Expedition Report: Belugas and Polar Bears Paradise

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29th August 2016, by Meret, Noe and Alegra

Some days we maybe see a bird or two, maybe not even that. Today, however was marked by wildlife. It all started in the morning, a very foggy morning. Suddenly, a bird appeared circling our boat a few times. It was a fulmar, a northern fulmar. As soon as it had disappeared the next appeared and the next and the next. Some soared around our boat as if to say hello and then vanished into the fog, other just sat on the surface floating along alone or in small groups. The water today was so clear and calm we could see their white feathers and poop floating by. Remarkably, there was even kelp the occasional kelp. For some reason we had all thought there wouldn’t be any seaweed up here, assuming the same decrease in vegetation as on land.
For hours, there was what looked like the arch of a rainbow ahead of us. Only, it was completely white. Was that because of the cold? Was it even a rainbow, could that be? It’s quickly gotten a lot colder, the sea jumped to -5 degrees and the air is 0 without adding the windchill factor.
We were on our way to Coningham Bay, a place recommended to us by Hetairos to see polar bears and belugas. From far away every remotely white spot became a polar bear for the children but as we approached our anchorage, there were indeed many to be seen. Noé summarizes:
“So we anchored in the bay and then we saw at least 10 polar bears and belugas swimming far away. Then we ate lunch and we saw the bears eating too. We looked around and saw a mum with two cubs and we also saw a polar bear resting for two whole hours. One time we saw a really fat big polar bear eating a beluga. Then we went in our dinghy closer to shore to see a smaller bear also eating beluga. Then we did go back and did sail off to the Bellot Strait. We saw birds, lots of birds. They were fulmars, I think.”

Polar bears are thought to be a group of grizzlies that were isolated hundreds of thousand of years ago in Siberia, there they quickly adapted to the harsh conditions and evolved into the iconic white bears, we know today. Special adaptations for the cold climate are features such as large webbed paws, so they don’t sink into the snow and for swimming. They can swim up to 6.5 mph, hence they have the Latin name Ursus maritimus, which means ‘sea bear’ (Dave Smith, Alaska’s Mammals, 1995). In the water their fur gets wet and loses it insulting properties. That’s why they have a thick layer of blubber that keeps their body temperature at a similar level to ours. The blubber keeps the bear so warm, if it runs too much, it can quickly overheat and has to go for a cooling dip in the Arctic sea. The fur of a polar bear may look white but the individual hairs are actually see through and hollow so the air and sunlight can get to their black skin to capture and store as much warmth as possible. Alegra did a presentation on polar bears back in Gjoa Haven. She says everyone needs to know: “They have good good eyes and noses. They can smell us. Their favorite food is ringed seals but the ones today liked belugas more, I think.”

The belugas we only saw from a distance but it looked like they were having a whale of a time splashing about in the shallows. They stayed only in the shallow areas of the bay, so we could not get closer. Noé and I really wanted to go close enough to hear their whistles and calls, that gave them the nickname ‘sea canaries’ (Dave Smith, Alaska’s Mammals, 1995). Maybe next time…
There must have been at least 20-30, maybe more. Though it was hard to see more than a quick flash of white surfacing or the wisp of their spray, we could see some grey young ones in amongst the pod. At times we would see huge amount of splashing, like when salmon try to getup shallow parts of a river, just in a greater scale obviously. They come here in groups to rub their molting skin on the coarse sand in the shallows. As the tide rose, we could spot less and less belugas.
Their name beluga comes from belukha, which means white in Russian. The color white goes hand in hand with their life style in the icy waters. They don’t have a dorsal fin to make navigating through the ice easier. To find their way through the ice they use echolocation. Belugas also have a much more flexible neck than most other cetaceans to aid seeing and movement.

The two shallow banks were once again formed by glaciers dumping their moraines here and are the perfect spot for the molting belugas. However, precisely this is their downfall. Because it is so shallow the polar bears can all but walk up to their prey. Carcasses of belugas line the shore and all the bears we saw had very full bellies. This is what attracts the bears here and keeps them away from their usual summer hunting grounds in the ice. In Gjoa Haven we were told that even humans make use of the aggregations of belugas to hunt them here because it is so easy.

Note: To low signal for sending pictures. We try later again.

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