An Inuit guide was taking a routine sightseeing excursion off the northern coast of Alaska when he saw something, quite simply, incredible in the water. Yes, the tourist boat had happened upon a polar bear that was struggling to stay afloat. And the unusual sight compelled the locals to attempt to rescue the majestic beast before it was too late.
The tour was taking place near the town of Kaktovik. Hardly a bustling metropolis, the Inuit city – home to some 300 people – is a harsh, unforgiving place where daily life is tough.
Here, the Inuits are known as the Iñupiat. There are around 13,500 of them, and their vast territory traditionally spans from the Bering Sea right up to the border between the United States and Canada.
Like most native Arctic peoples, the Iñupiat are hunter-gatherers. Accordingly, Iñupiat communities rely on hunting and fishing for survival, and among their prey are walrus, seals, fish and – most importantly – whales.
During the summer whaling season, when the sea ice has melted, Iñupiat whalers risk their lives hunting these great animals. Subsequently, the catch is celebrated and shared between every member of the community; even those living far away are entitled to a share.
And Kaktovik residents are used to seeing polar bears, too. However, living alongside such beautiful but deadly beasts has taught them to be vigilant – for the polar bear’s wellbeing and protection as much as their own.
Moreover, the Nanuuq, as the polar bear is known in the Iñupiat language, is an important part of the ecosystem in Alaska. Indeed, this amazing animal is found across the state, patrolling the ice from the southern St. Lawrence Island to the northern coast.
Not surprisingly, polar bears usually prefer to live on the pack ice. But, as summer approaches and the ice begins to melt, some bears in the area return to land. Here, though, they can still sometimes be found swimming in the waters off shore.
Yet the bears’ aquatic excursions can be dangerous, as it’s at this time of year that Iñupiat whalers occupy the same waters. So, with the whalers’ nets poised to capture beluga whales, the risk of bears getting tangled up and drowning is real.
Perhaps almost inevitably, then, this clash between the animal kingdom and the fisherman came to pass one afternoon in September 2015. The aforementioned tourist boat, piloted by the local Iñupiat guide, was ferrying tourists out on a sightseeing trip to a nearby barrier island.
The aim of the trip was to spot polar bears living on the island. However, they came across one of the creatures long before reaching their destination when the guide spotted the bear struggling in the water.
Then, as the boat neared the animal, it dawned on the crew that the polar bear was caught up in a fishing net that had been set to catch beluga whales. Because of this, the poor creature was close to drowning.
So locals set out in boats to help the stranded bear. Among them was Rolan Warrior, the owner of the net that had trapped the creature, and he was as determined as anyone to help with the rescue effort.
When they arrived at the scene, they found that the bear was in a bad way and knew that it needed to get back to shore. But first it needed to be tranquilized.
Once the bear was sedated, then, the Iñupiat rescue team could set to work carefully towing it to land. However, it was a real struggle to keep the doped-up animal’s head from sinking into the water.
Nevertheless, the rescue was a success. And after the courageous seafarers arrived back at shore, biologists took over. The experts removed the net and gave the bear a once-over for any injuries. Then, satisfied that the beast was in good health, they released it into its natural habitat.
Flora Rexford’s parents were among the local residents who went out to help rescue the bear that day. “[The boats] were critical in helping to save [the bear],” she told Fox 4. “They had a hard time pulling it up onto the beach in the waves.”
All told, the bear had had a lucky escape. But it was thanks to the close relationship that the local residents have with the wildlife in their region that they were able to help save the life of this stunning but endangered animal.
Fox 4 also spoke to Geoff York, Polar Bears International’s senior director of conservation. He said, “They are on the ground 24/7. [They] have important experience and perspectives passed down from generations untold.”
“It’s great to see local people and scientists come together to solve a clear problem,” he continued. “In this time of unprecedented change, we need more collaboration across the Arctic and across groups.”