The small village of Kaktovik, Alaska, receives a grand arrival of polar bears every summer. Trained Inuit guides take tour groups on a whimsical boat ride to photograph these bears up close and personal. But one such trip in 2015 resulted in the tourists witnessing much more than they bargained for. With a life on the line, both visitors and locals alike scrambled to save a polar bear in the nick of time. Just think -- if you saw a bear struggling for its life, how would you react?
The Tour Of A Lifetime
In 2015, tour guides brought visitors through the Arctic Circle of Kaktovik, Alaska. There, travelers hoped to catch a glimpse of a wild polar bear up close. This summer, though, they would see a shocking sight.
The Inupiat Eskimo village offers a four-hour viewing boat ride through the summer and fall. Tourists can snap pictures of wild polar bears and learn about their habitat. During this scenic ride, a lot can go wrong. And in this case, it did.
A Perilous Journey
Inuit tour guide Rolan Warrior took a handful of tourists to the Beaufort Sea barrier. Warrior knew that danger lurked the banks of every single trip he took.
At eight to nine feet tall, polar bears can pose a threat to onlookers. The guides need to keep a safe distance to prevent frightening or aggravating the bears. But during this particular trip, one large predator polar bear ended up needing protecting instead.
Polar Bears, Endangered
In 2008, the Endangered Species Act declared polar bears to be a threatened species under U.S. law. In the Beaufort Sea, where the rescue took place, the polar bear population has declined from 1,500 in 2001 to 900 in 2010. That's a 40% drop in less than nine years.
The decline stems from global warming destroying the sea ice which the bears use as dens and hunting grounds. In addition, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as mercury and PCBs can degrade the polar bear's fatty tissue, which helps them survive in the freezing climate.
A Life-Threatening Entanglement
Along the journey, guests spotted what they were searching for--an ample male polar bear lounging just off the shore. Upon closer inspection, however, they realized that the bear was entangled in a fishing net. The unfortunate polar visibly struggled to keep its head above the water.
Visitors looked on, feeling stunned and helpless. The net could not be untangled while the bear panicked and thrashed about in the icy water, which would've been 14 degrees at the warmest. What could they do?
Where Did The Net Come From?
The net that caught the polar bear was meant to catch beluga whales. Beluga whales can grow to twice the length of a single polar bear, so the bear had to struggle against almost 50 feet worth of netting. If they catch an animal, they can cause lacerations, suffocation, exhaustion, or starvation.
These nets, often called "ghost nets," are forgotten or lost fishing nets that pose a threat to marine life. Fortunately, the local village located the original owner of the net, who immediately rushed over to help.
How Could Anyone Help?
The onlookers knew that a panicked polar bear could easily throttle anyone who attempted to untangle it. So the guide returned to the village of Kaktovik, and the townsfolk held a significant discussion on how they would hand this time-sensitive situation.
Flora Rexford, a Kaktovik resident and teacher, later told the Anchorage Daily News that her parents and the net's owner boarded the parents' boat and rushed off to tend to the bear. Meanwhile, other locals contacted the appropriate federal help.
The Clock Is Ticking
A 2018 study found that polar bears burn through around 12,325 calories a day, despite sitting around for most of the time. This means that the drowning polar bear had limited energy to keep its head above the water.
Polar bears need to eat seals to maintain their energy. Even when they hunt successfully, they can lose up to 44 pounds in ten days. The longer that polar bear struggled in the net, the more likely it was that the bear would drown from exhaustion, or starve to death. Locals and scientists had to work fast.
Help Is On The Way
The rescuers knew that they couldn't do much while the polar bear anxiously fought for his life. They contacted the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their support, who arrived at the shoreline and in the air.
Both groups ran bases in Alaska that could quickly race to the bear. All are operated by government employees who understand that polar bears are federally protected--so they rushed to the scene via helicopter to help the locals.
Calming The Bear First
From the helicopter, biologists tranquilized the horrified polar bear with a dart containing the equivalent of 11 pounds of anesthesia. Biologists who had arrived calculated the right dose of anesthesia, as too much could endanger the bear's already threatened life.
Only when the bear was sedated could the three residents sail close enough to initiate the rescue. In less than five minutes, the tranquilizer kicked in, and the Inuits guided the bear closer an improvised leash they made from rope. They had to keep the bear from drowning while the tranquilizers slowed the animal's muscles.
The More Tired The Bear, The Scarier The Outcome
The farther a bear swims out to hunt, the more muscle it loses. If it doesn't get enough food during this time, it could exhaust itself to death. In the case of the tangled polar bear, he may not have swum far, but he did swim a lot and was visibly drained.
