An Arctic Cruise – One of the Best Ways to See Polar Bears in the Summer

The Arctic is synonymous with inaccessibility. Distances are vast. People, towns and cities are few. No roads to speak of. But the wildlife is abundant and the viewing opportunities are unmatched. That is, if you can get there!

Perhaps the best choice for any nature and wildlife enthusiast to go deep into this vast region is to take an Arctic cruise. Ships offer the ultimate in convenience: first off, you are never very far from your hotel. The food is great, so no worries about losing weight. Your fellow passengers are interested in the same things you are (or you wouldn’t be on the boat together!), and you will likely end up best friends with a few of them before the cruise is over.

When choosing a ship for your Arctic cruise, look for one that holds 50 to 100 passengers and is around 75 to 100 meters (250 to 300 feet) in length, and has an ice-strengthened hull. Choose a company that has a reputation for its excellent guides, because not only is your safety in their hands but a good guide can mean all the difference between having lots of shore excursions and chances for great wildlife sightings. In the evening, you can relax with fellow passengers over drinks and listen to fascinating lectures by the ship’s lecture staff.

Avoid if possible larger vessels because such ships will have trouble getting into some coves and must anchor further offshore in deeper water, meaning your ship-to-shore distance will be greater. Also, larger vessels mean more passengers to offload and to contend with when you are ashore.

One excellent expedition-grade vessel for an Arctic cruise is the M/V Plancius, which holds approximately 114 passengers plus crew. The Plancius operates several itineraries in Spitsbergen and Iceland/Greenland during the northern summer and in Antarctica during the southern summer. Spitsbergen is especially known for its large population of polar bears, as well as huge seabird colonies. International Wildlife Adventures offers both Spitsbergen cruises and Greenland cruises aboard the Plancius.

Below is a stunning high-definition video of the Plancius’ Antarctic cruises (Part I) and Arctic cruise (Part II) program. Be sure to click on the full-screen option in the lower right corner of the YouTube video, and check to make sure the resolution is at its highest (720p)!

Churchill Polar Bears and Dogs Playing

Video of Polar Bears and Dogs Playing

 

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Despite their fearsome reputation as “Lords of the Arctic”, killing and eating everything in sight, polar bears have their kinder, gentler side.

A Churchill resident, Brian Ladoon, discovered an aspect of polar bear whimsy when bears began visiting his sled dogs, which are staked out on a lake shore outside of town. Ladoon is working to save the Canadian sled dog breed from extinction, raising and feeding them outdoors to ensure their ruggedness as working dogs in the Arctic.

He feeds them caribou and seal, irresistible morsels for polar bears too. So it was no surprise when bears began showing up to pick over the scraps left by the dogs. But what happened next confounded almost anyone who had ever lived and traveled in the Arctic, always needing to be wary of wandering polar bears.

Polar Bears and Dogs Playing?

One day a bear wandered across the frozen lake to one of Ladoon’s dogs. Instead of threatening the bear or barking, the dog wagged his tail, then dog and bear and touched noses. Another large bear wandered over to another nearby dog and they began to roughhouse like puppies.

Interspecies play is relatively rare, though not unknown. Dogs are well-known social animals, and, until relatively recently, polar bears were thought to be solitary, coming together in maturity only to mate. Anyone who has been to Churchill to view the polar bears can tell you of the playing and sparring that is commonly seen in the fall as the bears wait for Hudson Bay to freeze. But it’s astounding to see polar bears and dogs playing, their mutual rivalries and animosities parked, at least on a small frozen lake near Churchill.

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Current Arctic Sea Ice Resumes Decline

two polar bears

©2011 Randy Green

After slowing in July, the current Arctic sea ice melt-rate has increased, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Current Arctic sea ice levels has profound implications for polar bear habitat.

The NSIDC reports that though the melt-rate is increasing dramatically as of mid-August, the sea ice extent has not reached the record low of 2007. However, the southern route of the Northwest Passage seems to be open and free of ice.

In other measurements, the Arctic se ice volume is estimated to be below 2007 levels, and possibly at record lows. Sea ice volume is estimated using computer models combining sea ice thickness with the area, or extent of  the sea ice.

One reason volume is important is that the thinner the ice cap, the more susceptible the sea ice is to disappearing, should melt rates again be above normal in future summers.

As Arctic sea ice shrinks, it exposes more of the sea surface to solar radiation. Since open water is darker and absorbs the sunlight that would normally reflect from the white ice surface, sea temperatures will rise, further melting the ice. The disappearance of sea ice is thought by many scientists to be a significant factor in increased global warming.

And, when the extent of sea ice diminishes, it removes much of the habitat used by polar bear populations that spend much of their time in the High Arctic. In addition, Arctic sea ice extent affects the entire Arctic ecosystem, including the seal populations upon which the polar bears depend as their main food source.

Read more about current Arctic sea ice conditions at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Knut the Polar Bear Leaves Behind a $140 Million Business

So Knut the polar bear, recently deceased denizen at the Berlin Zoo, supposedly leaves behind a $140 million business.

And I’ll bet he never went to business school.

Knut was born at the zoo in December 2006 and was hand-raised by zookeepers when his mother abandoned him. He quickly became a media star, the public falling in love with his overwhelming cuteness as a cub. He died just this last March from what turned out to be viral encephalitis, or an infection of the brain. He was only four years old (polar bears often live 30 years in captivity).

The 167 year-old Berlin Zoo, listed on the German stock exchange, is a for-profit business and during the few short years that Knut was a star attraction, the zoo took in some $30 million in tickets and other revenue. In fact, Gerald Uhlich, former chief executive of the zoo who helped create the Brand of Knut, judges that Knut the polar bear generated more than $140 million in worldwide business.

The zoo tried to license the Knut brand only to environmentally-sensitive organizations and to help promote awareness of global warming, but Uhlich encouraged the zoo to do more to profit from the home-grown bear. The zoo is reportedly reluctant to do so and Knut the brand may follow Knut the polar bear into the hereafter.

Aside from profiting from a live (or dead, for that matter) bear, the controversy brings up the role of zoos in modern society. Should the Berlin zoo be profiting from Knut the polar bear in death or life? Certainly profits from the brand help the zoo become less dependent on funding from the city of Berlin, its chief benefactor. But does such huge profitability potentially corrupt a zoo’s mission of conservation and education?

What do you think? Should Knut the polar bear be promoted in the afterlife? Leave your comments below.

Funny Bears Have Fun with Camera

 Funny bears have fun with camera

Despite their reputation as dangerous predators to be avoided while on your morning tundra stroll, polar bears can be hilarious when their curiosity is aroused.

The folks at the BBC found this out when they tried to disguise a spy camera to photograph two bears in the wilds of Spitsbergen (Svalbard). The funny bears made short work of the high-tech camera on this You Tube clip.