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Unusual gathering of polar bears spotted on Baffin Bay iceberg

Jill Burke
Hansruedi Weyrich / www.weyrichfoto.ch photo

"A hitherto unknown polar bear sanctuary in the Arctic has been discovered by the makers of a BBC documentary," according to the BBC News' Science and Environment blog. A BBC film crew working on a documentary about icebergs made the discovery while on assignment for the project earlier this summer.

In an era when Arctic sea ice levels seem to reach record average lows more often than not , it's tempting to assign some meaning to a group of bears hunkered down on a floating chunk of ice, a sign perhaps that there is hope polar bears, now a protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, aren't facing as much peril by the prospect of a big melt as some scientists have thought. But it may be that the polar bears found lounging on an iceberg are nothing more than polar bears lounging on a iceberg, said George Durner, a research zoologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage. "It is what it is," he said. "They are probably just resting on it."

Increasingly, tabular icebergs are breaking off of the Greenland ice sheet and winding up in Baffin Bay, according to a scientist quoted in the BBC article. It's thought most of the bears that inhabit the Baffin Bay region become beach bears on Baffin Island during the warm summer and fall months when the sea ice disappears. But the bears found on the berg this summer suggest they may have alternate locations to wait for the return of the ice, according to the BBC.

There's no way to know whether the bears are taking sanctuary on the iceberg, got stranded there, or are just using it as a convenient resting spot, Durner said. Regardless, their life on the ice during the summer probably isn't that much different from the bears that swam to shore, he said. Both are likely not hunting or eating well because they need the pack ice to hover above their prime hunting grounds for seals, their favorite meal.

Tabular ice bergs are steep-cliffed and flat. The one found this summer was large, spanning 46 square miles, and likely wasn't located over productive food waters, Durner surmised. Chances are both sets of bears -- those on land and those on the ice -- are slimming down and waiting out the months until winter delivers new ice and they can again go in search of meals. The BBC theorized the iceberg also gave the bears a safe place far from human hunters in Greenland and Canada.

Chances are, if the bears wanted to move off the ice, they would.

Research has shown that bears are capable of swimming great distances. In 2008, Durner and his colleagues made headlines when they tracked a bear in Alaska that swam 426 miles over nine days straight, from land to floating pack ice over the sea's deep waters. Along the way, the bear lost her yearling cub and 22 percent of her body weight: more than 100 pounds. The point? The ice-bound Baffin Bay bears could probably make it to shore if they wanted to. The ice chunk torn from Greenland's Peterman Glacier was located about 31 miles off the Canadian coast, according to another article about the bears and the bergs on the website Care2.

Unlike in Baffin Bay, most of Alaska's polar bears do not come to shore. Although with the ever-increasing retreat of sea ice, a small percentage of the Beaufort Sea population is making its way to land on Alaska's North Slope, generally in places where giant carcasses from bowhead whale harvests are available. Asked whether the appearance of the bears on land in Alaska had more to do with an available food source or lack of ice, Durner was swift with his answer: lack of ice.

Just for fun: Polar bear cam

Back in Canada, polar bears have gathered in Churchill to wait for ice to return to Hudson Bay. Thanks to Polar Bears International, a polar bear conservation group, you can peek in on the wild bears in real-time via the polar bear cam. Our spot checks have shown they mostly wrestle a lot and nap.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com