KAKTOVIK, Alaska — With its passengers bundled against the arctic wind blowing off the Beaufort Sea, the small boat speeds smoothly across the lagoon. We pass the "bone pile" — the place where the unused remains of Native-caught bowhead whales are left — as we arc around a sandy point and into the adjacent lagoon. With temperatures in the 30s and a light wind blowing, we’ve just left the Inupiaq village of Kaktovik. Our destination is Bernard Spit, just off Barter Island.
"I can see two, three, there are four bears," our guide Bruce Inlangasak says above the slap of the water against his 15-foot, open-topped boat. Such are his keen, trained eyes. I struggle to make out shapes among the gray sand and bleached driftwood. Then, what I think are chunks of ice catch my attention, and slowly, as we get closer to shore, four polar bears come into focus.
Inlangasak reduces our speed, and we move slowly toward shore. The bears, naturally curious, look up — one cranes its long neck to the sky, sniffing the wind — but they hardly pay us any mind.
We float and watch. The bears watch back. It’s enough. They don’t have to do anything to be awe-inspiring. Smiling into the wind makes my face colder, but I can’t get rid of my grin. My wife is smiling too. My 4-year-old son, Silas, softly calls, "Here bear, here bear."
Inlangasak nudges the engine and we move down the beach toward two young males. One runs across the sand dunes as we approach. Despite his size, he lacks nothing in speed, and is soon on the ocean side of the spit.
"Most of the bears are used to us coming around now in boats," Inlangasak, a Native Inupiaq, says in reference to the guided boat tours he offers with the help of other villagers. "He must be a recent arrival (to the area). That’s why he ran, but he’ll get used to us."
Farther on we sight a large pile of driftwood, but it isn’t until we are parallel with it that we find a big male "loafing" in a hole. (Yes, loafing is what biologists call it when these creatures just hang out all day.)
"That looks like a good spot to sleep off a belly full of whale meat," Inlangasak says. "The bears gorge at night at the bone pile, then sleep it off on the beach."
Soon, we encounter a sow with two cubs that Inlangasak estimates to be almost 2 years old. One of the cubs plays with a dead bird, tossing it about like a rag. Then Inlangasak spots what becomes the highlight of the ride.
"I see one swimming," he says, scanning the lagoon. "It’s playing with something too."
We move along to check out other bears loafing up and down the beach as the swimming nanook (Inupiaq for polar bear) slowly swims to the beach. Giant paws breach the water as the bear roles partially onto his back, and then raises his head toward us, sniffing. Before his arrival, we briefly beached the boat to watch the sow and cubs. The bear exits the water and sniffs our landing spot, then swims back in our direction. He is obviously curious about us. Inlangasak starts the engine and the bear holds his distance, swimming around us for several minutes before finally heading toward the sow and cubs.
This is how the afternoon passes with us as the latest clients in Kaktovik’s fledgling effort at locally led polar bear tourism. From the sound of it, business is picking up. Warbelow’s Air Ventures has been flying tourists in, and other tour operators are starting to send clients as well. Inglangasuk has a rotating list of Inupiaq residents who take small groups of people out by boat to see the bears. Those looking to go it alone can contact Inlangasak.
Inlangasak explains that 30 people went out on boats the previous weekend to see bears. There were more before that, and Inlangasak says he expects plenty more in the years to come.
It’s not hard to understand the allure of these giant white bears. Regal and majestic, but also somehow cuddly, there is a natural magnetism that draws us. Add the sense that their future is in doubt, and it translates into heightened public interest in seeing bears. Worldwide, there are 19 known polar bear populations, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Two are in Alaska— the other is in the Chukchi Sea on the western coast. In May 2008, the polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act after research indicated the sea ice vital to the bears’ existence is declining. The decline is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
"Threatened" status means the bear is at risk of becoming endangered or faces possible extinction. Computer models referenced by U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who assigned the threatened status, predict potential extinction in as little as 44 years.
