Every year, dozens of polar bears flock to the Arctic Alaska community of Kaktovik, lured by the potential for feasting on the remains of whales taken during traditional subsistence hunts. The summer months are often a lean time for polar bears, who spend much of the winter gorging themselves on seals out on the sea ice.
As the ice retreats from shore every summer, the polar bears must decide when to go to ground, abandoning their primary food source and adopting a temporarily hardscrabble life on land. The fall subsistence whaling season gives them a brief autumn feast of whatever is left on the whale after villagers take what they need. The bears take full advantage.
Kaktovik is a small village sitting on Barter Island, abutting the Beaufort Sea on Alaska's north coast. About 250 people populate the community, and many still depend on the fall whaling hunts to provide enough food to get them through harsh winters. But even the best-harvested whales have scraps left over, and that draws the bears.
With the bears come researchers studying the effects of a changing Arctic on polar bears' health and population. On any given day, dozens of polar bears can be spotted hanging in or around the community, and 2012 set a record for the most bears seen in a single day at 80. The reasons for the fluctuations in bear numbers aren't yet entirely clear, though scientists are investigating whether a longer season of melting sea ice may hurt the animals.
But it's not all business when it comes to polar bears in Kaktovik. The island has also become a popular hotspot for journalists and tourists anxious to see and snap photos of the bears in an environment where they'll occasionally wander into town.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing