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Tracking the Beaufort bears: Day 12

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geoffsedativeWWF’s polar bear coordinator, Geoff York, keeps up his field knowledge with trips out onto the ice to check on the condition of the bears. This year, he is keeping a daily blog of his experiences over two weeks. Keep visiting this blog for regular updates, photos, and maybe some video too, and live the life of a polar bear biologist.

By Geoff York

The day dawns brighter and the visibility has improved, but it is still snowing. We prepare for a late departure as we sip our morning drinks and listen to the weather forecast on the radio. The snow is supposed to let up by mid morning, but the winds are to increase to 20 knots from the West. It’s always something as they say.

We get lucky today and launch the helicopter around 11 AM. The wind is already increasing, but the snow has stopped and the visibility is up to about 6 km. We head to the northeast and begin our search. An hour passes without more than an occasional arctic fox track. It is always impressive to see the huge distances these fox cover over the sea ice in search of scavenged meals, often running parallel or directly with polar bear tracks.

About half past 12 we find a very fuzzy looking set of tracks. They are from a family group, but are drifted in and may be old. Having seen little else, we decide to investigate them for a few minutes and they soon lead us to a mother bear with two small cubs of the year. This is likely a family group from one of the two dens we discovered last week as we are fairly close to that location. The female does not react normally- most bears walk away or begin to run while she looks fairly nonplussed by it all. As we circle around her, she actually does two full hunting pounces with her front paws hammering on a suspected seal lair. She even began to lightly dig before deciding she might actually want to move away from the helicopter.

The capture goes smoothly and she is a very good mother and stays close to her cubs. The cubs look good, but are small for this time of year and their mother appears to be quite young and also fairly thin. She has likely not had a meal since last November, but is now out in prime hunting grounds. She is also a new bear for us, so has likely never seen a helicopter before or perhaps even people which also helps explain her initial behavior.

The wind continues to pick up while we are working and snow is starting to drift around our gear. After we have them processed, measured, marked and weighed, we dig out our best imitation of a day bed behind a nice pressure ridge and out of the wind. She only weighs 180 kg, so we easily carry her over in the weighing net then place her cubs snugly against her warm body as we ready to fly away.

We continue hunting to the northwest and encounter what we had hoped to see since arriving- active ice. A lead about two miles across had opened over the past two days and was already starting to refreeze. We follow this to the west as leads often concentrate bear activity, and for good reason, After seeing few seals or signs of seal activity since my arrival. I count over thirty seal breathing holes (holes in the sea ice that ringed and bearded seals maintain) in about as many minutes. We follow the lead for almost an hour without success before needing to head south for fuel. The winds are now blowing a steady 20 knots and we decide to call it a night. Polar bears seem to move less in these conditions and it is no fun working on the ground as the wind chill is bitter.

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