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

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.

India Wilson, January Magazine, December 2011

Kieran Mulvaney (At the End of the Earth: A History of the Polar Bear Regions, The Whaling Season) delivers a hopeful, heartbreaking biography of polar bears now. He blends history, mythology, science and his own observations to give readers an incomparable portraits of these majestic -- and cosmically threatened -- beasts. But, ultimately, in a world threatened by global warming, there is little to celebrate in this beautifully written book. Because, as Mulvaney warns, “these land carnivores that are officially classified as marine mammals are, above all, creatures of the ice.” Arguably, Mulvaney is well on his way to being one of the ranking conservation writers of his generation. He writes alternately with joy and like his heart is bleeding and, in his passion, he carries us along.

Graeme Voyer, Winnipeg Free Press March 19 2011

The Great White Bear is environmental writer Kieran Mulvaney's account of the life cycle of the polar bear and the uncertain future that this species faces because of changes to its habitat.
It is not exactly clear why Mulvaney, who has penned two previous books, has written this one, or what he is attempting to contribute to the literature, but it is an accessible account of polar bears and their environment, filled with interesting facts.
For example, the fur of a polar bear, Mulvaney relates, is not actually white. It is unpigmented; it reflects light and therefore appears white to the human eye.
A pregnant female polar bear at Hudson Bay may be obliged to go eight months without eating, which, Mulvaney says, is the longest period of food deprivation experienced by any mammal on Earth.
When polar bears are eating, the main staple of their diet is the ringed seal. A polar bear's sense of smell can detect a seal from miles away.


Mulvaney may be British, but he is no greenhorn. He has travelled widely in both the Arctic and Antarctic. As he says, "I had spent plenty of time in northern communities, had lived in a cabin in Alaska, was perfectly accustomed to human communities living cheek by jowl with large wild mammals."
But he was still amazed by Churchill and environs, where humans and polar bears intersect, particularly in the fall.
Mulvaney would agree with [Sara] Wheeler's assertion, "The Arctic is the lead player in the drama of climate change, and polar bears are its poster boys."


The Arctic is a land of mysterious beauty. With its natural resources, it is also a region of geopolitical significance.
These books by Mulvaney and Wheeler provide a feel for the state of the contemporary Arctic and the issues it confronts -- issues that will only loom larger in the public consciousness in the coming years.

Tuc McFarland, Open Letters Monthly, March 2011
Kieran Mulvaney’s fantastic, fascinating, and ultimately fatalistic book The Great White Bear ... starts with [a] stark contrast: one day, he and his shipmates are anchored off the coast of northern Alaska when their boat is approached by a swimming polar bear, a skinny, shivering, miserable creature whose pack-ice world is literally fading away; another day, passing that ice, they encounter the far more stereotypical ‘lord of the North’ – a plump, well-fed bear shuffling along unhurriedly. Mulvaney tries very hard to infuse his whole book with that same kind of dichotomy, that same variation between the doom of reality and the lure of evolutionary perfection; he clearly doesn’t want to be only the bearer of bad tidings.

But there’s no real help for it. The world is getting warmer, quickly; pack ice in the High Arctic – where polar bears live and hunt for most of the year – is forming later and melting earlier [...]

Mulvaney’s book alternates between interviews with hundreds of people whose lives intersect with those of these bears – native Inuit hunters, scientists, trappers, tourists – and a close narration of the life of a typical polar bear mother and cubs (in this technique its model may be The Grizzly Bear, Thomas McNamee’s 1982 classic), with particular stress laid on the fact that when polar bear mothers aren’t eating their own young, they’re devoted and caring parents.

And if Mulvaney occasionally indulges in a touch more anthropomorphism than one might expect, the reader quickly comes to consider this natural: polar bears are, for good or ill, so human-like. Underneath their fur and four-inch layer of blubber, their body temperature is the same as a human’s, and they’ve been known to fashion tools – blocks of ice carefully shaped for maximum head-bashing efficiency. They’re fastidious, often backing up to the edge of an ice-flow in order to defecate in the water, and even in the harsh and energy-hungry environment of the High Arctic, they are easily distracted by play ... Mulvaney has watched polar bears in the wild, and he’s talked to many, many people who’ve spent their lives watching polar bears in the wild, including the native hunters all around the perimeter of the Arctic, who venerate the bears and consider them if anything a better kind of human. All this can perhaps lead an author to think he can divine a bear’s very thoughts, and for all we know that author will be right [...]

But the underlying note of the first two-thirds of The Great White Bear is that those good days are numbered, and this note becomes hammeringly dominant in the book’s final third, where habitat destruction and climate change necessarily take center stage. The polar bear sits atop a very narrow and highly specified food-chain in one of the most bizarre and extreme environments on Earth – it would be useless, indeed criminal, to write a book like this and not deal with the dark new changes in that environment. The High Arctic ice is melting – researchers demonstrate that it’s sea-cover is half what it was in the 1950s. Melting ice floes release fresh water into the surrounding sea water, creating a much deeper surface layer of low salinity. Some of the larger kinds of algae that underpin the entire Arctic ecosystem can’t survive in such conditions. As any eighth-grade science student can attest, if you take away the algae, you soon take away the animals that live on the algae, and then the animals that live on those animals, and so on until you get to the top [...]

