one-week decrease in the presence of their sea ice per decade; this amounts to a 22 percent decrease in the ice and also a 22 percent decrease in the polar bear population. And the ice that is freezing each winter is getting smaller. As the water temperature rises, the ice will eventually not refreeze at all in the Hudson Bay, and that will mean no more polar bears there.

Over 90 percent of today’s scientists agree that the increase in global warming is human caused. A certain amount of greenhouse gases are natural and are necessary to keep our planet warm; it’s just that when you exceed the amount that our atmosphere can release naturally, they get trapped and cause all the trouble. The fundamental laws of physics state that the release of carbon into the atmosphere is causing our planet to warm up. As we warm, the ice melts in the Arctic, causing polar bears to lose their hunting ground. While on land, the bears lose an average of 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) a day, so the longer the bears have to wait to eat, the thinner they become.

Female polar bears of good condition weigh between 440 and 660 pounds (200 and 300 kilograms). A bear that has successfully mated will not produce cubs if her body condition isn’t capable of handling another bout of fasting as she enters a den to have her young. Since polar bears experience delayed implantation, her body will reabsorb the fertilized egg if she isn’t physically able to bring the cubs to maturation. Scientists have concluded that a female bear must weigh at least 400 pounds (180 kilograms) in order to produce cubs. Doing the math, one can see that waiting longer and longer to eat will decrease cub births and expedite a population decrease.

The lives of polar bears and the survival of the arctic ecosystem is in our hands. This video on the Polar Bears International website shows the decrease in the sea ice in lapsed time. Look at the dates on the upper-right corner of the video to see the years. There were about 1,200 bears living in the Hudson Bay area in 1984, and the last count in 2004 was 935 bears.

No one can predict when the sea ice will be gone for good on the Hudson Bay, but scientists do agree that it will continue to melt if we don’t stop it. As daunting as that thought is, scientists also agree that this can be stopped, and there is great reason to hope if we act NOW! The carbon emissions that our planet can safely handle are 350 PPM (parts per million). We are currently at 380 PPM and steadily climbing. To get this number down to 350, we need to change our lifestyles and all work together toward carbon reduction. There are so many great things we can all do to help the situation, and I plan to address some of them in my next blog post, so please check back. The polar bears are counting on us!

Hali O’Connor is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. You can also read blog posts from the other keepers attending Keeper Leadership Camp.


Polar Bears: Tundra Heartbreak

A large male polar bear out on the tundra.

A large male polar bear out on the tundra.

JoAnne is in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to study polar bears. Read her previous post from the field, Polar Bears: Who Was Your First?

I will open by telling you that this story will break your heart. Please know this will not be easy to read, but it is a story that needs to be told.

On November 20 here in Churchill, just east of Gordon Point, we saw the tragic loss of a 11-month-old cub and the grieving of the loss by its mother. We did not witness the actual death but the aftermath: a young adult female with her cub was attacked by an adult male polar bear. The female lost the battle as the large male overpowered her and killed her cub. Valiantly she charged him and tried to get her cub back, but it was too late.

Soon other bears arrived in the area, but the large male prevailed and began to consume the small body in a hill of willow bushes. Still the mother continued to wander the area with every hope of saving her cub. The male eventually moved the small body out to the coast where the mother had less opportunity to charge him, but he left much of the pelt behind.

 The mother bear carries the pelt from her cub.

The mother bear carries her cub's pelt.

The mother continued to circle the male, risking even more harm from the other bears gathering if not from the male. Eventually she moved back to the willows, desperately searching for her cub. What she found was the pelt. She picked the pelt up in her mouth, carrying it and swinging her head side to side, a behavior that bears do in extreme stress. The mother charged at the other bears, never dropping her precious possession. She wandered in this manner for a long time. We left her at dark still very unsettled, but she had finally placed her cub’s remains near a willow bush, protected from the wind.

It was indeed heartbreaking. We don’t really understand why this sometime happens. But in my nine years of visiting Churchill, it is the first time I have seen this. Many of my colleagues who have been here for decades have not witnessed this. We don’t know why, but this is the third cub death this year caused by another bear. I can only hope this is not a sign of what is to come as we lose yet more ice to our warming climate.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch the San Diego Zoo’s polar trio daily on Polar Cam.


Polar Bears: Who Was Your First?

JoAnne is in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to study polar bears.

I am sitting out in the middle of the Churchill tundra. I am rocking back and forth in a Tundra Buggy as 44 mile-per-hour (70 kilometer-per-hour) winds blow the snow all around. I think back to my first wild polar bear sighting.

It was nine years ago, and I had just arrived to the lodge and had sat down to a nice, warm dinner. A friend I had traveled with whispered in my ear, “Do you want to see your first bear?” I grabbed my camera and ran to the outside deck. It was blowing a gale and the temperature was -20 Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius). There he was: the most incredibly large male polar bear I had ever seen. His head was immense, perhaps two feet wide between his ears, his paws stretched out in front like massive dinner plates; his fur was wooly and thick, but his big gorgeous face had a huge wound where his right eye should have been.

We named him One-eyed Jack. He spent the next few days hanging around resting and waiting for the ice to form out on the Hudson Bay. We got to know each other very well, as he seemed to always come up to my window to see what I was doing. Three days later, the ice was ready and he was off. He simply stood up and began walking north; he briefly stopped and gave me a final nod goodbye. It was bittersweet, as I was sure I would never see my friend again. The eye wound was so serious that none of us thought it possible for him to survive the bitter arctic winter and be able to hunt.

