Text: Anders Stenbakken
Destination East Greenland
The world's largest land predators.
Polar bears, called Nanoq by the Inuit, are the world's largest land predators. Adult male polar bears weigh on average 1000 pounds, and can weigh up to 1500 pounds; females are considerably smaller, normally weighing up to 500 pounds. An adult polar bear's only enemies are humans, and occasionally other polar bears. In the wild, adult polar bears live an average of 15 to 18 years, though biologists have found a few that have lived to 30.
The Polar bear mainly lives off seals, which it catches at the seals’ breathing holes or when the seals are lying on the ice floes. Sea birds, lone musk oxen or stranded whales, however, are also part of its diet, along with plants and herbs during the summer months. The polar bear's diet consists mostly of seals. In winter, polar bears capture these seals by waiting near the seal's breathing hole. When the seal comes up for air, the polar bear grabs it. In summer, the bears sneak up on seals while they're sleeping on the ice ... the bear crawls slowly forward when the seal sleeps. When close enough, the polar bear pounces, killing the seal before it can escape back into the sea.
A Marine Mammal.
The polar bear is the only bear to be considered a marine mammal. Polar bears spend as much time on the ice and in the water as they do on land, and are excellent swimmers; they have been known to swim over 50 miles (80 km), at the sedate speed of six miles per hour. A polar bear's front paws are partially webbed and very large, to help it swim better.
The polar bear's fat layer, which is three to four inches thick, not only protects it from the cold, but also gives it buoyancy in the water.
Fat is good.
Polar bears use their layer of fat to protect them from the cold air and cold water. Walrus, whales, and seals also have layers of blubber, which help to keep them warm. The polar bear's fat layer is 4-5 inches thick, and is so effective that adult males quickly overheat when they run. Because of their well-insulated body, polar bears give off no detectable heat; ... they don't even show up in infrared photographs. (Infrared film measures heat.)
A female usually has two cubs. The mother gives birth to her cubs about two months after she enters the den in the fall. Newborns are about a foot long. Half of all cubs die in their first year, due to starvation or accidents. Polar bear cubs drink their mother's milk for almost 2 years, and depend on her for survival. As with most bears, the male may kill the cubs; highly protective mothers are capable of driving off much larger males.
Polar bears during winter time.
The polar bear, like brown and black bears, does not truly 'hibernate'. Though their heart rate slows, their body temperature does not drop dramatically, and while they may sleep, they have no difficulty waking up.
Though brown and black bears sleep in winter, male polar bears do not. Only pregnant females spend the winter sleeping in a den, a two-chambered tunnel scraped into the snow. The female gives birth to her cubs late in the year.
Polar bears and Inuit Hunters.
Of all the animals the Inuit hunts, Nanoq, the polar bear, is the most prized. Permanent Greenland residents who have hunting as their main occupation may only kill polar bears. In East Greenland Polar bears live and breed in the northernmost parts. Every year, 50-150 polar bears drift southwards with the field ice along the coast of Eastern Greenland from the area close to the National Park and Ittoqqortoormiit. However, hunters are only allowed to kill a total 20 polar bears a year the in the Ammassalik district, where there is still a tradition for the skin of a bear to belong to the first person that catches sight of it, not the person who actually shoots it. Their meat is strong and tasty. The skin is extremely hardwearing and its excellent insulating properties mean that trousers made from polar bear skin are practically the best thing to wear when the temperature dips below –30°C.
A rare sight.
East Greenland is polar bear country, but the possibility that you will sight any is extremely low. In the summer, chances for encountering polar bear are almost non-existent. On an average trip around Tasiilaq, people normally take no deterrents. If you choose to, pepper spray or pencil flares are usually chosen, but these need to be purchased before entering Greenland.