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Polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba (photo by Christy Mazrimas-Ott)
Polar Bears International (Churchill, Manitoba, Canada)
In-Field Ambassador Journal
Oct. 13     Oct. 14    Oct. 15
Oct. 16     Oct. 17     Oct. 18    
Oct. 19
     Oct. 20     Oct. 21
Oct 22     Oct 23

 
Through a partnership program with Polar Bears International (PBI), a conservation organization committed to studying and protecting polar bear populations in the wild, a Brookfield Zoo bear keeper is back on frozen tundra…and that’s fine with her. Christy Mazrimas-Ott has returned to Churchill, Manitoba for the second year in a row to serve as a guest lecturer aboard the Tundra Buggies--the famed vehicles that serve tourists. Mazrimas-Ott has over 15 years of experience as a polar bear keeper.

This time around, Christy will post regular dispatches and images (see slideshow above) from Churchill, detailing her day aboard the Tundra Buggies, where she discusses polar bear natural history as well as conservation and research efforts for polar bears.

Oct. 13, 2009
It was my first day out on the Tundra Buggies since last November. There is a dusting of snow on the ground, the temperature is in the upper 20s, and there’s a strong wind with snow flurries on and off. We have 12 guests on the buggy today from England, Ireland, and Australia. Rick Madsen is the buggy driver and I’m one of the In-Field Ambassadors, along with Sarah Bachman from the Indianapolis Zoo. It’s the beginning of the season and the polar bears haven't made it to the coast yet.

Our first sighting of a polar bear was at the Tundra Buggy Lodge; he is known as the "Golden Bear" because of his coloring. He’s been hanging out at the lodge and that guarantees you seeing at least one polar bear! “Golden Bear” was sitting near another Tundra Buggy for awhile then decided to hunker down in the willows to take a nap, conserve energy and get out of the wind. We also saw two other polar bears from a further distance: one was too far away walking along the willows on the coast and the second was very skittish and didn't like the Tundra Buggy, so it moved away as we got closer.

The polar bears in Churchill were very lucky this year because the spring ice break-up didn't occur until late July/early August which gave them a longer time to hunt ring seals than the past few years which is great for the Churchill polar bears. However, this summer the ice shrinkage in the Arctic was the third largest since it was first recorded in 1979. It’s already colder here now than when I came out here last year…so hopefully that's a good sign that Hudson Bay will start forming grease ice and freeze over so the polar bears can go out and eat once again. The polar bears haven't eaten since they've come ashore three months ago and they’re hungry, which is why they're constantly resting and conserving energy. Hopefully, we'll see more polar bears, foxes, ptarmigans, or arctic hares tomorrow.
- Christy Mazrimas-Ott

Oct. 14, 2009
The polar bears were a little more active today and the big male polar bear at the Tundra Buggy lodge actually came up to the back of the Tundra Buggy and gave the 26 guests onboard a thrill of a lifetime. (One of the guests came back in the buggy and gave our driver, Lionel Nadon, a big hug!)

There was also a small female polar bear that walked towards our Tundra Buggy while the big lodge male was sleeping; she walked within 10 feet of him before noticing, panicked when she saw him, then backed up and tried to figure out the best way to go around him without walking on the not-so-sturdy ice. She managed to get away before he even stirred; he was out like a light…then all of a sudden she must of gotten in line with the way the wind was blowing and suddenly the big male was up stretching and on the move, which of course made the small female more nervous. She stood up on her hind legs and ran away. The male ended up walking to where she was, smelled where she was at and after that was when he walked up to the Tundra Buggy to check us out.

We also saw two polar bears earlier in the day at Half Way Point. One was lying on the shore hiding behind huge rocks to block the wind but did sit up later and pose on the rocks for us. The other polar bear was down in the willows but got up walked in front of us and then surprisingly walked across the inner marsh lake. We didn't think it was frozen enough but it was, obviously.

We saw our little female polar bear again on the way back too—she crossed in front of our buggy and then walked near shore making our guests on the Tundra Buggy very happy! Finally, someone spotted a red fox searching for dinner just before we got back to the launch point. All in all, the polar bears were all active at one point (plus the red fox) and that made for 26 smiles on faces from Tundra Buggy guests from all over the world.
- Christy Mazrimas-Ott

Oct. 15, 2009
Sarah Bachman and I were out on the Tundra Buggy together again today as In-Field Ambassadors. Our driver was Bob Debets, who is actually a former zookeeper. There were two groups of a total of seven guests on the Tundra Buggy along with their Frontiers North Adventure guides, Hayley Shephard and Richard Day. They decided to combine the two small groups into one to reduce our carbon footprint and only take one tundra buggy out.

