KAKTOVIK, Alaska – As climate change shrinks their natural habitat, polar bears are turning the Alaskan village of Kaktovik into their very own sanctuary city.
Land-bound and hungry, as many of 60 of the predators have learned to descend upon the Inupiat community of Kaktovik in the late summer, when the 262-person town begins its annual subsistence harvest of three bowhead whales with permission from the International Whaling Commission.
Following the hunt, which is deemed vital for the community as it provides thousands of pounds of food and a direct link to the Inupiat’s cultural identity, residents carve and distribute the meat and blubber and a front loader carries what remains of the carcass to a bone pile at the far end of town.
There, the bears converge amid crowds of seagulls, scavenging for whale meat and much-needed calories, and they could be seen with their bloodied muzzles stark against white fur.
With the bears come camera-toting tourists, floating on small guide boats a few hundred feet offshore, hoping for a glimpse of the massive beasts as they loll on the ice or search for food.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, some 1,500 visitors came to view the polar bears last year and half a dozen locally-owned tour guide businesses have sprouted up to meet the demand.
On these tours, it is not uncommon to see at least 10 bears slumbering, feasting, playing in the water or staring curiously at the cameras aimed their way.
The tragic forces that have driven polar bears to Kaktovik have raised their romantic appeal, as they are the poster animals of climate change and this hardscrabble community on the edge of a continent may be the final place to see them in the wild.