Polar bear tracks and open sea
It stopped raining during the night, the temperature is still above freezing, but the wind is much harder than yesterday. It feels like the wind gets hold of the house and shakes it all night. Despite the “bad” weather, the polar bear patrol heads out to check some feeding points. A raven passes by between the buildings while we come out of the door. At the first feeding point, a white Arctic fox runs away. At the next place, nothing. Vlad Kavry then decides that we should go along the coast to the west; there is a chance that we see a polar bear.
The ocean is dark and totally open, just a few days ago it was covered with ice, all the way to the horizon. We drive 10-20 metres from the water edge, so we do not miss any bear. When ice covered the ocean, there was not a single bird present, but today bird species like glaucous gulls, ivory gulls and Ross gulls pass by. For many birders, it is a dream to see the last species, an Arctic and pinkish bird, and today I observed a minimum of 2 000 Ross gulls migrating towards the Bering Strait!
Along the beach there is a rusty container. Vlad Kavry, the chief commander of today’s polar bear patrol, tells me that last year a poacher had put some bait in the container to lure polar bears which then were supposed to be shot illegally. Off course, the patrol took away all meat in the container. We continue our skidoo trip, suddenly Vlad stops and jumps off. He points at some very large footprints in the snow – umky he says, i.e. polar bear in native tongue. After ten days, we get at last see a sign that there are polar bears in the area. Only a few kilometres later, next polar bear track turns up. It is only a few days old. The footprints are twice the size of my winter boots – on some occasions you feel very small, and that is what I do just know. Sadly we had to turn around, while it is getting dark. We find a skidoo track which continues along the coast towards west, Vlad is worried that it is a poacher. The patrol does have a purpose.
The strong southeastern wind, is probably breaking up the newly formed sea ice on the southern side of Wrangel Island. This means that the bears on Wrangel Island cannot get ashore on the mainland where we are. There is most likely sea ice further out to the west, and it is a bit worrying if the bears head out on the ice and wander off to southwest. They will then end up close to two settlements, which are renown for poaching. If so, many bears might be killed.
The lack of sea ice along the coast of Chukotka, means that few, if any female polar bears will give birth on the mainland this year. Normally, somewhere around 20 females build winter dens along the coast. They should already be in their dens, while the cubs are born around New Year. There is no problem for the females stranded at Wrangel Island. But if there are any females out on the pack ice, and do not reach Wrangel on time, they do then have to give birth on the sea ice, and there it is pretty hard to dig a protective and insulated den for the newborn. When I see the ice chart over Svalbard, I am chocked. The pack ice is far away from the landmass, and if the ocean does not freeze soon there will be a problem for the pregnant females. They have three choices. Either quickly wander off to the west and reach Greenland or Jan Mayen, or head east to islands in Russia. The third option is to give birth on the sea ice, which is possible, but the survival rate of the newborn probably drops dramatically.