Belugas as food for hungry polar bears

Here’s a refreshing change from the litany of cries to “save the killer whales” we heard last month when a few killer whales got temporarily trapped in the ice of Hudson Bay, which I commented about at the time. A story with an entirely different tone emerged last week, with updates today, about beluga whales trapped in the ice on Hudson Bay (see maps and photos below) that came without emotional pleading. It’s a story of life in the Arctic.

Here is the part of the article picked up by Alaska Dispatch, “Belugas trapped under Hudson Bay ice attract polar bears” (from Nunatsiaq News|Nunatsiaq Online February 15, 2013) that caught my eye [my bold]:

About 20 beluga whales have spent this past week trapped in sea ice, around two breathing holes about 60 miles south of Sanikiluaq.

Many of the belugas have been killed or wounded after repeated attacks by polar bears, who have been hanging around two six-foot-wide breathing holes, said Lucassie Arragutainaq, who works with the Hunters and Trappers Association in the Hudson Bay community.

Hunters first discovered the trapped belugas a few days ago.

On Feb. 13, hunters finally managed to land six of the belugas, which were delivered to the community to be used for food.

At that point, there were still about 20 belugas spotted in the two openings, Arragutainaq said. That’s after polar bears had already killed about 19 belugas.

“The polar bears have calmed down now after landing 19 whales themselves,” Arragutainaq said Feb. 14.

Hunters had counted 19 beluga carcasses on the ice that had been hauled out and eaten by the polar bears.

So far, the polar bears have killed mostly “calves from last spring.”

Figure 1. From the Alaska Dispatch story, courtesy Nunatsiaq News. I like these pictures because it really shows how polar bears are able to catch beluga in situations like this: a swipe of the massive paw to hold one in place (see all the claw marks from unsuccessful attempts?), one good bite with those tremendously strong polar bear jaws into the fatty part of the beluga head, then haul it up and out of the water – game over for the young beluga, perfect meal for the polar bear. An adult may be too large for a polar bear to handle this way but a young one? Easy as grizzlies catching salmon

Figure 1. From the Alaska Dispatch story, courtesy Nunatsiaq News. I like these pictures because they really show how polar bears are able to catch beluga in situations like this: a swipe of the massive paw to hold one in place (see all the claw marks from unsuccessful attempts?), one good bite with those tremendously strong polar bear jaws into the fatty part of the beluga head, then haul it up and out of the water – game over for the young beluga, perfect meal for the polar bear. An adult may be too large for most polar bears to handle this way, but a young one? Almost as easy as grizzlies catching salmon.

Today, there was an update at Alaska Dispatch (from Nunatsiaq News|Nunatsiaq Online February 18, 2013) that said:

Hunters in Sanikiluaq are still trying to harvest belugas which remain trapped in two six-foot-wide breathing holes in the sea ice about 60 miles south of the Hudson Bay community in Canada. So far, hunters have landed 24 whales, although polar bears has [sic] already killed about 20 of the trapped belugas while wounding others.

Perhaps because this story comes from an Arctic community newspaper, where people understand that polar bears and people hunt belugas because their survival depends on it, there is no plea to emotions. Both articles end with this statement:

Due to changing ice conditions, it’s not unusual that belugas end up trapped in ice where they are at risk of predation or death from exhaustion, starvation or suffocation.

“Situations where marine mammals are trapped by the ice are not unusual in the North,” Nathalie Letendre, a communications officer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told Nunatsiaq News last month when a group of killer whales were trapped near Inukjuak, but managed to escape when the wind moved the ice.

So where is Sanikiluaq? I’ve located it on this ice extent map from the Canadian Ice Service for February 16, 2013. Sanikiluaq, Quebec is on one of the Belcher Islands that lay just north of James Bay (see Figs 2 and 3 below). Around these islands are several polynyas (areas of open water) that are available for belugas, seals and other animals throughout the winter – and therefore, places where polar bears and humans hunt.

Figure 2. Location of Sanikiluaq, Quebec (arrow), one of two communities in the Belcher Islands. The location of Inukjuak, Quebec (the nearest village to the killer whales that were trapped in ice last month) is marked with a dot. See Fig. 3 below for a close-up map of the Belchers.

Figure 2. Location of Sanikiluaq, Quebec (arrow), one of two communities in the Belcher Islands. The location of Inukjuak, Quebec (the nearest village to the killer whales that were trapped in ice last month) is marked with a dot. See Fig. 3 below for a close-up map of the Belchers.

Figure 3. The Belcher Islands, Quebec. Courtesy the Mitiq website.

Figure 3. The Belcher Islands, Quebec. Courtesy the Mitiq website.

Here is what the website of the Mitiq says about the Belchers:

The Belcher Archipelago is a group of about 1,500 islands located in Hudson Bay north of the entrace [sic] to the James Bay. The Belcher Islands are spread out over almost 3,000 square kilometres,The explorer Henry Hudson sighted the islands in 1610. Robert Flaherty (who later went on to produce the famous film, Nanook of the North) mapped the islands on his 1914 and 1916 expeditions.

No trees grow here and, except in valleys, only a thin layer of soil covers the ground. The islands’ peak is 155 metres above sea level; some cliffs rise from 50 to 70 metres. The Belcher Islands support a number of polynyas (water open year round). The area provides good habitat for wintering polar bears, which are hunted by people from the community of Sanikiluaq. Beluga whales and walrus also winter here. [my bold]

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