Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea
During aerial surveys in September 1987–2003, a total of 315 live polar bears were observed with 12 (3.8%) animals in open water, defined for purposes of this analysis as marine waters >2 km north of the Alaska Beaufort Sea coastline or associated barrier islands. No polar bear carcasses were observed. During aerial surveys in early September, 2004, 55 polar bears (Ursus maritimus) were seen, 51 were alive and of those 10 (19.9%) were in open water. In addition, four polar bear carcasses were seen floating in open water and had, presumably, drowned. Average distance from land and pack ice edge for live polar bears swimming in open water in 2004 (n=10) were 8.3±3.0 and 177.4±5.1 km, respectively. We speculate that mortalities due to offshore swimming during late-ice (or mild ice) years may be an important and unaccounted source of natural mortality given energetic demands placed on individual bears engaged in long-distance swimming. We further suggest that drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues.