Observation of polar bears during the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition

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7 February 2014

Observation of polar bears during the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition

During the 7-month Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition in the Arctic (May to December 2013) sailors and scientists aboard Tara repeatedly sighted polar bears – a total of 14 individual animals. Their observations were recorded on special data sheets designed by the association “Pôles Actions,” a group that retrieves data for a study of the polar bear population throughout the Arctic basin. At the request of Pôles Actions, we added this modest mission of observation to our primary objective of studying planktonic ecosystems.

This technique of participatory science is currently booming. It consists of organizing the collection of scientific data by volunteers. The data entry sheets are easy to complete, and greatly increase the number of observations available to scientists who can not be everywhere, thus broadening their field of study. And the volunteer has the pleasure of making a small contribution to knowledge of our planet.

During this expedition, 12 data sheets corresponding to 12 separate sightings (one bear was reported on two different data sheets) and a total of 14 bears were noted by our cooks, Celine Blanchard and Dominique Limbour, who volunteered for the job.

For 2 sightings, sailors observed a female with her young. In the first case, on August 17, 2013, there were 2 cubs less than one year old. The sighting took place in exceptional circumstances since the animals were observed for 40 minutes. The mother bears were lying on a piece of drifting ice. The cubs suckled, swam and played around – an unforgettable spectacle! In the second case, on August 20th, the mother bear had only one cub. They were too far from the boat for us to observe specific behavior.

Of these 12 sightings, 5 were made ​​in the Russian archipelago Franz Josef at 80° North. This place is difficult to access because of climatic, geographical and political obstacles. Tara had the chance to sail there for a few days. The data is of particular value. Some of these islands are home to very large colonies of seabirds, and also walruses and seals. Marine life is very rich here, and provides a wide variety of prey for polar bears.

Five sightings concern bears on the ice pack, or on pieces of floating ice. During the Arctic summer,  bears have to travel great distances at sea or on the ice pack to hunt seals. This favorite prey is difficult to capture during the summer. In other sightings, bears were walking around on land close to the sea. In fact, the polar bear’s Latin name – Ursus maritimus – means ‘sea bear,’ and it is indeed a remarkable swimmer with great endurance. In these icy regions, most elements of the food chain are of marine origin. The bear gets most of its food from the sea.

The multiplication of sightings will allow scientists to assess the state of bear populations in the period of climate change we are currently experiencing, particularly in the Arctic. The polar bear’s  environment is undergoing very profound and rapid changes. In summer, the ice pack’s surface area and overall volume decrease. The water gets warmer. Will the bears be able to adapt? We do not know yet, and all the information collected will help us learn more.

Xavier Bougeard

Head of educational programs

To learn more, join us at  the conference “What future for the polar bear?” organized by the Association Pôles Actions, March 28th and 29th in Paris. Lectures will take place at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. Programmed at the Geode: an afternoon for young people, and Les Nuits Boréales, with film projections at both events. Roman Troublé, secretary general of Tara Expeditions, will give a presentation about the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition on Friday, March 28, at 8pm.

Conference program and registration: More information

Reservations for Les Nuits Boréales at the Géode: More information