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Excerpts from the book
Polar bears: Living with the White Bear
by Nikita Ovsyanikov

Giants at Sea

…There is a belief, not only among indigenous people of Chukotka, that when a walrus meets a swimming polar bear, it takes revenge and kills the enemy.…With such a high concentration of walruses in the water at Cape Blossom in the autumn of 1990, I had a good opportunity to check these attitudes and to investigate how the drama that starts on the beach continues in the sea…

…It happened on September 24, 1991. The day was stormy and many walruses had found shelter from the hard surf in calm water on the southern side of the spit. A female polar bear with two cubs-of-the-year and two adult males had escaped into the sea after a subadult bear had created panic by running to the top of the spit. At first all five of the white heads of the swimming bears were close together, but soon the group split up. The males continued to the west where the waves were higher, while the female headed her cubs in the direction of the calm water on the southern side of the spit. There she encountered the walruses. Several times, single walruses and groups of up to seven animals passed the family of bears, but the walruses did not approach any closer than about thirty feet (10 m).

Hidden by the heavy surf, a group of twelve walruses was bobbing on the waves fifty feet (15 m) from the bear family. Only when both groups were on the crest of their respective waves could the mother bear see the group of walruses. The moment she became aware of them, she changed course, putting herself between the cubs and the walruses, and keeping her cubs about five feet (1.5 m) in front of her. There were so many walruses taking shelter from the storm that no matter where they turned, the bears could not avoid meeting them. Single walruses and small groups looked at the bears and dove or swam away. The bears were treading water and looking nervously around.

The mother had finally decided to head the cubs out to the west, when suddenly a large walrus surfaced 15 feet (5 m) in front of the family. As the mother first turned away and then thought better of it and turned back, the adult walrus swam rapidly toward the family and did a forward rolling-dive right in front of them, coming as close to the bears as the mother was from her cubs. I could not make out the sex of the walrus, but there was no mistaking that it was big and it was excited. The bears looked worried. The walrus repeated this display two more times, then dove and disappeared. Immediately after that, the mother headed her cubs to the northwest and left the area.

From this and other observations, I soon learned that female polar bears with cubs are particularly cautious with walruses in the water, and young mothers are positively afraid of them…


A Singular Bear

…There is one special pleasure for me in the behavioral study of animals in the wild&emdash;getting to know animal personalities. It did not take me long to realize that the bigger the wild animal, the more exciting it is for me to get to know it up close and personal.

Before I turned to polar bears, I had spent twelve years studying arctic foxes. They are intelligent and resourceful little creatures, and I never tired of watching them. I followed their daily lives with empathy, but as an observer, not as a participant. Because of our size difference, interactions with foxes did not involve me as a partner.

With polar bears it was different. We were about the same size&emdash;although the bears are heavier and more powerful&emdash;and each interaction forced me to play a kind of game in which I had to adjust myself to the bears’ social etiquette. In other words, I had to play at being a polar bear. Never before had I had such pleasure interacting with animals.

…by Nikita Ovsyanikov. Dr. Ovsyanikov is a Russian zoologist who has studied polar bears and arctic foxes on Wrangel Island since 1977.

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