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Guest Post by Paul Nicklen | Emerging from a Snowy Den, Polar Bear Cubs Follow in Mama Bear’s Footsteps

Mama Bear copyright Paul Nicklen Photography
August 4, 2023

This is a guest blog post by WWSG exclusive thought leader, Paul Nicklen. All images are copyrighted. To purchase Paul’s work, visit his website.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the last few decades, I have seen well over 3,000 polar bears in the wild and have walked in their footsteps for most of my life. For years, I worked as a biologist studying their populations across Canada’s Manitoba and Nunavut territories, watching their lives unfold through each snowy winter on the sea ice and each mild Arctic summer. But the one thing I had never managed to see was a mother bear emerging from her den with her cubs in tow.

Polar bear cubs are born blind and hairless deep beneath the snow in the heart of winter. Weighing no more than a pound at birth, they are completely dependent on mom for warmth, food, and protection. Over the course of a few months, they quickly start to gain weight on some of the richest milk in the world and develop a thick coat of fur. Their mother nurses them and keeps a close watch on her new family, even as she fasts and conserves energy. She will not eat until it is time to leave the den and make the long trek to hunt seals, usually when her cubs are about 20 or 30 pounds. Her body will convert these calories into some of the richest milk in the world to nourish her cubs. When the moment is right, and her cubs are strong enough, she will tip her nose to the east and track the sea ice over miles of snow-covered forests. Only when she and her precious offspring have safely arrived will she gorge on seal meat and finally regain her strength. By this time, it’s been eight months since her last meal. It’s time to search for seals to replenish her lost weight and fat reserves.

During a brief respite last winter, I finally seized my chance to head back to Manitoba and witness for myself the moment a mama bear steps out of her snowy den. After staking out a couple of den sites and patiently freezing in the snow for hours on end, the tiniest flicker of movement caught my eye. Mama emerged first, her great head swiveling to follow her nose as she tested the air. Once she deemed it was safe to leave the security of her little hollow, she climbed into the open, looking exhausted but healthy. Within seconds, she was joined by a pair of toddling cubs no more than a few months old. 

A Mother’s Universe | Manitoba, Canada, 2023

Faced with the blinding, snow-reflected light of a bright new world, the cubs clung closely to their mother. Over time, however, they gained the courage to begin playing and exploring their surroundings, emboldened by mom’s powerful and patient presence. Watching the pair tumble in the snow was an instant dose of joy, but it was their mother’s calm and gentle presence that captivated me. She had a wise, quiet power to her, as if this may not have been her first journey through motherhood. With the long trek ahead to find food and an even longer path to successfully raising her cubs into adolescence, she will need every ounce of strength she has—especially as our world grows ever warmer. 

As the final days of the hottest month on record draw to a close, my thoughts keep returning to the little polar bear family I met on that crisp February afternoon. It will not be long before the autumn season returns, hopefully bringing relief to the parts of the world gripped in deadly heatwaves and the return of the ice over Hudson Bay. The longer polar bears have to wait for the ice to form, the more precarious their survival becomes, especially for mothers and their young. 

Wherever in the world she is, I sincerely hope mama bear is thriving and teaching her cubs to be wise bears like her. In the meantime, I hope you will join me in working to ensure mothers around the world, both animal and human alike, may continue to raise the next generation on a healthy planet.

With hope and gratitude,

Paul Nicklen

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