The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear

The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear

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by Kieran Mulvaney

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Polar bears are creatures of paradox: They are white bears whose skin is black; massive predators who can walk almost silently; Arctic residents whose major problem is not staying warm, but keeping cool. Fully grown they can measure 10 feet and weigh close to 2,000 pounds, but at birth they are just 20 ounces. Creatures that may wander thousands of miles over

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Polar bears are creatures of paradox: They are white bears whose skin is black; massive predators who can walk almost silently; Arctic residents whose major problem is not staying warm, but keeping cool. Fully grown they can measure 10 feet and weigh close to 2,000 pounds, but at birth they are just 20 ounces. Creatures that may wander thousands of miles over the course of a year, they begin life in a snowdrift.

Human encounters with these legendary beasts are cause for both excitement and apprehension. Tales throughout history describe the ferocity of polar bear attacks on humans; but human hunting of polar bears has exacted a far larger toll, obliging Arctic nations to try to protect their region’s iconic species before it’s too late.

Now, however, another threat to the polar bears’ survival has emerged, one that is steadily removing sea ice and the life it supports. Without this habitat, polar bears cannot exist. The Great White Bear celebrates the story of this unique species. Through a blend of history, both natural and human, through myth and reality and observations both personal and scientific, Kieran Mulvaney masterfully provides a context for readers to consider the polar bear, its history, its life, and its uncertain fate.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

An up-close look at the world's only truly carnivorous, largest and perhaps most threatened species of bear.

For some years now, scientists have used the Arctic ecosystem as a barometer to measure the effects of global warming. They've monitored what appears to be an unprecedented shrinking of the extent and thickness of sea ice, the southern limits of which circumscribe the range of the polar bear. Wholly dependent upon the shifting platform of the sea's frozen surface—the bear slowly and silently stalks the ice in search of its principal prey, seals—the bear stands atop the Arctic chain of being and has emerged as the poster-child for what we stand to lose if global warming proceeds unabated. A specialist in environmental and wildlife topics, Mulvaney (The Whaling Season: An Inside Account of the Struggle to Stop Commercial Whaling, 2003, etc.) relies on the scientific literature, historical records and especially his own on-scene reporting to tell the bear's remarkable story. How the bears evolved, how they mate, give birth, hunt, feed and swim are all part of Mulvaney's treatment. He scatters throughout any number of fascinating facts about these enormous mammals: their dens carved from snow drifts, their elongated skulls and sharp teeth for seizing seals, their black skin and unpigmented (not white) fur, their solitary nature, their occasional cannibalism and their powerful sense of smell. Beautiful descriptions of the stark Arctic, tales from early polar explorers about their bear encounters, explanations about how modern scientists keep tabs on the bears and a short history of the international agreements that protect them all make for interesting reading. However, the high point of the narrative is Mulvaney's trip to Hudson Bay's Cape Churchill, where the bears congregate at the beginning of each season. He describes the town's heroic measures to accommodate the bears and describes a memorable a trip to the Tundra Buggy Lodge to observe them as they prepare to head out onto the sea ice.

A graceful account of a majestic, suddenly fashionable predator clinging to an imperiled habitat.

Dennis Drabelle
…for an account of the effects [of pollution and global warming] on a specific creature, readers should turn to Kieran Mulvaney's illuminating The Great White Bear. Mulvaney has ventured far from his home in Alexandria, Va., to watch polar bears, notably in northern Alaska and on Hudson Bay.
—The Washington Post

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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The bear was near the horizon when we first saw it.
 A dot in the water, barely visible above the waves, it was not, initially, obviously a bear at all.
 “Look at the size of that seal,” exclaimed the mate, raising binoculars and prompting the captain to do likewise.
 There was a pause as the two men pondered the distant object, perhaps realized what they were looking at, dismissed the thought, returned to it, and finally conceded what was increasingly clear.
 That a polar bear should be in the vicinity should not, on the face of it, have been particularly remarkable. We were, after all, anchored just off the north coast of Alaska; however one defines the Arctic — and scientists, geographers, and oceanographers debate many conflicting and complementary delineations — we were undoubtedly in the heart of it and deep within the polar bear’s realm.
 Yet the initial confusion was understandable. Polar bears are creatures of the ice; but, save a few floes drifting past in the current of the Beaufort Sea, there was almost none to be seen — just mile upon mile of open water.
 We had come in search of the edge of the Arctic Ocean sea ice. The boundary where open water progressively yields to its frozen counterpart is an oasis of marine life, one that our passengers, biologists from the University of Alaska, were keen to reach. But the ice edge had retreated to the north, earlier and farther than normal; it would take us many days of steaming to reach our goal. There was no way of knowing how long or how far this particular bear had been swimming, but its chances of ever finding its species’ preferred habitat were all but nonexistent.
 It was a Sunday morning. The scent of freshly baked bread and of the breakfast that was cooking in the galley wafted from deck to deck and into the crisp arctic air. It filled our nostrils as we tumbled from mess room and cabins, hastily pulling on fleeces and coats, to watch as our visitor approached. The aromas stretched far beyond our green hull, wafting into the distance, their decreasing strength more than compensated for by the extra sensitivity to them on the part of the bear — which, it was increasingly clear, was not simply swimming in our direction but making a determined beeline for us.
 It paddled closer, close enough that now we could see it clearly, its paws working feverishly beneath the surface of the water, its long neck straining to keep its head above the surface, its eyes fixed eagerly on the steel grail ahead of it, its small ears flat against the side of its head. A passing ice floe provided welcome respite and the bear took advantage, clambering out of the ocean, its fur thick with water. It shook itself briefly, walked from one end of the floe to the other to stay level with the ship as the ice drifted past, then plunged back into the water and paddled closer to us once more. Another floe arrived, and again the bear climbed upon it, rested there until it began to drift out of range, reentered the water, and swam toward us again.
 Two or three times it repeated the process, each occasion appearing to be progressively more taxing as the bear fought to drag its waterlogged weight onto the ice, its shoulders seeming to sag ever so slightly with each repetition and the growing realization that any hope it might have had of clambering on board was destined not to be realized.
 Eventually, it gave up. Having hauled itself onto a passing floe for perhaps the third or fourth time, it chose not to subject itself anymore to the rigors of swimming in the Beaufort Sea on a hapless quest. Its mouth open, it tore away its gaze, looking alternately down at the ice beneath its feet and into the distance, anywhere, it seemed, except directly at the object of its desire and frustration. And we watched as it stood there, forlorn and defeated, drifting into the distance.

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Meet the Author

KIERAN MULVANEY is the author of At the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Polar Regions and The Whaling Season: The Struggle to Stop Commercial Whaling. He has traveled extensively in the Arctic and Antarctic. He has written for the Washington Post Magazine, the Guardian, New Scientist, and BBC Wildlife and is a correspondent for Discovery News and Reuters.

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