We talk about it at the office regularly: polar bears are an umbrella species that needs ice to survive. I’ve talked about it, I’ve studied it, I’m confident I know what it all means. Then my perspective changed.
Venturing to Churchill, Manitoba, is more than a frigid excursion; it’s a chilling reminder of the precious ecosystem that supports these wondrous giants. The first polar bear I saw in the wild was one cuddled behind a rock about 300 yards away. A telescope on board my Polar Rover allowed me to spot the distinction between the bear’s off-white coat and the white tundra. Then my perspective changed.
The second polar bear I saw in the wild was a mother about 30 feet away, and the third was her cub. Watching her teach the cub how to survive not in the bitterly cold region, but contrarily to survive in the warming region in spite of historically colder temperatures. I watched them digging for kelp on the frozen ground and slurping the nutrient-rich seaweed as a staving off of hunger while waiting for the massive Hudson Bay to begin its annual freezing over, which it hadn’t yet. Then my perspective changed.
A wind-chilled night of negative 40-degree temperatures (that’s the magical number where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet) changed the landscape and, more importantly, the seascape drastically. One day after observing the most carnivorous of bear species sampling local plants, I watched them eagerly walk onto the freshly frozen Hudson Bay as far as the eye could see for their first seal hunting of the season. From the ground level, I witnessed the largest bear species in the world go from struggling vegetarian to thriving carnivore in less than 24 hours. Then my perspective changed.
My trip concluded with a climactic helicopter flight high above the frozen tundra and ice-covered Hudson Bay to get a bigger picture of the sub-Arctic ecosystem. To conservationists, the bay icing over is something to celebrate, as it allows the polar bears to adequately hunt and survive; but, in contrast to what I believed just a day prior, the ice wasn’t forming nearly to the extent where it would cover the entire bay.
By reducing fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, we may just have a prayer to form more sea ice and help save this majestic umbrella species. Words can only take us so far, but seeing it at the ground level and from the sky can give us a better view of what is happening in the kingdom of the polar bear.
Perhaps we just need a change of perspective.
This guest post was written by Adventure Specialist Joey Sudmeier. All photos © Joey Sudmeier.