Some questions I've been asked about my polar bear trip to Kaktovik:
How close were you to the bears? Were you ever worried you're too close?
I'm kind of bad at estimating distance, but the closest was probably about 4 boat-lengths or so, and I think our boat was a 24-foot. So about 100 feet, for 6 or 7 of the bears. In some spots, the driver pulled the boat right up onto the beach, and the bears were probably about 200-300 feet from the shore. I could step off from the boat directly onto the sand. Not that he would have let me, but I was tempted a couple times! The others were probably 300-400 feet away. I never felt unsafe. In fact, I was wishing we could get closer.
How many pictures did you end up with?
2044, over a total of 18 hours of cruising. That works out to 114 pictures per hour. :-)
Are the bears there only at a certain time of year? Do they hibernate the rest of the time?
The bears are accessible to humans during a short window of about 4-6 weeks. They are drawn to this island partly for the whale carcasses, and whaling season starts Labor Day, so that's when they start showing up. Around early to mid-October, the water starts to freeze, and they disperse across the ice (their preferred habitat) and it's no longer possible to get to them by boat. So the window is early September to mid October. My guide did say they start showing up in August, but probably not as many as I saw in September.
Did you go with a group?
No, I did not use a group tour, I made my own arrangements and I was the only one on the boat. The boat hire would have been a bit cheaper with a group, but on the other hand, with group tours there is always a middleman who is taking his cut, and I like traveling solo.
Me with the bone pile in the background. I haven't gained 100 pounds, that's a one-size-fits-all floaty jumpsuit that came with the boat.
I thought that seeing polar bears was going to be the highlight of my trip to the Arctic. And it was. But the universe had another once-in-a-lifetime experience in store for me.
The Arctic village of Kaktovik is a community of about 70 families, 75% of which are Inupiat Eskimo. They are subsistence hunters, which means they rely on hunting for their survival. Whale hunting is regulated here, but the community is legally allowed to harvest three bowhead whales each year, which become their main protein source for the winter. The whale season begins on Labor Day, when a team of eight boats heads out to the Beaufort Sea with the goal of harpooning a whale. Sometimes, it takes as long as two weeks to catch a whale.
And guess what happened on my second day in Kaktovik? Yep, they caught their first whale of the season. I was on a boat with my guide, watching bears loafing, when the boat radio started crackling with excitement."They got one!" my guide proudly announced to me.
The whale is attached to the boats and floats behind them (below) as they bring it to shore. It took them most of the day and into the night to bring the whale in and get it onto the beach. The stuff that looks like feathers is the baleen, attached to its jaw bone and used for scooping plankton and krill.
It was an extraordinary sight. On the one hand, it was sad to see such a magnificent creature lying lifeless on the beach. On the other hand, it's not a blood sport for them; it's not like the Arctic has cattle they could slaughter for hamburger (which would be a more socially acceptable form of animal slaughter).
The dozen or so of us visitors who were on the island that day got conflicting information about our presence during the event. When I asked if I could watch and/or take pictures, two different boat guides told me it was no problem, as long as I didn't get in the way of the butchering activities. So I did get some good shots of the event. But other visitors were told they were not allowed to take pictures, and at one point one woman told all visitors they had to leave the beach and could only watch from across the road.
Their "no pictures" rule is not because they have an objection to picture-taking itself. Most of the Inupiat locals had their cell phones (and a few iPads) out and were snapping pictures themselves. (Yes, even in a remote Arctic village, everyone now has a cell phone). I suspect it had more to do with a fear of calling attention to their activities to groups like PETA, who no doubt would be highly offended by the activity.
Being vehemently anti-PETA myself (in their "I disagree with you, so I'll destroy you," tactics, they are no better than a terrorist group, as far as I'm concerned), so I don't ever want anything of mine to be exploited to further PETA's cause. So I've opted not to post any pictures of the haul-in or butchering. There is already a great slide show of the event here, if you are interested, it is almost identical to what I saw. (Be sure to click on the arrow on the right side of the first picture, to go through the whole slide show). A Google image search also reveals thousands of images.
After the whale is hauled ashore, the meat is cut up and divided up among all the families in the community. The bony carcass is moved to the farthest end of the island, to what has become known as the Bone Pile. Kaktovik is famous for its Bone Pile because the fresh meat attracts a lot of bears, and is the first place guides take visitors. Below, some scenes from the Bone Pile. (There were no prohibitions against picture-taking here). These pictures were taken the day before this year's whale catch, so these bones are from previous whale hunts.
The bears, oh the bears. They have now officially become my #1 favorite Alaska experience.
I was worried whether I'd spot any at all. Turns out, I saw at least 50. Most of the time, they seemed to be just loafing around. (I'm told that's an actual term scientists use to describe their behavior.) But also, ambling, nuzzling, nursing, swimming, sleeping, chasing, and eating. Sometimes it was hard to tell how many animals were snuggled up in the bear pile!
You have to be patient to be a bear watcher. Sometimes, my guide and I sat for an hour in one spot, waiting for a sleeping bear to stir, to raise its head and glance at us, to capture that engaging shot. (They are strictly protected, so you are not allowed to make any noise that would disrupt their normal activity). Sometimes they stirred for a moment, and then went back to sleep before I had time to lift my camera. This is the same trio that was curled up and sleeping, in my previous blog post.
That's the Brooks Mountain Range in the background. By mid-October, the water will be frozen over, the bears will disperse across the ice, and will no longer be accessible by boat. So there is a very short window each year during which you can see these beautiful creatures.
Where: Kaktovik, Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Today, the skies cleared, the winds shifted, and polar bears were everywhere. Spotted more than 20 of the beautiful creatures during 8 hours of cruising. I won't be able to post much more from here because internet connectivity is spotty. But this (below) is how I'm feeling tonight: blissfully exhausted, and ready to crawl into bed after a very full day. And ready for another day of bear-spotting tomorrow!
Day 1 of my polar bear adventure has been a discouraging bust so far. I arrive in Kaktovik to a snow/rain mix, fog, and blustery winds. There is no mistaking that I'm in the Arctic! The water is too rough to even take the boat out, to look for bears. Hoping for better weather tomorrow.