Polar Bear Blog – Fred Bruemmer’s Arctic

Fairly often, I find myself picking up one of Fred Bruemmer’s books and scanning through them again, even though I have read all of them over and over and over. Bruemmer was one of the first modern arctic explorers, environmentalists and writers, travelling the arctic in the 1960s and 1970s as well as one of the first polar bear photographers at Cape Churchill. An amazing life and an amazing writer.

His work also puts some perspective on the current polar bear hysteria raging. Here is some of what he had learned about polar bears and seal hunting, way back in 1973…

‘In spring and summer, the seals like to sleep on the ice. They choose a flat place alongside a hole in the ice or open water, with a clear view all around so, they hope, no enemy can sneak up on them. And they sleep fitfully. Each minute or so, the seal awakes, looks carefully in all directions and, satisfied that all is well, goes back to sleep.

It seems like a foolproof system, but it has, for the seal, two fatal flaws. The sleep period of each individual seal tends to be of the same length, nearly to the second, and the same internal alarm clock that awakens the animal at such regular intervals causes a faint, telltale muscular movement in the still sleeping animal… an instant before it opens its eyes.

Bear and Eskimo synchronize their stalk towards the seal to its sleep-wake periods. The moment the seal goes to sleep, the bear creeps slowly, softly across the ice. An instant before the seal awakes, the bear freezes into a motionless, limp, yellow-whitish pile of fur. The Eskimo crouches behind a portable shield, once made of sun-bleached sealskin but now usually a framed square of canvas…

The seal’s vision is poor. He can detect motion a long distance away but the motionless whitish bear, the hunter hidden behind his white screen, both, for the seal, blend with their white surroundings. Slowly, with infinite caution, Eskimo and bear advance. The bear must come to within a few yards before, in a blur of smooth, co-ordinated motion, he pounces upon the sleeping seal and with one blow breaks its skull. For the Eskimo, now with a gun, the stalk is easier. In former days, he too had to creep to within at least ten paces for a sure throw with his harpoon.’

A great description of the seal hunt for both man and bear. The next paragraph goes on to describe Churchll’s polar bears and their time on shore in the summer…

‘The bears must come ashore and lead a life that, in some ways, may be akin to the one their remote ancestors led, hundreds of thousands of years ago, before they evolved into the Arctic’s specialized hunters of seals. The ‘ice bears’ become ‘shore bears’. They raid duck and goose colonies, rob the nests and eat as many of the brooding birds as they can catch. They hunt voles and lemmings, even if the energy expended on catching these tiny rodents barely equals the energy gained by eating them. A meal of two-ounce lemmings must be quite a come-down for an 800-pound polar bear who, given the chance, can devour 150 pounds of seal blubber in one sitting… About 80% of their summer of their summer and fall diet consists of plants: sedges, grasses, seaweeds and, in fall, great quantities of berries.’

Pretty interesting, huh… bears eating goose eggs way back when.   Neat!  I really like reading stuff from the very beginnings of polar bear observations in the arctic, back when there were no ‘sides’ and we were just interested in discovering what polar bears were all about.  Find his books and read them!

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