The ice looks to be fairly good this year across much of the arctic and most reports are of a late spring (there was just a blizzard in Churchill yesterday…) so that’s more good news for the bears.
There is a nice ‘floe edge’ near Churchill right now, some pictures of seals basking in the sun are floating around. At this time for year, seals both will haul out on the ice to warm up in the sunlight. They get a bit of momentum heading up to their breathing hole and then scramble up onto the sea ice, crawling and scratching their way out of the water. Sometimes this even leaves blood marks as it seems to be a bit of an effort.
On top, they sleep in short cycles, always peering around to look for predators, then dozing off. They repeat this for most of the day. For the most part, they shuffle and ‘hop’ their way back to the breathing hole when you approach but some either young or mothers with young ones stay a bit longer. You can notice the moms as they still appear wary and not only look around but also down, usually at their cub just under the horizon in a snow cave. This snow cave seems to have one or two ‘chambers’ and a breathing hole sometimes doubling as an escape route.
Seals keep a series of breathing holes open under the snowdrifts. Rough ice or jumbled ice collects snow during the winter storms and this snow, in turn, is used by seals as extra protection from bears as well as some insulation from the elements – making it easier to keep the holes open through the winter.
You will find most ‘basking seals’ on flat floe ice or a fairly open area with good sight lines while most dens/breathing holes are along pressure ridges or rough ice. This ‘rough ice’ can simply be a 4′ high ridge or 10-12′ of tumbling ice, where one ice floe essentially grinds against another much like tectonic plates.
Bears, for their part, simply walk along these ridges and cracks, smell for seals and then break through the snowdrifts with a heavy pounce. They quickly dig to the ice, trying to trap the young seal, getting between them and their escape. The snow can be so deep that only the bears butt and hind legs remain visible.
A few of the older hunters in Ulukhaktok had an interesting idea about polar bear scars. In Churchill, the scars on polar bears are generally chalked up to ‘battlescars’ from males fighting over mates or females defending their cubs. Up there, they believe its more derived from chasing seals.
Once the bear gets close to a seal or breaks through the den, they move quickly, sometimes sticking their hole head into the seal breathing hole (or at least trying). The jagged ice is thought to leave a scar on their face or nose occasionally. It would kind of explain why so many scars are perfectly straight while others, more likely battle scars, are a bit more ‘war-like’.
You could even explain the fact that males generally have more scars in the sense that they hunt through the winter more often than females and, likely encounter worse ice conditions (heavier ice) more often than females. Just a thought.
This, of course, is not to say that polar bears do not end up with battle scars. There are stories of Inuks staying in their camp during a whiteout near Wynniatt Bay and hearing two males battling on the ice during mating season. They could not see them but herd their impact of their blows and their heavy breathing as the fight continued on for some time. Pretty cool.
Kelsey Eliasson's book Polar Bears of Churchill and blog, Polar Bear Alley>, draw on his years of experience working with polar bears in the North. He wrote about Churchill's enigmatic Brian Ladoon for the April/May issue of Up Here.