Four polar bears were spotted today: the small female/juvenile male from yesterday was lying out on the rocks near the coast resting and keeping distance from the big male at the lodge yesterday; a female that was conserving energy in the shelter of the willows from the northwest wind; the big male which has moved away from the lodge and is getting bolder approaching the Tundra Buggy, standing up against it and smelling what's going on in there; and finally a polar bear on the spit of Half Way Point walking along the rocks quite a distance away. Today, I actually saw my first Snowy Owl in the arctic but it flew away before we got close enough to get a good picture…it was magnificent to see through binoculars though.

We also spotted our first arctic hare of the season; they have a black dot on the tip of their ears and white camouflaging fur so they blend into the snow. When a predator approaches arctic hares from the rear it looks like the hare is looking at them from behind.

Our talk went well today: we are part of PBI's educational team, and while we’re on the Tundra Buggy we talk to guests about polar bears and the conservation issues affecting them. Currently PBI is focusing on helping the polar bears through: reforestation, recycling and buying recycled material, reducing CO2 admissions by saving energy (such as unplugging appliances that are not being used), and encouraging new technology.

Currently, one main focus of PBI is planting trees which absorb CO2 and help polar bears by reducing your carbon footprint. If you go to http://arborday.org/aazk you can help polar bears by planting trees for $1 each in our national forests through the Arbor Day Foundation, with support from Polar Bears International and the American Association of Zoo Keepers. (Make sure you support the Brookfield AAZK Chapter; the AAZK chapter that plants the most trees will get a native tree planted in their zoo or community!)

October 16
Today there was a small group of four from the UK with Derek Kyostia as their tour leader and Kevin Burke as our Tundra Buggy driver. We saw six polar bear over our day and lots of sunshine today. We saw a couple of females: one crossing the ice on the coastal trail and another bear eating kelp by the Tundra Buggy lodge. We also spotted a polar bear conserving energy hiding amongst the rocks in the distance.

After lunch along the coastal trail we saw where the big "Golden Bear" displaced a poor female polar bear that was lying in the willows. She ran to the road and then on the inland ice to get away from him. He smelled the area in the willows were she was lying down and then came up to the Tundra Buggy on the road to check us out…then he went down to the kelp beds to eat and rest. We also spotted another polar bear just resting out in the open on the tundra on the tip of the coast. The final polar bear was spotted on the way back to launch walking along the coast near the Great White Bear lodge.

Many guests keep asking about the outlook for polar bears and the simple answer is: "No Ice, No Bears." Polar bear need that ice for hunting, breeding and denning.

October 17
Today was our first day to transfer to the Tundra Buggy Lodge out at Polar Bear Point to give our talks about conservation issues facing polar bears. This lodge is where guests stay out on the tundra in a bunch of modified Tundra Buggies hooked together. These guests are already out on the tundra and don't have to come in from town, so they’re out looking for polar bear after breakfast. I was with a group of 14 from the UK and Australia with my youngest guest ever of 2 years old. Today there were seven polar bear spotted, a flock of Ptarmigan, and an arctic fox (it looked like a white dot from 300m away).

The coastal trail is again the hot (cold) spot for polar bears. We spotted the young female that is on her own for the first time, approximately 4 years old; she was munching down on berries like she hasn't eaten in three months. In fact, she had some berry stains around her face and rear end that looked like she was injured and had blood on her. We get worried if we don't see her because she is so young and little, but seems healthy and is a good size. We just worry about the large males going after her. We also saw a male polar bear hiding in the willows, a female polar bear that crossed the inland ice and was later spotted in the willows, a polar bear ‘crashed out’ in the kelp on the coast, and another one walking along the rocks on the coast. Then there was a new male polar bear that stood up on our Tundra Buggy and also banged the back of it with his large paw. Then he went out in the kelp bed to make a bed and was actually lying on his back trying to cool off because it had warmed up again today.

The snow that was on the ground is melting, the inland ponds are melting, and the grease ice that started forming on Hudson Bay is now melting. Another good conservation talk today, with lots of questions concerning the polar bear outlook and the global warming issue. Regardless of whether you believe global warming is happening or not, the things to do to reduce your carbon footprint will only help you financially in these hard times and make the world a better place…and there is nothing wrong with that!

