Witnessing a mother polar bear nursing her cubs is one of the best moments of any bear season. Female polar bears nurse their cubs for approximately two years. In the first months, their milk is rich in protein and comprised of over 30% fat content. While this fat content does decline over time, the cubs grow quickly.
First year cubs, also known as COYs (Cubs of the Year), generally nurse for five or ten minutes every few hours. Often, they will start nudging their mother to signal their hunger. Some even vocalize their opinion with a loud, nagging bray.
Females nurse from a sitting position. In preparation, they will fix a day bed, either amidst the kelp or along the edge of a snowdrift. The cubs will sit and watch as mother digs and packs down her ‘chair’, not unlike the way a dog ‘nests’ before laying down.
Once she settles into position, the cubs waste no time nestling into her lap to begin nursing. Her movements become very fluid and very gentle. She nudges her young as they quietly coo and purr while suckling. Sometimes, she will lift her head, stretching her neck in an elegant curve. Eventually, she lays down on her side signaling the end of the session. Of course, if one cub, usually the male, gets a little too assertive, nursing can end abruptly, her gentleness quickly turning into a hard cuff, sending her cub rolling away!
It is extremely important for polar bear watchers to remain quiet and respectful during this rare opportunity. The female must feel comfortable through the entire process from preparation of the daybed to her final stretch; any distractions may make her nervous enough to get up and cut meal time short, leaving everybody, both tourists and cubs, more than a little disappointed.