I returned the following year and was watching several young males sparring when all of sudden they stopped. On a snow mound just behind walked an immense male bear. He was thin but walked with massive dinner-plate-sized paws. He had wooly fur, an immense head, and yes, that missing right eye. A friend on another buggy called over the radio “Hey, it’s JoAnne’s Jack!” Jack headed straight over to the window I was watching from, stood up on the side, and showed me the fabulous new “smile” that now replaced his right eye.

For three more years my friend Jack came to visit. Every year he was thin, and we guess he was reaching close to 20 years old the last time he came to say hello. Those last five years would have been spent with just that smile to replace his eye. Jack was a tough boy and such a privilege to know. One–eyed Jack was my first. Who was yours?

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Polar Bears on the Beach?

arctic_buggyDaniel is the San Diego Zoo’s Teen Arctic Ambassador 2009. Read his previous post, Teen Arctic Ambassador Lives Life in the North.

Today we arose to the harmonious singing voice of Robert Buchanan, the president of Polar Bears International and the “Head Bear” of our Leadership Camp. He was singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” The tundra was beautiful, that was true. After a wonderful breakfast, we went onto the Tundra Buggy to explore the wonders of the Arctic for three hours, but we didn’t find anything in the polar bear department. Since we didn’t see anything, we were allowed to get out of the Tundra Buggy and step on the ground. This was huge, since this was the first time we have set foot on the ground since arriving at camp in the Tundra Buggy Lodge.

Since I was coming here from San Diego, I thought I knew what the kelp would look like. Here on the Hudson Bay, it was incredible; it was black, rubbery, and leaf-like, far from the big kelp on the shores of San Diego. Turns out the polar bears like to roll around in the kelp while waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze. That’s why some of our facilitators had to keep an eye out for polar bears sneaking up on us. Still no sign of polar bears, so back to the Lodge for lunch.

We were on our way home (Wow! I am already calling the Tundra Buggy Lodge home!), and some of us (including me) were allowed to drive the buggy.  It was beyond incredible, the size of the buggy. I am only a head taller than the wheel. It was not similar to driving a car. It felt much more powerful, but I felt okay driving it because I didn’t have to worry about hitting anyone, and as long as I stayed on the dirt road, it was easy.

After lunch, we went off again to look for a bear. It turns out that after going about 1,300 feet (400 meters) or so there was a young male taking a nap in the willows. He was a decent-size bear; he was about five years old but he was filled out, definitely well fed. He came over to investigate us and our buggy. At a few feet from the buggy, he was just about 12 or 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) from us since we are up high on the Tundra Buggy. He was so close we could see his ear tags, which meant he had been captured by the scientists who work in this area keeping track of the polar bear population. This bear had some scars on him and a bloody ear, which meant he was probably in some sort of scuffle with another bear around here.

To see all of this detail on a wild bear so close was super inspiring. I have seen the polar bears at the San Diego Zoo probably 1,000 times. And I even had the chance to spend the morning with JoAnne Simerson, the senior polar bear keeper, and the polar bears at the Zoo before I came up here (see JoAnne’s post Polar Bear Happenings). That was awesome, but this was different. Knowing that I was in his wild home made me feel the power of the polar bears. We were just here to watch him do his thing. He didn’t have any fear or even much interest in us. We were just some uninvited guests. And then it struck me, when he came over to look at us: we were in our rolling zoo exhibit and the bear was the curious visitor.


Teen Arctic Ambassador Lives Life in the North

This young male bear hung around our tundra buggy this afternoon

This young male bear hung around our tundra buggy this afternoon

Getting to the Arctic Circle is not easy. When we left San Diego on Sunday, September 27, the weather forecast was predicting highs in the upper 90s. So the hard part started before I even left, having to put warm clothes in a suitcase with such hot weather outside. We stopped in Winnipeg for the first night and then flew onward to Churchill on a small plane that carried 16 of us teen ambassadors from places in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. I am attending Polar Bears International’s Teen Leadership Camp for a week. This cool program is done as a partnership between Polar Bears International and the Arctic Ambassador Center network of zoos that is headquartered at the San Diego Zoo.

Being the Arctic Ambassador from San Diego Zoo means that I get to represent our awesome zoo and city on this adventure in the Arctic. It also means that when I get home, I plan to share my experience with my hometown and hopefully get people to care about polar bears and want to make a difference for them. In the meantime, I will do my best to post photos and notes from the Arctic as long as our Internet on the Tundra Buggy Lodge holds up. It seems crazy that we are out here parked on the edge of the Arctic Ocean and it seems like we should be disconnected from the world but, as long as it’s not too windy or snowy, we have a microwave feed going to town.

Today we saw a cool polar right outside our tundra buggy vehicle. He was technically the third bear we have seen in the two days we have been here but the other two were at more of a distance. A small bear, probably two years old, was walking down the road in front of our vehicle as we traveled to the Lodge. It ran off into the willows near another larger bear, maybe its mom.

Teen Arctic Ambassador Daniel Straub learns to scare away polar bears by making noise shooting blanks

The author learns to scare away polar bears by making noise shooting cracker shells.

On Monday, when we arrived in Churchill, we had some really exciting experiences. I touched the Arctic Ocean and then ran away from the cold water. Definitely NOT Pacific Beach in August. We also met with some Manitoba Conservation officers at the bear detention center and they told us about their amazing program for darting and keeping “trouble bears.” They don’t want to have to catch them, so the first thing they do is try to scare them aware from the town of Churchill by shooting cracker shells and screamers into the air. It just sounds like fireworks, but it’s scary enough for some bears and they run off. The officers gave a few of us the chance to try out the cracker pistol. I gave it a shot.

Daniel Straub is the San Diego Zoo’s 2009 Teen Arctic Ambassador.