Feb 27

Journals from Polar Bears International Leadership Camp

It's Feb. 27 -- do you know what that means? It's International Polar Bear Day!

To commemorate this amazing day at SeaWorld San Diego, my fellow Wild Arctic team members and I will be at the exhibit to celebrate with guests, as well as local elementary school students. I'll have a blog post ready for you about the celebration in the days to come.

In October 2012, my fellow team member, Animal Trainer Sean Walcott and I traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada to participate in Polar Bears International Leadership Camp. Leadership Camp provided us the amazing opportunity to see polar bears in their natural habitat. We also learned how we can become leaders in the fight against global climate change. Here are our journal entries from our trip:

Journal Day 1:

We met and talked with the rest of the leadership camp participants about goals, expectations and rules. We also decided, as a group, on some eco-challenges for the week that I would like to invite you to participate in. Some are very easy and while others will be a bit of a challenge.

5 Eco-Challenge’s During Leadership Camp
*No showers all week
*Use recyclable cups and bottles
*One day of meatless meals
*Wear the same clothes more than one day in a row

Journal Day 2:

We woke up excited to start a journey that would forever change our lives. We made our first stop at the Hudson Bay and stepped foot, for the first time ever, in the polar bear capitol of the world. Warning signs are all around Churchill so that people can report a polar bear sighting to Manitoba Conservation.

Next, we went to the polar bear holding facility where we learned how Manitoba ensures the town’s safety.

Finally, we made it to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre where we would be staying for the majority of the week. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is available for scientists and graduate students to stay at while they do research out in the Wildlife Management Area, as well as education groups to come and learn about polar bears.

You might be asking yourself why we are in Churchill learning about polar bears and global climate change; what do they have to do with one another? Polar bears have been placed on the threatened species list due to habitat loss. They predict that as the Arctic continues to warm due to climate change, two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by mid-century—although hope remains if action is taken to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Journal Day 3:

(Photo courtesy of Jeni Fain/SeaWorld San Diego)

I will never forget the moment we saw our first wild polar bear. Silence overcame us as we observed this threatened species gently walk on the tundra. He stopped walking occasionally to glance over at us but then eventually continuing his walk along the Hudson Bay. The tide was very low at this time so there was quit some distance to the water but small patches of intertidal zones mixed with rocks and kelp beds were sprinkled along the way from earlier when the tide was higher.

(Photo courtesy of Jeni Fain/SeaWorld San Diego)

Besides seeing a few different polar bears, we saw a variety of wildlife including arctic fox, red fox, arctic hare, ptarmigan, tundra swans and snow buntings.

The appreciation for this species is insurmountable amongst the group. I believe this moment will forever reside within each of us and help drive our efforts to save this species.

Journal Day 4:

As we drove to the boreal forest we were able to continue our discussion about climate literacy. If there is one way to learn, this is the way to go. The breathtaking view out our window along the tundra, and the Hudson Bay in the distance was an ideal environment to learn and inspire one another.

Because the conditions were okay, we were able to do a walk about on the unique tundra ground. Much to our surprise, the ground was squishy beneath our feet and kind of felt like the floor of a kids’ playground. While we walked around we discussed the permafrost we were able to see and the biodiversity that exists on the tundra. Many people reenacted the polar bears' behavior that we witnessed just before visiting the forest and lied down on the tundra to see how it felt to sleep on the tundra like a polar bear.

(Photo courtesy of Jeni Fain/SeaWorld San Diego)

We believe we saw one of the same bears as the previous day, a female that looked to be in pretty good condition, weight-wise. She was located very close to the same area as the previous day and it was interesting to find that she had made a bed out of the kelp surrounding her and was nibbling on it as she relaxed.

After we got back from our adventure, we headed back to the classroom to Skype with two world-renowned scientists; Dr. Andy Derocher and Dr. Steven Amstrup. To not only have an opportunity to talk to both of these scientists but also have a discussion with them about polar bears and climate change, in such an intimate setting, was inspiring and unique and showed just how dedicated they are to saving the polar bear species.

Tonight we have our fingers crossed to witness firsthand the aurora borealis!

Journal Day 5:

Last night we observed the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. This is the second experience of this trip that will forever change me. To see the night light up emerald green and electric yellow and dance around above us for hours is absolutely life changing. The picture truly does not do it justice. Although it was a very chilly, we all stood on the observation deck and watched in amazement as the sky continuously changed for hours.

We were able to share this amazing experience with everyone at home via live webcasts sponsored by Tundra Connections. I was able to answer a question from my co-workers who were watching the chat from SeaWorld San Diego’s Wild Arctic. To have their support and to learn that they too were joining me in the eco-challenges reinforced how dedicated my team is to conservation and that we can all make simple changes to reduce our carbon footprint. As a team, we can do this by educating our guests every day who want to learn about the Arctic animals. We can be the voice for the bears.

Journal Day 6:

We got a chance to walk around the town of Churchill, with a population of approximately 1,100. We walked out to the furthest point overlooking the river, when much to our surprise there were BELUGA WHALES!

Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to the, “Polar Bear Capitol of the World” and conclude our time at the Polar Bears International Leadership Camp. At this point, we had some more group discussions about climate change and how to be “agents of change” when we return home. There were about 20 of us at camp and if each of us continues to share our experience and show the small steps every individual can do (reduce, reuse, recycle, carpool, ride your bike to work) as a whole we can be an “ARMY of change”.

We are very thankful to the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for this professional development as this experience has truly enriched our lives forever.

I’d like to leave you with some words of wisdom that really put this experience into perspective for me during a Skype chat with Robert Buchanan, the CEO of Polar Bears International: “We cannot take anything with us when we leave this planet except what we leave behind.”