Meteorologists Trapped by Polar Bears Rescued
Russian scientists at a remote, high-Arctic island weather station receive help from a nearby vessel.
Updated September 14 to reflect the rescue of the scientists.
Five meteorologists surrounded by polar bears at a research station on a remote island in high-Arctic Russia have been rescued, according to the Guardian. A Russian research vessel happened to be close by and has arrived on scene, supplying dogs and flares that have since scared the polar bears away from the research facility.
The scientists had been trapped in their facility by a pack of polar bears that had staked out the area.
According to the Russian news agency TASS, approximately ten adult bears, along with some cubs, were stalking the grounds around the Izvestia CEC weather station, on the Troynoy island in the Kara Sea, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) off the coast of Siberia.
The researchers were trapped at the site for two weeks, NBC News reported. Their only defense against the enormous creatures was the used of flares to frighten the large, potentially deadly, animals. But their flare supply had run out, and the researchers were forced indoors.
It was originally thought that help might not reach the scientists for another month, when a scheduled supply boat would arrive.
TASS reported the bears were so close that some of them were sleeping under the windows of the research facility.
"The bears live in the Arctic, you know. We can't ban them from hanging around," the station's supervisor told NBC.
TASS noted that polar bear hunting has been banned in Russia for more than 50 years, due to the animal's worldwide endangered status. Russia's Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Sergey Donskoy, ordered that every measure possible be adopted to protect both the bears and the scientists.
The scientists had halted all outdoor observations. They were stocked for work in year-long shifts, according to NBC, and were not in any immediate peril.
"Things like this have happened before on the Troynoy island because bears inhabit the area and people work there," Vassiliy Shevchenko, the head of the Sevgidromet State Monitoring Network, which owns the weather station, told TASS.
"At the end of October, or in the beginning of November the near-shore waters will freeze and the bears will leave the island in search for food," Shevchenko said.
VIEW PHOTOS: Polar Bear Mom Fights Off Adult Male
style="text-align: left;">Mike Lockhart, a biologist with Polar Bears International, was part of a Manitoba Conservation team conducting an aerial survey of the bears of Canada's Western Hudson Bay late last year when the crew came across an adult male and a smaller subadult feasting on the carcass of a freshly-killed seal. There was nothing unusual about that. What caught the scientists' attention was the fact that, about 400 meters away, a female with two young cubs was heading straight for them. Polar bear mothers are often extremely cautious and nervous in the presence of large males, and for good reason. Although cannibalistic attacks are rare, they do happen. As they watched the female make a beeline for the kill, with her cubs perhaps 100 meters behind her, Lockhart and his colleagues braced themselves for the worst. “All of us in the helicopter were sure we were going to see a cub wiped out," he told Discovery News.
style="text-align: left;">Instead, the mother simply joined in the feast, and, after initially standing back hesitantly, the cubs joined in. The large male is in the top right of this picture. Adult males can frequently weigh over 1,000 pounds, several hundred pounds more than females, and are accordingly far stronger. That a female should place herself and her cubs in such apparent danger was unusual in itself. What happened next was all the more so.
style="text-align: left;">“She was there feeding," recalls Lockhart. "They were all feeding. Then all of a sudden ... she just started batting the male around, pushing him back. She did that several times. He tried to get a little bit closer and she'd keep chasing him off." Perhaps, speculates Steven Amstrup, Polar Bears International's chief scientist, the female could sense that “the male was a bit tentative. It recently could have fed and was not strongly motivated by hunger. Or ... she could tell he was more tentative than other big males might have been when on a kill." Or perhaps extreme hunger overtook her initial caution before her defensive instincts kicked in. But, while both men add the caveat that judging a bear's condition from the air is a highly suspect enterprise, Amstrup notes that “although I've seen fatter bears, they aren't emaciated either."
style="text-align: left;"> Remarkably, the cubs even joined their mother's pursuit of the male. “She moved the big bear quite a ways away from the kill," Lockhart says. “The cubs initially stayed at the kill, but then they came right up behind her, and they were all hackled up and you could see their lips curled. It may have been just fear. I have no idea. They could have run the other way, but instead they came right to her." Amid all the commotion, the subadult bear kept on feeding. “I think he's the one who made the kill," Lockhart said. "He had a pretty big gut and I think he ate a lot of it. But he never budged. He just stayed there with all the excitement that was going on with the other bears."
style="text-align: left;">It's not unprecedented for a polar bear mother to shoo away an adult male that she feels is too close. But to actively head toward a kill where a large male is feeding, and then to chase that male away, is behavior that neither Lockhart nor Amstrup have seen before. “I think what it says is that it may be a question of the size of the fight in the bear rather than the size of the bear in the fight," observes Amstrup. “A motivated female with cubs might be more aggressive, and males, even though they could kill a female if they wanted to, are probably going to get injured in the process. And so depending on the circumstances, it may be healthier for them to back down. It really is a good example that a female with young can be a pretty impressive fighting force."