October 18
Today, fellow IFA Sarah and I were with a combined group with FNA leaders Dave Reid and Hayley again with a group of 12 (again combining small tours to reduce our carbon footprint). We had two special guests on our Tundra Buggy today: Brandie Farkas and Emily Goldstein from the Louisville Zoo; these students won the "Project Polar Bear" contest by setting up a website where you can pledge to reduce your carbon emissions at www.louisvillezoo.org/projectpolarbear Please support these teen Arctic Ambassadors by going to their website and pledging!

We saw our young female polar bear on the coast walking in the willows, playing with kelp and eating berries again; along with two other polar bear that were spotted longer distances away. It was warm in the morning but that northwest wind picked up and the polar bear were trying to stay out of it. Then onto the lodge where another male polar bear was spotted; we watched him play with a piece of driftwood and then flop in the willows to get out of the wind and conserve energy.

Then on the way to Tower 1 for a helicopter pick up three polar bears were spotted off in the distance. Hudson Bay Helicopters will pick you up at a Tundra Buggy or drop you off at a Tundra Buggy before or after your flight. It’s a 1½ hour flight to Cape Churchill where you will see more polar bear, moose, caribou and other wildlife that you won't see from the Tundra Buggy. We also spotted a few more birds today some plovers and ducks. (Sorry, I'm not a real good birder!) We even saw a large arctic hare on our way back into town from the launch. Sarah and I walked over to Parks Canada when we got back into Churchill to look at their displays, get some pamphlets, and see what daily evening programs are going on while we're here thru the weekend. Thanks to Heather at Parks Canada for all her time and information!

Oct. 19, 2009
Within the first hour we saw five polar bears, two at the Great White Bear Lodge and three along the coastal trail. One was lying in the grass and across the inland pond we saw another polar bear up and running since another polar bear was walking towards it; we had to watch the displaced polar bear figure out how to cross the melting pond. The polar bear walked out as far as it could on the rocks and then started walking on the ice which surprisingly held up. The polar bear made it to the other side and went close to a couple of Tundra Buggies on the road there.

Near the Tundra Buggy lodge was Buggy One which was the original Tundra Buggy (But has been modified since the beginning 30 years ago) and is used by polar bear for their educational program, web conference classes, which is called "Tundra Connections" this year. This is where educators, zoo specialists and scientist will have live video conferences with students from grade school to college. The three webcast topics for this fall are: Conservation: Polar Bears , the Arctic, and Climate Change; Global Impacts, Warning Signs, and Inherent Issues; and Taking Action, Making a Difference. (For more info go to www.polarbearsinternational.org)

After that two more polar bear were spotted: the first one was down in the willows but put on a great show for us, playing with kelp and falling on it's back, putting all four paws in the air and then rolling back up to sit and look at us…this lasted a good 10 minutes. Then we ran into that young female that loves to eat the cranberries; she was munching away near the road with red stains all over her face. Then, our bumpy ride back to launch to end another marvelous day in the tundra.

Oct. 20, 2009
We had a great day! We spotted around 15 polar bears over the day, and also saw a snowy owl on the road by the coastal trail with two polar bears in the background. We saw three polar bears by half way point; one bear on the rocks near shore didn't look as healthy as the rest of the polar bears we've seen.

Another polar bear was spotted curled up in some willows by a pond right off the road. Then more polar bears were spotted on the coastal trail, lying near the road in the willows and our little juvenile berry-eating polar bear actually spooked that one and it ran away as she came closer to our Tundra Buggy. She sat and posed near our Tundra Buggy and then walked by the back and played with a piece of kelp for everyone to get great photos and then back to eating those berries she loves so much.

Then we spotted a few more polar bears out on the coast after the tide went back out and one polar bear was using a rock as a pillow again. There are a lot of newer polar bears coming into the area that are getting used to the Tundra Buggy and people photographing them once again. We also saw some loons and a lemming as we came back to launch.

It’s supposed to get colder as the week goes on, which might bring out more polar bears. (It will also bring out the moms and cubs or even some sparring between the boys.) We’ll see what the last few days bring us..I know for sure they'll be wonderful guests that come all this way to see these magnificent creatures in their element and they'll bring memories back with them that they can share, as we all become "Arctic Ambassadors."

Oct. 21, 2009
We saw eight polar bears today and it started snowing in the afternoon. None of the polar bears were very close to the Tundra Buggy today but they're still remarkable to observe in their natural habitat. Most of them were lying in the willows or walking from a distance away. We did have a lot of good conversations about various subjects on the buggy today though; from the anatomy and adaptations of polar bears to the conservation issues facing them including climate change and whether or not it really exists and is effecting the polar bears.

