There’s a village along the northern edge of Alaska where the human to polar bear ratio tips 3 to 1 in the summer. Alaska Dispatch photographer Loren Holmes and reporter Alex DeMarban traveled to this whaling village, called Kaktovik, to document how the largest bears in the world live alongside villagers for a few weeks each year. All Photos: Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch
Last month, Kaktovik hunters killed a bowhead whale and butchered the leviathan outside of the village. The meat would feed the 250 residents through the winter, and the leftovers would feed the bears. The rotting carcass attracted a record 80 bears to the village and Holmes counted more than 22 bears feeding on the carcass at one time.
As the ice retreats in the summer, the polar bears in this region head for land. Food is more scarce during the summer and the bears are left to scavenge and forage what they can. So, hundreds of pounds of rotting whale meat becomes quite the draw and it lures in bears from miles away.
“There’s only a few places in the world where you can see that many polar bears at a time,” Holmes said. The opportunity to see bears attracts adventurous tourists and researchers. The arctic ice sheets have been retreating faster and farther each year and the bear researchers are trying to figure out if that is having an impact on the polar bears.
For the most part, the bears and Kaktovik locals are able to co-exist. The villagers enjoy the bears and there haven’t been any reported injuries yet, Holmes said. But, everyone realizes the bears are powerful predators and precautions are taken. At night, curious bears roam the village and most people don’t leave their homes. “One night we went out to shoot the Northern Lights and we were definitely on edge the whole time,” Holmes said.
The town also has a bear squad, which consists of a few guys in pickup trucks armed with firecrackers and shotguns. Their job is to scare bears out of the town and prevent conflicts.
But there have been at least a few small skirmishes. This dog got out of one of the pickup trucks and decided to charge the bears. As you can see from this shot, the bears were not impressed. Holmes said the dog did end up getting away.
The polar bears also hang out in the open between the village and its small airport. “One of the planes had to buzz the runway to get a bear out of the way before it could land,” Holmes said.
“They [the locals] certainly respect the bears and it’s a part of their life, just like the whales are,” Holmes said.
In this part of Alaska, just outside of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, hunting is a way of life and a means of survival. The Kaktovik residents live on whale meat and caribou. Holmes and DeMarban reported a series of stories on the prospect of offshore drilling in the ANWR and how it could threaten the villages in the region.
In some ways, Kaktovic is ground zero for two major debates in the world of conservation: 1) Should drilling for oil be allowed in ANWR; 2) How is global climate change effecting polar bear populations. “I was born and raised in Alaska and have traveled all over the state, but this place is something unique,” Holmes said.
“It’s about more than just polar bears for the people who live up here,” Holmes said. “Subsistence [hunting] is a way of life … Some of these communities have a 40 percent unemployment rate.” “I don’t think that’s understood very clearly in the Lower 48,” Holmes said.
To find stories and more photos of the Kaktovic polar bears and offshore drilling in the ANWR go to…
Rotting whale meat lures record 80 polar bears to Kaktovik
Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR: A tale of two oil fields
Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR: Is wildlife refuge last hope for polar bears?
Polar bears are a part of the landscape in the whaling village of Kaktovik, Alaska. Check out these amazing photos from Alaska Dispatch photographer Loren Holmes.