When Polar Bears Talk in the Arctic

We’ve mentioned before the impossibility of fulfilling your dream of witnessing polar bears and penguins mingling together in peaceful cohabitation, but here’s an easy way to remember why: The word "Arctic" comes from the Greek word for bear, and "Antarctic," in Greek, means exactly the opposite, without bear. 

If you cruise to the Arctic, or North Pole, it’s doubtful you’ll tire of watching these fuzzy, white land mammals go about their daily business, but in the rare occurrence you see them interacting together, it might make more sense if you actually understand what they’re saying. 

Though polar bears live in isolation for most of the year, there are instances when communication is necessary. Mating season (Spring), for example, usually takes place in a private area, though there have been a few lucky humans to witness this fantastic seduction scene. A male approaches a female with a series of low, gentle tones, which are often reciprocated with a playful rolling in the snow. Afterward, the couple will move to secrecy in hopes of hiding from any potential threats; for example, other male bears looking to encroach on the fun and are willing to fight for the female prize. Mating is often a bloody battle for the male as he fights off unwelcome intruders for weeks, hoping to ensure he is the only one to impregnate his chosen female. 

Mother polar bears birth two or three cubs, and then spend up to three years caring for and training them. The offspring come to know the distinct sound of their mother’s voice, which is spoken through various grunts and snarls to offer both encouragement and warnings about pending danger. In this time they will learn how to hunt and survive on their own in the bitter cold of their homeland. 

Hunting is an intricate art in a polar bear’s life, and most cubs learn by watching. Their main prey is ringed seal, which require the bears to be stealthy and quick. Polar bears will often linger around an ice opening (created by a seal as a breathing hole) and wait for the seal to surface for air. Other times, the bear will sneak up on a seal while resting on a sheet of ice, requiring a slow and silent forward crawl where a bear will freeze in place at the sight of movement, much like a human child will do if trying to hide and scare an elder. 

One might think that such carnivorous, solitary animals would be greedy with their food, but that’s not necessarily the case. Often times a polar bear will share his catch, especially if it’s large (they also feast on walrus and whale if such prey becomes easily available), if the beggars ask politely. This requires submitting to the successful hunter in a kneeling approach, followed by a circle around the imminent meal and a gentle nudge of nose-to-nose contact before the mendicant is allowed to eat. 

But polar bears aren’t always so friendly. If you witness a bear with a lowered head making hissing or snorting sounds, he’s most likely aggravated. If the sound morphs into loud roars or growls, he’s upset; a deep, low growl is a warning sign. If he charges, head down and ears back, the attack is most definitely out of anger. You won’t want to be too close in any of these instances. 

However, if the bear instigates what looks like a fight by wagging his head from side to side, touching mouths with another, and then standing on his hind legs, it’s likely just a request to play. The bears will then try to knock each other over with their forepaws in a procedural game of war. 

The Arctic is full of natural entertainment and wondrous surprises. Book your cruise today and you could find yourself with a front row seat to the best wildlife show on Earth.

Polar Cruises, Travel Agencies & Bureaus, Bend, OR