Of course, the climate change issue is a very touchy subject but is evident even in the Chicago area that something is going on with our weather. All the things that you can do to reduce your carbon footprint will only help you in these financially hard times and make the planet healthier. So whether or not you believe we are going to lose 2/3 of the polar bears by 2040 if we don't reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere; you for sure will make the world a better place for yourself and children and save money in the process by going green.

Go to www.polarbearsinternational.org to find ways to reduce your carbon footprint, find out how climate change is affecting polar bears, and info about polar bears in general.

October 22, 2009
Today was an eventful day: we saw 8 polar bears, ptarmigan, arctic fox and a red fox. We watched the dynamics between 3 polar bears: running, smelling, and changing who was the investigator. We saw the little girl bear who loves those berries; she was near the Tundra Buggy lodge and was crossing a frozen pond when a male polar bear that was napping on a rock caught wind of her and woke up. She slowly investigated but did the smart thing and ran away. Well this male polar bear gave all of us all an unforgettable look straight in the eye thru the grate and smelled the bottom of anyone's shoe near the grate. He did this for a good hour; the other Tundra Buggy just had to be envious of us. He stood up by the back of the Tundra Buggy once but preferred to go by the grate and smell and check all of us out, but if he heard too much noise or saw too much movement he would back up just enough so he can still look at us thru the grate from under the Tundra Buggy. Eventually he got tired of us and went to lay down in the willows. Then we saw an arctic fox ~20 feet away in action searching for food and actually witnessed it jump in the air, pounce on a lemming, eat it and then curl up in a ball like a rock.

So if the day wasn't amazing enough, on the drive back to Churchill from launch there was a car sitting on the side of the road and I saw they had cameras sticking out of their window. I looked up and saw 2 arctic foxes sitting up on some rocks on the side of the road and yell "arctic foxes" so Marc Hebert stops the van and we all run out to take pictures. The lighting was beautiful and one of the foxes ran down to the road and was actually 2 feet away from Marc at one time, simply amazing then. As we continued driving to town I then spotted a red fox in the distance on the side of the road.

After dinner we heard that they were seeing the "Northern Lights" out at the lodge so we decided to drive farther out of town to get away from the big city lights of Churchill to try and get a good look at them ourselves. They were very faint some white cloud looking swirls in the sky but definitely there. So to end the very eventful day I kept my blinds open to see I could get a better view of the "Northern Lights", which I did about 2am…there was a hint of green color moving in the sky. Amazing!

October 23, 2009
It's my last day out on the tundra and I'm not sure if I'll be back next year or not; it's my 2nd year of a two-year program. We have a big group today; 37 guests that are coming straight from the airport. We have a great last group with folks from all over, asking lots of questions.

We ended up seeing about 10 polar bears today; with our late start, most of them were on the coastal trail. Many were lying around conserving energy; a few were along the road munching on berries including the young female that loves those berries. Hopefully when the larger males start coming in she can handle it and move out of their way; I worry about her. I can only hope that her mom was a good teacher and that she can make it on her own and so far so good. A couple of polar bears were near the Tundra Buggy lodge resting in the kelp and the willows. Also, saw a snowy owl flying over the grease ice that started forming on Hudson Bay since the temperatures got colder again--which only means more polar bears will start showing up waiting for that ice to freeze so they can get the ringed seals they need to hunt to survive. Our final polar bear was a skittish polar bear that was walking on the road closer to launch that must be new to the area and was unsure of the Tundra Buggy so it ran off into the willows on the side of the road. It was my last Churchill polar bear of the 2009 season.

I had another amazing year of observing polar bears in their natural habitat…if we don't start reducing our carbon footprint right now the outlook for the polar bear is not good. You can go to http://hopenhagen.org/ and sign the petition for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen December 7-18, 2009 and let them know what gives you hope.

On a final note a huge announcement was made on the 22nd of October. The Obama administration said Thursday it is designating more than 200,000 square miles in Alaska and off its coast as "critical habitat" for polar bears, an action that could add restrictions to future offshore drilling for oil and gas. The announcement comes one day after the state of Alaska filed a new complaint in its effort to overturn the listing of the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council said designation of critical habitat is a powerful tool to protect threatened species, but said more must be done to save the polar bear from extinction. For more information about the announcement and the many ways you can reduce your carbon foot print and save these majestic creatures of the arctic, go to http://www.polarbearsinternational.org. “The situation is not irreversible,” says Dr. Steven C. Amstrup. “We can save polar bears and the Arctic, but we must act soon.”