Polar Bears: What December Brings

Posted at 5:18 pm December 6, 2010 by JoAnne Simerson

A young male polar bear is trapped in ice slush.

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International. This was my 10th year of doing so, and, as many of you know, I have seen dramatic changes in the environment and animals that live there in just this decade. This year has provided the shortest ice season in recorded time: the polar bears lost a full nine weeks of hunting time. The water and air temperatures for November and December continue to be above normal, delaying the formation of ice again this year. The polar bears have been hunting during low tide and have been fortunate to occasionally find harbor seals resting among the rocks. The bears must be vigilant that they return to the shore before the tide rushes in.

The bear at rest after escaping the slush.

I watched with great awe as a young male polar bear learned the hard way that the fast-moving tide with newly formed slush ice can be a life-or-death moment. This moment lasted over two hours for him. At great distance we saw this bear struggling to swim back in to safety. The combination of current and heavy ice slush proved to be an admirable preventer. At times his head disappeared under the surface as he rested. Just as I thought the worst, his head would come up again, and he would make a supreme effort to pick his massive paw, covered in ice, out of the water and push himself forward.

The exhausted bear

Eventually, he made it to ice he could crawl across. At well over two hours of enormous effort he reached solid ice. He lay still for a few minutes and then joyously began to dry off, giving an amazingly animated show of rubbing and rolling. Off he then went to cruise the coastline, still in the hunt for food and survival. He seemed to be teaching us that this is now everyday life for our ice bears when the ice is not forming as it should. How many are not making it back to solid footing? This young male polar bear’s effort to survive makes our effort to conserve seem so minimal.

After resting, he dries off in the snow.

The forecast for the Hudson Bay: a thin ledge of ice should be formed by mid- December.

What does December bring for our polar bears in San Diego? Unfortunately, it does not look like the pitter patter of tiny paws will be filling our ears. Although we were all so hopeful, it looks like we’ll be repeating this process next year. Our girl Chinook has become very active and is spending lots of time playing in back and looking longingly over at her two buddies Kalluk and Tatqiq. We did another ultrasound exam this week and found a very healthy girl but no sign of cubs. So we are now looking to reintroduce our fabulous trio very soon. Putting such large bears together does not come without risk. The introductions and the time they spend together will be determined by their behavior. But if the interactions they have been having in the back area are any indicator, our three will be very happy to have each other to cavort with. We have some fun new balls for play, and we will continue to rotate the three in combinations throughout the day.

Of course, Kalluk and Tatqiq will have to now share their mulch piles with Chinook—please excuse the dirt-filled water! (Thanks, Water Quality Team for keeping the filtration running so well!) Keep watching Polar Cam to stay up to date on how it’s going. Just think, breeding season is just around the corner. Here we go again!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: The Latest.

Note: Be sure to click on each image to enlarge it!

Join JoAnne on the next San Diego Zoo WorldWild Tour to Churchill this fall!

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22 Responses to “Polar Bears: What December Brings”

  1. barbara says:

    Ms. Simerson,

    We are glad your back at the plunge, I know you must be disapointed about chinook but like you said there always next year just think all the fun will have watching and wondering about little cubs! Your story about the bear stuck in the icey slush broke my heart I was so glad it had a happy ending it must be very hard for people watching not able to intervene and help the bears. This morning a I watched a show on the Churchhill bears they said that the polar bear were comming into town and eating out of the garbage. again my heart broke atleast they dont shoot them any longer they go to polar bear jail for thirty days then they are helicoptered far way from town. My question to you is does a mother polar bear always have her cubs with her when she hunts what happens if a mom goes to town to search for food and shes caught what about her cubs would they end up alone like Kalluk, Tatqiq, and Chinook? You know its not the bears fault they look for food in the wrong places they can not catch there food in the wild because of the ice not doing what it is supposed to because of what we have done the the earth I’m not a scholar but something must be done to preserve what we have left I would hope future generations would be able to see them in their natural habitat not just in zoos .Not that here is any thing wrong with zoos (Look at the plunge) What a wonderfull home they have and all the people that love and care for them I will see you the gang in Febof 2011 looking forward to spending time with the most lovable three bear in the whole world welcome home JoAnne. Barbara

  2. Aunt Nancy says:

    JoAnne, welcome back & thanks for the update. How painful & helpless you must have felt watching that polar bear who was trapped in the ice slush! I’m so glad everything turned out okay.

    I can’t wait to see our three bears romping around, and playing together again. It’s suppose to be a nice weekend so I may just have to come spend the day, and hang out w/them. Also, I’ve got a new camera I need to break in. Will they all be together on exhibit by then?

    Moderator’s note: Keepers will see how the introductions go, but please come visit and say hello to our bears!

  3. JoGGer says:

    Come on JoAnne I think its about time to contemplate the possibility of introducing Tatqiq to a bit of ‘romantic’ interest 😛

  4. cindy in KC says:

    wow! what a story! I got tired just reading about the poor bear who was swimming for his life! 🙂

    Maybe ‘love is in the air’ this spring! 🙂

  5. JoGGer says:

    …or maybe getting Kalluk a ‘harem’ of gorgeous female bears to play with :D…..

  6. Steve in Denver says:

    JoAnne…Thank you for all you do with the bears. You are amazing! I’m sure everyone shares my excitement in having our trio back together although a little sad that there will be no cubs. At least we have next year to look forward to. Happy Holidays from all of us in Colorado to you and the whole staff at SDZ!

  7. Janice Hunter says:

    I know that the keepers must have checked Kalluk to make sure that he has viable sperm.

    Is there some reason or reasons that Chinook would not get pregnant? Could she possibly be sterile?

    Bai Yun, the Giant Panda, seems to get pregnant easily and I wonder if there is a great difference in the breeding and conception in polar bears.

  8. Marie says:

    JoAnne, Thank you for all you do with the bears.

    This may be a silly question, but Chinook has been with T&K before, and for years, so why is putting her back with them cause for concern? Surely they couldn’t have forgotten one another in the few months that she’s been on her own?

  9. hank perry says:

    JoAnne, an excellent account. I was just in Churchill with Natural Habitat, and it is true there has been substantial change since my first trip there 10 years ago. My 3 minute video is up at naturalrealmtravel.com and offers some comments along with photos and video. Thanks for your work!

    hank perry

  10. Diane in Victoria says:

    Polar bears are notoriously hard to breed in zoos, maybe for reasons that only they know. Kalluk and Chinook did only go through the one breeding period, in February as I recall. There might be some clue there as to why no cubs resulted. It is interesting, however, that Chinook’s body seems to go through all the preparations, even when there are no cubs. Or maybe there were cubs, but for some reason her body decided not to go forth with the fertilized eggs. Maybe some internal signal. Certainly it was not for lack of expertise or loving care.

    As for the bear trapped on in the slush, I’m sure it was a cliffhanger, but I also think we sometimes underestimate the resilience of the bears. He made it and learned a lesson, but it’s a dangerous age for his generation. Many sub-adults die before they learn these lessons.

    For Barbara above: A mother polar bear who leaves her cubs runs of big risk of seeing them preyed upon by other bears. Successful mothers are ultra-protective for a good reason.

  11. Susan(UK) says:

    My heart sank when I saw the first picture. But then I was so glad when the polar bear managed to break free from the slush. It seems to be colder in the Scottish Highlands in the UK than in the Arctic at the moment.

    I am looking forward to seeing Chinook back with her friends again. And welcome back JoAnne.

  12. barbara says:

    Thank you Diane # 10

    Like I said I’m no scholar. I went to Brooks Fall National Park to watch the grizzlys catch salmon the mothers were fishing and the cubs were not that close to them they played while there mothers fished then mom would bring them fish thats why I thought momma polar bears would hunt for food and bring it to her cubs like the grizzlys Im sure they kept them within eye sight but to me they looked far away at times thanks for your comment. I guess i never really thought about the dangers of little ones as a matter of fact every picture Ive seen of momma polar bears their cubs are always found by there moms. Barbara

  13. JoGGer says:

    I just wish someone would fund UK zoos to keep polar bears, what use is a zoo without the worlds largest land carnivore ?? Fortunately the ever excellent cam from San Diego offers some consolation…I’d really miss my daily look ins on Kalluk and co and being able to post on the blog.

  14. Debi says:

    Welcome back, Jo-Anne and thank you for the update from the north. Thank goodness that bear survived the ordeal, but a sad testimony to the times. I live in New England and our blasts of cold air come from the arctic. This past week has been quite cold so I am hoping it will speed up the ice formation. I am sorry about Chinook not being pregnant, but maybe the third time is the charm? 🙂 It certainly is not far away. For now I hope that all three are able to connect with each other happily, have a snow day and enjoy some quality play time. A good sign that she is looking wistfully at the others and showing signs of wanting to interact. I always love watching them. I think running that cam is the best job imaginable! I could easily sit all day watching them and following them around the plunge or dreamily wiling the day away in deep slumbers!

  15. Sue Martz says:

    Holy cow JoAnne, that was one heck of an effort. I enlarged the pictures on my computer and saw up close the bear in the slush and the water not far behind. Thank goodness for the size of his paws to help get him out of the slush. We signed up for the trip to Churchill next fall, I’ve wanted to do this trip for a while now. Too bad about Chinook but maybe next year. And, welcome back!

    Moderator’s note: You’ll have a great time in Churchill with JoAnne as your tour escort, Sue! For others interested in signing up for this tour, click here…

  16. JoAnne Simerson says:

    #1 barbara

    Mother polar bears are some of the most dedicated mothers around. The cubs are always near. The conservation officers in Churchill are well trained to help keep Mom and cubs together, whether it is at capture time in town, housing in the polar bear compound, or flying out by helicopter to get out to the ice. The hope is that the cubs don’t learn that people provide food, which is typically not nutritious for a polar bear, and quickly learn that the ice is the best place for a good meal.

    #7 Janice Hunter

    We have so much still to learn about pregnancy in polar bears. At this point we have no reason to believe that Kalluk and Chinook could not produce cubs. Maybe we just need to cross our fingers harder next year!

    #8 Marie

    You’re right, they would not have forgotten each other. When dealing with animals we never take anything for granted, even good relationships in the past. But as you may have seen they are all doing very well together after yesterday’s introduction!

  17. cindy in KC says:

    All 3 bears out swimming and ‘wassling’. Fantastic! 🙂

  18. Susan(UK) says:

    How lovely to see all three bears out together, splashing around.

  19. Bon says:

    Thank you JoAnne & all the helpers/staff who take care of our bears! I was so happy to see Chinook back..she looks happy! Today all playing in the plunge! Happy lil’ campers!!!! 🙂

  20. Debi says:

    Oh, are they back together again? I missed it! Right now I am watching one bear having a rather alluring back rub against a palm or something that smells good on the ledge area!

  21. Marie says:

    Thanks JoAnne. I missed yesterday’s intro! 🙁

  22. Ellen says:

    oh great!! I’m glad they are all back together again!