To top it off, the 1,200-pound male bear had turned into a dead weight from the tranquilizer. The locals needed an impressive amount of strength and foresight to both keep the bear level and navigate the boat.
The Fight For His Life
The trio of locals struggled to prevent the bear from sinking while leading him to shore and navigating the icy waters. They had to use the bear's makeshift leash to keep its head above the water, which proved difficult as the bear kept swimming close to the boat's edge.
The polar bear barely swam during this time, as both the anesthesia and exhaustion had run down his muscles. And yet, all three locals worked together to guide the giant bear to shore.
Normally A Dangerous Task...
The locals were right to wait for a tranquilizer before approaching the bear. Polar bears can easily overpower a human, and although humans are not their main pray, a bear panicking could potentially destroy the locals' boat.
At the same time, however, bears are solitary animals. Polar bears do not hunt in packs, and only encounter each other during mating seasons. This bear had no one else to help him, so the rescue team risked their lives by diving in.
Did He Make It?
After a long struggle, the residents finally hauled the bear ashore. The stunned and tired polar bear sprawled out on the beach. Local biologists quickly examined the bear for injuries. To everyone's relief, the bear did not suffer any severe injuries.
Over 650,000 marine animals die from struggling in ghost fishing nets each year. The nets could potentially sever an artery or cut into flesh and muscles, causing the animal to lose a lot of blood. Against all odds, this polar bear managed to leave the net completely unscathed.
How Saving One Bear Impacts The Rest
Baby polar bears are rapidly declining in number. Polar bears live around 20 to 30 years, meaning that it takes a long time for baby polar bears to mature. The cubs have a lower likelihood of surviving, which continues to decrease the overall population.
This one bear will move on to mate, creating more babies, which increases the species' population. At the rate of which polar bears are declining, they need every individual to live a long and productive life.
Residents and biologists then worked to untangle the bear. Fortunately for the polar bear, the sea net's owner stayed to help remove the net. The owner understood how his net operates, so his advice was crucial to relieving the bear's pain.
After a tasking amount of time, they took off the net, and the bear was freed. "I guess it ended up swimming out toward the sea," reported Rexford. This rescue held more weight than just a single wounded animal.
Locals And Ghost Fishing Nets
North Slope village, a village of about 300 people where the bear was discovered, commonly hosts seasonal fish camps for locals to catch char and whitefish. The fishers remove their nets every year for the incoming polar bears, who visit the village in the fall.
This particular net was an anomaly, and locals handled the situation swiftly to save the bear's life. However, they still must keep a lookout every year to avoid any future animal harm.
Why Is This Instance Special?
Senior Director of Polar Bears International, Geoff York, claims that this rescue represents a more massive conservation act that could save the entire polar bear species. "From rescue to conflict reduction efforts, Northern communities play an important role in the conservation of polar bears," he said.
The Inuits live around the polar bears year-round and play a crucial role in saving the species. "It's great to see local people and scientists come together to solve a clear problem," York continued. "In this time of unprecedented change, we need more collaboration across the Arctic and across groups."
Threatened By The Locals
In January 2019, an Arctic Village local accidentally shot a female polar bear trying to enter his home. The polar bear had wandered farther than anyone had seen before. Though polar bears are federally protected, there's an exception for targeting a bear in self-defense.
Even so, Kaktovik residents employ a "polar bear patrol" to provide these conflicts, shooing off the bears who stroll into the town at night. If the locals continue to act as they did in the polar bear rescue, the bears will still have a chance at surviving.
Spreading The News
The U.S. Interior Instagram first reported the news with a moving picture of the bear next to its former cage, the pile of fishing net. The captain detailed the story, adding, "A great effort by all to keep this magnificent animal in the wild."
The post has over 21,000 likes and relieved comments from animal lovers all around the world. Many understand the fragile nature of the polar bear species, and to have one freed relieves and warms thousands of people worldwide.
What Can We Do To Help?
At the current rate of climate change, the Arctic may disappear before the twenty-first century ends. Biodiversity scientist Richard Pearson reports that polar bear extinction looms due to global warming melting the ice caps, which make up their home. To save the polar bears, Pearson counsels everyone to reduce the effect of global warming as much as possible.
Driving our cars less reduces fossil fuels that vehicles burn off. You can also replace your lights with energy efficient light bulbs, which are available in most household stores. Lastly, recycle. We don't want any polar bears running into plastic bottles or containers.