Wild polar bear viewing is a unique industry, limited to very few places on the earth. Here in Alaska, on its northern coast, the business is beginning to boom in the village of Kaktovik.
“Very few [tourists] ask about other animals, they're all here to see the polar bears,” said polar bear viewing guide Bruce Inglangasak.
Originally from Canda, Inglangasak said he has been offering polar bear viewing tours by boat since about 2002. He said he has brought tourists from all around the world within just feet of the massive polar bears.
“First [the tourists] were all scared and then I tell them this is how close we get to [the bears],” Inglangasak said. “They don't bother us, and these are really mellow animals when they're here because they're here for one reason and that's to feed at the bone pile.”
Polar Bear Wildlife Biolgist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Susi Miller, said there is no established distance that people must stay away from bears when viewing.
“It's based more on the bear’s behavior,” Miller said. “These trained guides -- they know that they can approach in a manner; as long as it’s not changing the behavior of the bear they're fine.”
Miller explained currently four people in Kaktovik are licensed and trained to guide polar bear tours. Inglangasak said he knows of about 11 boats that are operating tours.
“It does take experience with bears to know how they behave, how they're going to respond to you and every bear it's different,” Miller said. “So we really rely on those guides to get that right.”
During fall whaling season in the village the number of bears on shore rises, Inglangasak said. Each year Miller said the number of bears staying on the shores of Kaktovik is rising.
“We believe that’s related to ice and their availability to hunt successfully,” Miller said. “When the ice recedes in the summertime most of the bears go with the ice, but if they do remain with the ice, they have less opportunity to hunt seals.”
Miller said the polar bears that do come to shore, in places like Kaktovik, are making use of an alternative food source.
Inglangasak said during whaling season unused portions of the whale are discarded at the village bone pile for the bears to eat. On a good day during whaling season tourists can see up to two dozen wild polar bears. During September he is completely booked with tours that range from nearly $400 to $550 for a few hours, Inglangasak said.
The polar bear viewing business has attracted many tourists to the area and Inglangasak said at first not all of the locals were in favor of the outsiders coming to their village.
"It was kind of a mixed group but now they're starting to see it's good for our community,” said Inglangasak.
Inglangasak said in a few weeks he makes enough money to support his family through the year.
Miller said there are about 1,500 polar bears living in the southern Beaufort Sea population. Last year U.S. Fish and Wildelife Service counted more than 80 polar bears. Miller said it is possible that people visiting Kaktovik can see about 8 percent of the that region's polar bear population.
Contact Mallory Peebles