A date with polar bears in snowy wilderness

Wrangel Island, a Russian island in the Arctic Ocean, is famous as the breeding ground of polar bears, seals and walruses. In the pristine snow-covered islands with the Northern lights shining, it's sheer joy to see tiny, blind and defenceless cubs grow into the world's most feared predators.

Photo: Bezrukov&Bashnaeva

There are hardly any humans here. But this amazing snow-covered island, located between Chukchi Sea and East Siberian Sea, is a haven for fabulous arctic wildlife. Wrangel Island in Chukotka, famous as “the home of the polar bear”, was discovered 162 years ago. Barring the few people that work at the nature reserve and the staff at the arctic meteorological station who study the island’s fragile ecosystems, there are no humans on the island, and it is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site for its unspoilt natural environment. And here, under a layer of snow many meters thick, tiny, blind and defenceless cubs (weighing just 400 grams) are brought into the world. These cubs eventually turn into one of world’s biggest and most feared predators – the polar bear.

Every year about 500 polar bears build dens and breed in these nature reserves. Some parts of the island have the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world: with up to 4-5 in each square kilometre. In March the only sign of spring coming are a few polar bear prints in the snow. This time of year, the female bears dig a small tunnel out of their dens and let their cubs get a glimpse of the big world outside. For the first few days the cubs and the mother return to the den every evening before darkness falls and the cold sets in. Their den is also their shelter from the island’s frequent blizzards. During this time staff at the nature reserve carry out a survey of the dens in the area, where cubs have been born. This work is not cheap, and these surveys are no longer carried out on the island every year, as the helicopter flight alone costs around a million roubles ($33,000).

It is quite an incredible experience to watch the mother emerge out of the den with two fluffy cubs in tow. After a long hesitation the mother stretches herself and rolls. The baby bears follow suit and soon they are also turning somersaults in the snow, joyfully discovering their bodies and the world in which they live. The female bear lies down, closes her eyes and soaks up the sunlight, making herself available to the babies. The cubs gather to her to suckle, and without leaving their mother they start to play a game, which involves licking their mother’s nose every so often. Reluctantly the mother joins in, answering with a lazy wave of her paw, or a nod of her head. She will already have dedicated three months of her life to bringing up these cubs; suckling them, licking the their tiny bodies clean, carefully turning from side to side so as not to crush them, and preparing her offspring for the nomadic life that awaits them. Now they already weigh more than 5kg - they have grown a thick coat of white fur, and they look out at the world from their big black eyes, watching their mother’s every move.

The bears enter their egg-like den in the snow through a narrow corridor, so narrow that they have to slide along on their bellies. The den could easily fit 4 or 5 fully-grown humans. The floor, covered in ice, is polished and shiny. The walls and ceiling are covered in scratch marks and white fur that has frozen into the snow. Polar bears spend the whole summer cut off from the human view by the inaccessible icy expanses of the frozen Arctic Ocean. Drifting on the ice floes, the bears hunt seals and walruses. Come summer, and it's a time of courtship for the bears. At this time of year the male bears, who are all desperately seeking a mate, can pose a serious threat to the life of the cubs. In September, huge numbers of Pacific walruses gather on the beaches of Wrangel Island to rest and gather strength for their big annual migration. As autumn approaches the islands are once again covered in ice, and the polar bears return. When they hunt for food they cause widespread panic at the walrus colonies, with many of the sea mammals being crushed to death as they try to escape. The quarry of one of the polar bears can be shared by more than a dozen others, and both males and females, young and old all get their fill.

As the harsh winter sets in the bears spend a lot of time building up fat reserves for hard times ahead. With a belly full of food, the bears seem happy and relaxed, and they spend their days sleeping on the beach and swimming in the sea; and both cubs and adults alike are constantly engaged in playful scuffles. The polar bears are surprisingly cheerful and friendly when they are among their own kind.

Polar bears are very curious creatures; they take an interest in anything new or unusual, but they are not at all aggressive. It is as though life in this icy wilderness has taught these creatures to respect each other, and means that if they feel that they are in danger, they prefer to walk away from potential problems, using flight as a means of survival - in the extreme conditions of the Arctic, even a small injury could be fatal. Inspired curiosity, polar bears like to check out human habitation. It is not hard to drive a bear away. Sometimes it is enough to bang a saucepan, or make another loud noise. Some people scare them away with a big stick. Surprisingly enough, if you run at a polar bear brandishing a stick up and down in front of you, the predator will probably run away. It’s hard to believe, but this is exactly how people on Wrangel Island drive off bears every year. …Winter is coming, the sea is quickly covered in ice and nearly all the polar bears are out wandering the kingdom of the frozen Arctic Ocean.


Only the pregnant females stay on dry land, waiting for the mountain slopes to be carpeted in a thick blanket of snow. When it comes, under the flicker of the Northern lights, with the North Star shining above them, another generation of polar bears will be brought into the world.

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