WWF’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 and live the life of a polar bear biologist.
By Geoff York
We awake to some very light snow, just enough to help obscure older tracks, but not so much as to keep us on the ground. Our plan is to search to the east northeast up to the Canadian border.
Just to give you an idea of the typical day in the life of a field biologist: we start the day about half past 6 AM and need to be ready to load the helicopter by 9 AM, weather permitting. The typical day includes about ten hours out on the ice, including one refueling stop. We generally land between around 8-9 PM, unload the helicopter, clean and dry gear, eat dinner, and enter data. Our days end around 11 PM, later if we capture a large number of bears. This is the routine for the duration of the field season except for weather days, so 12 hour work days are the norm and there are no scheduled weekends!
About 35 miles to the east northeast, we encounter a family group, but the sow is not reacting normally. As we circle around to get a better perspective and load a dart, the sow is just pacing with her coy. We soon see the problem- she has a second coy who has not survived and is lying frozen nearby. The mother is clearly reluctant to leave, though her condition also looks suspect. Once we have her and the remaining cub safely sedated, we understand what has happened. The female is one of the thinnest George or I have seen in a combined two decades of capture experience. If she does not find prey soon, she will not survive, nor will her remaining cub. It could be that she just drew the short straw this year as nature is not forgiving, but the USGS team will also scrutinize her samples for signs of stress or disease. We depart this group in a very somber mood. Polar bear cub survival in this part of the world has declined from about 60% survival to as low as 40% in recent years. Cubs are routinely lost in the first year; we just rarely witness the actual death in the field.
After we refuel, we begin searching to the northwest. We continue our work and encounter a breeding pair just as we started searching back towards Barter Island. We are a bit surprised to encounter little to no ringed or bearded seal activity since arriving in the east. The ice is still very tight in this area with few leads, so we hope they are present, but just using lairs (simple snow caves built in areas of active ice) beneath the snow. It is also unusual to have covered so much area and so many tracks without coming across a single kill.
WWF’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.