Drawn to civilisation by harvested whale blubber, the white giants in turn draw intrepid tourists, writes Rachel Walker

Clouds roiled on the horizon, saturated and spitting as six of us waited in the sterile anteroom of the Northern Alaska Tour Company's aviation office in Fairbanks. A giant map of the state hung on the wall, and my gaze returned to it repeatedly. There we were, landlocked in Alaska's centre. Further north, beyond the massive Yukon River valley, was Deadhorse, an oil town at the mouth of Prudhoe Bay. East of Deadhorse, cleaving to the landmass below it and perched on the blue Beaufort Sea, was our destination: Kaktovik, the only occupied village in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Here, polar bears converge every autumn, waiting for sea ice to form so they can head out and live adrift throughout the winter.

Polar bear swimming in the Beaufort Sea on the northern coast of Alaska. Photo / Washington Post
Polar bear swimming in the Beaufort Sea on the northern coast of Alaska. Photo / Washington Post

Polar bears — now listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act due to climate change — traditionally congregate in and around Kaktovik, an Inupiat village of about 250 residents, while awaiting autumn's sea ice formation. The bears are attracted to the village in part because of its annual bowhead whale hunt, allowed under native treaties.

Residents may harvest up to three whales each year. Villagers rely on whale meat to subsist through the harsh winter, and they leave the blubber and other inedible (to humans) whale parts to satiate the hungry bruins. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the system has been working well for decades. Feed the predators and co-exist. It's only in recent years that a tourism industry has cropped up around the practice, with people like me willing to travel above the Arctic Circle for the chance to visit this forlorn and distant place and see the bears in their native habitat.

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Some environmentalists warn that global warming could destroy polar bear habitats and ultimately lead to the species' extinction. It's widely accepted that a loss of sea ice will force major adaptation upon the bears, and the population decline will probably continue.

I hope we defy the gloomiest predictions but I decided to take this trip, in part because I wanted to see polar bears in the wild before it was too late.

When I was beginning to wonder whether our trip would be cancelled because of the quixotic Fairbanks weather, the rain stopped and we rushed to the tarmac. We hustled into the Piper Navajo Chieftain and took to the sky.

Within minutes, civilisation gave way to a lush and broad wilderness, snaked with rivers.

From cruising altitude, the muted colours of autumn created a mosaic that mesmerised me until clouds obliterated the view. After an hour of flying through fog, the grey broke to reveal an endless panorama of some of the steepest, most rugged mountains I'd ever seen. The Brooks Range. For a moment, I forgot all about the bears and lost myself in this landscape, equally dazzling and intimidating.

The first bears we saw were on the beach, en route from the airstrip to town. They were gathered around large chunks of blubber, refuse from a recently harvested whale. Three bears, their muzzles red with blood, ignored us as we slowed down to take a good look.

Polar bear tour group preparing to depart Fairbanks, Alaska for Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo / Washington Post
Polar bear tour group preparing to depart Fairbanks, Alaska for Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo / Washington Post

But our guide moved us along. The locals are private about their traditions, reticent about discussing them and completely opposed to being photographed by outsiders.

We tried to respect that but it was hard. Seeing polar bears so close sent a jolt of energy through the van. We were metres from one of the biggest, fiercest animals in the world and they were as oblivious to us as cows grazing in a field. The guide promised we'd see a lot more and we quickly realised he was right. They were everywhere. Some loafed in the fresh air, others gnawed on large blocks of blubber. We saw very little separation of people and bears; there were no fences separating wildlife areas from residential ones.

Ushered on to a fishing boat, we set out on the ocean. Although high winds kept us close to shore, we saw even more bears. They were huge, with paws the size of a child's head, clearly visible through binoculars. But ... they were also cute. Even bears with bloody muzzles that had been gorging themselves on whale leftovers looked sweet and innocent and cuddly — easy to say with white caps and a boat's hull between us. Add in the cubs and my group of six was smitten.

Our five-hour tour was more visual than it was educational. At least that was my initial reaction — as an amateur naturalist, I've been on more than my share of nature tours. I expected an impassioned lecture from our guide on bear biology and climate change, and I thought I'd end the day armed with enough facts to feel as if I could actually do something to help polar bears.

As I stepped off the boat and on to the rocky shore, heart beating with the thrill of sharing the air, the world, really, with wild bears, I understood in a visceral way the intricate complexity of that world. I also saw clearly how insignificant I was in the big picture.

A polar bear walking in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo / Washington Post
A polar bear walking in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo / Washington Post

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

has a 10-night Glacier Bay Cruise, return from San Francisco, from $1919pp, twin share. Cruise departs May 6 on board Grand Princess.

Details: See visittheusa.com.

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