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Curious swimming polar bears make Canadian researchers anxious

ABOVE: Video by student Kathryn Purdon taken onboard the icebreaker CCGS Amundsen of three polar bears away from the ice and curious about our trace metal sampling system cable.

Some curious swimming polar bears provided some anxious moments for a group of Canadian researchers in the Southern Beaufort Sea recently.

Kathryn Purdon, an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria (UVic), captured the trio of bears on video as they swam up beside the CCGS Amundsen.

They were interested in the cable that was attached to some expensive research equipment, about 3.5 kilometres below the surface of the ocean.

“Not there please, please bears go on,” one of the crew members can be heard saying. “No, Go!” another can be heard yelling as one of the bears goes to bite the cable.

Dr. Jay Cullen, a chemical oceanographer at UVIC, was also on the ship and says while it is common to see polar bears during their expeditions, they normally see them hunting on the sea ice.

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He says the ship had stopped to work and deployed their instruments, but when they saw the bears they tried to retrieve the gear and leave as they cannot get too close to the polar bears.

“But the bears just kept swimming around,” he said. “According to polar bear biologists, they just appeared to be curious.”

However, the bears could have broken the cable, not only injuring them but damaging some very expensive equipment.

“You can hear how anxious we were,” said Cullen. “All my colleagues were able to do was shoo [the bears] away like a dog chewing a couch or something.”

Luckily the bears, who turned out to be a mom and two older cubs, swam away shortly after.

Cullen said he was surprised to see the bears swimming so far from any land, about 240 kilometres, but after speaking with Dr. Andrew Derocher at the University of Alberta he learned it is not uncommon for polar bears to go on long swims.

“Of course the concern is that, as the sea ice melts, those swims get longer,” said Cullen.

The Amundsen is part of ArcticNet and the International Geotraces Program to look at the effect climate change is having on the oceans.