Bear protection also falls under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which "prohibits take and harassment" of polar bears.
Inlangasak, who has guided in the region for three years (2009 is his first by boat) and assisted with the BBC filming of "Blue Planet" and Animal Planet‘s Top 10 Predators series, says there has always been an interest in seeing polar bears, but he believes the threatened status means more people now want to see the bears.
"Some say they just want to see the animal in its natural environment. Others say they want to see them before they are extinct," he says.
"We have climate change, global warming," he adds. "People are wondering what these bears are going to do."
Polar bears have historically used the barrier islands and sand spits around Barter Island as a resting place, a feeding place and a stopover until winter sea ice forms. However, the possibility of seeing large numbers of bears in one place can be linked to the local whaling. The greatest numbers of bears loafing in the area are typically found in September and October, just prior, during and after the time Kaktovik residents hunt bowhead whales. Fish and Wildlife monitoring dating back to 2002 (for September only) show a high degree of variability in bear numbers: a high of 61 bears in 2003 and a low of 25 in 2006. Data for 2009 is not available, but villagers reported between 36 and 54 bears in the area. We saw 20 on my two-hour boat trip.
The Inupiat of Kaktovik have lived with the bears in relative "harmony since the beginning of time," Inlangasak says. Every family in Kaktovik has a story about a polar bear in their entryway or taking a nap under their house. Now, however, they also view the bears as an important economic resource.
"Maybe this is your first time being close to polar bears, but this is a usual thing for us. But we’re excited for the people who come here," says Annie Tikluk, Kaktovik’s mayor. "We want to see these tourists go out with local guides. It’s good for our people."
Boat-based polar bear viewing in Kaktovik is a new effort to match local expertise and knowledge about polar bears with outside interest in seeing bears in their natural habitat. But as interest in polar bear viewing increases, the question of how to manage this new form of people-bear interaction comes up. To this end, the village, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will draw up a management plan to regulate polar bear tourism.
The idea is not to limit or in any way inhibit polar bear viewing, but to ensure the prolonged health of both the bears and the activity, explains Jennifer Reed, visitor services coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Our interest is in the polar bears, but we recognize economic opportunities are good for the village," Reed says.
Reed says guidelines are being evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kaktovik residents, including guides like Inlangasak.
"We want something that actually works, that’s effective and addresses the tendencies and circumstances people find themselves succumbing to when they are around polar bears," Reed says. "We want to ensure polar bears aren’t disturbed."
This effort to develop tourism that takes advantage of local knowledge and experience and contributes to the local economy, with an overarching agency mandate and concern over polar bear populations is a challenge, and it is playing out on the ground in Kaktovik.
One area where another type of polar bear watching is ongoing is the bone pile, which is situated on private land several miles from town. It is here that large numbers of polar bears congregate beginning at dusk for a free dinner. Accessible by truck, the road to the pile runs adjacent to the town airstrip, which is surrounded on either side by water. The trucks of residents mix with tourist vehicles from a lodge — everyone is there to watch the bears.
Among a flurry of gulls, three polar bears are tugging at the carcass. A 50-plus foot whale was caught several days before, and the pickings are still good. We stick to the truck as the bears feed shoulder to shoulder. Other bears arrive, some from the water; others wander slowly down the road. Five, six, eight at a time — bears of all sizes find their place to eat. One bear with a bad rear leg hobbles into the scrum before moving out with a large hunk of whale. Locals and tourists alike are concerned for his fate, and we all wonder at the cause of the injury.
A roar breaks the silence. A big male stands face to face with a near equal, bellowing in front the whale’s rib cage. Deep and guttural, large white teeth flashing, this is the first sound we hear from a bear. Powerful. We head back toward town. On the right, three bears swim toward the bone pile while another walks on the shore edge. On the left, a sow with cubs crosses the runway and skirts along the beach; only her ears are visible above the roadway.
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