It’s a rare site to witness a mother Polar bear and two cubs gorging themselves on a fresh Beluga whale carcass - especially with a large male dangerously close by. The mother keeps a watchful eye constantly fixed on the male bear as she tears flesh from bone with aggressive canine teeth. The cubs look like they're smiling through blood stained muzzles every time they come up for air.
Given the opportunity, male polar bears will kill any cubs they come across as it sends the mother bear into heat and has the added bonus of a small meal. A strange fetish indeed, but as the male bear naps peacefully in the sun, deep in a meat coma, his thoughts are elsewhere - his belly so full of meat it almost looks like he’s standing while lying on his stomach.
The shallow gravel expanse of Conningham Bay has been known to both Polar bears and Inuit hunters for centuries. Large pods of Beluga whales enter a small channel into the bay which has the perfect exfoliating properties the whales have been searching for. Distracted by the euphoric belly scratching, some of the unlucky whales become trapped due to a dropping tideclosing off the narrow entrance, which makes them easy prey for hunters of any discipline.
I have never seen so many bears in one place! Thirty three individuals confirmed by the binoculars of our skilled wildlife specialists and the possibility of more napping behind the low yellow tundra hills rolling easily away into the distance. Although well fed, we would be staying in our zodiacs and not risk going to shore.
As I quietly pull alongside a very large male devouring one of the many unfortunate Beluga casualties, I notice a pattern of slice marks in the pink flesh of the whale. This was not a natural bear kill, but one of the regular hunting parties from nearby Goja Haven or Taloyoak had taken only the muktuk - the outermost layer of insulating blubber which is a highly prized northern delicacy.
Generally, local hunters in the Canadian north are very respectful of the wildlife - using every piece of the animals they take as wild food is scarce in the winter and there is an undisputed cultural connection with the land and animals. But with such rich bounty, these particular hunters became greedy, collecting a small percentage of the most valued parts.
I am in two minds about this: It is understandable that with so many easily hunted whales and hungry bears - nothing is going to waste. I just hope the philosophy of only taking the best and leaving the rest doesn’t stick in the general consciousness of these communities. With limited government resources, monitoring poaching is almost an impossibility. Hunting must be self regulated, but with such a small population base, there really are no secrets up here.
As weather and sea ice patterns change, it’s difficult to know how this will effect the attitudes in the north. It is a drastically changing environment - not only in the natural sense, but also with ever pressurizing industries such as resource extraction, fisheries, and tourism which are all pulling the local population in different directions, but unanimously away from a traditional way of life. Only time will tell if pride in thousand year old traditions will be able to overpower southern dollars.
- August 2015