Mulvaney paints a vivid picture of a warrior race coming face-to-face with its own doom. The Cherokee believed that bears were once humans who chose to abandon humanity because being ursine was simply better. The Cherokee of 2011 could tell many tales to the polar bears of the 21st century, but they would all be sad tales.

Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post February 13.
For an account of the effects [of Arctic 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. He tells unsettling tales of human-bear encounters, including one that the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen survived only because his dog got involved. That anecdote ends with Amundsen relating his surprising thoughts during what he feared might be his last seconds of life: "I lay there wondering how many hairpins were swept up on the sidewalks of Regent Street in London on a Monday morning!"

Polar bears are imperiled because they use ice floes as platforms from which to hunt seals and on which to haul up and rest - and not only is Arctic ice disappearing at a fearsome rate, but it's hard to see what could reverse that trend. As a result, polar bears may be reduced to relict populations in the High Arctic and Greenland by the middle of this century. Beyond that, one hardly dares look.

Terri Schlichenmeyer,Bookworm Blog, January 31 2011
It’s hard not to love the idea of a polar bear. It’s big and snuggly-looking with black eyes and fat padded paws. The cubs are beyond adorable. You wonder if their fur is as soft and cuddly as it looks.

Finding out is not recommended. When was the last time you hugged a 1,700-lb (773 kg) creature with canine teeth?

While on an expedition to study what Norwegians call Polarbjorn, author Kieran Mulvaney writes that polar bears are walking conundrums: their skin is black, but their fur appears white. They are fierce, confident predators that seem to be fearless, but fear a creature they could – and do - just as easily eat. They live in on ice, but keeping warm isn’t their problem; keeping cool is.

Baby Bears are born in snow-packed dens that their mothers dig each winter. Before she does that, Mama Bear packs on the pounds by eating fat-rich seals because, as soon as she seals the den, she won’t eat until the cubs are weaned - which could take eight months. When they emerge in the spring, Mama is understandably hungry and she immediately starts teaching the cubs – who will nurse for two years – to hunt.

The problem is that without ice, polar bears have fewer places to hunt and give birth. Already, bears are a problem in some Alaskan and Canadian cities where it’s a necessity to be aware and stay one step ahead of a hungry bear that’s also wicked smart.

And though some reports are that bear population is thriving, most scientists say that wild polar bears won’t make it to the next century.

“Polar bears are creatures of the sea ice,” says Mulvaney. “If it disappears, so will they.”

So what can be done about it? Well, it’s always good to be armed with information, and “The Great White Bear” is a pretty good place to start.

Bundled-up and very wary, author and journalist Kieran Mulvaney spent time aboard icebreaker ships and in giant wheeled “cabins” meant expressly for bear-watching, as he studied the enormous carnivores. I liked the way Mulvaney weaves science and ecology with biology without making any of them seem stuffy. I liked the way his descriptions of the bears’ environment made me want to put on a heavy coat.

Not just for those concerned about the environment, “The Great White Bear” is also good for animal lovers and science readers. If that’s you, chill out with this book soon.

Sarah Guan, Stanford Daily, January 14, 2011
“The Great White Bear,” by conservationist and environmental writer Kieran Mulvaney, delves into the lives of one of the poster species in the crusade against global warming. For all his activist credentials, including a stint as a prominent anti-whaling advocate with Greenpeace, he remains in his writing a consummate professional, stoking interest in, and garnering sympathy for, the polar bear with truly skillful storytelling and National Geographic-worthy panoramic prose. Only at the end, when discussing the fate of the bear as it intersects with global politics and policy, does he show his hand.

Though the reader, quite reasonably, expects any book on polar bears to come with a certain environmentalist agenda, Mulvaney’s work stands out precisely because it does not preach, at least not until the last 50-or-so pages, by which point the reader is so captivated by his furry protagonists that she is happy to keep reading.

That’s not to say it is at all difficult to win over the readership when the leading lady is, for the first few chapters, the endearingly protective mother of a pair of rowdy cubs. Mulvaney starts the reader on a boat bobbing recklessly in an ocean full of icebergs – never mind that he reassures his audience of the competence of his skipper; he has anyone who’s ever seen “Titanic” on the edge of his seat – and then zooms in on the expectant mother, who peers curiously at the boatload of researchers before deciding that they are not a threat, and wanders away to excavate her den in the snow.

Mulvaney shows us other bears – males, as mother bears won’t emerge until they give birth in early spring. There is a pitifully emaciated bear, trapped by the dwindling Arctic ice, contrasted with a larger, healthy one, portrayed in all his quiet majesty, the unquestioned king of his domain. And finally, after an interlude sprinkled with the accounts of Inuit hunters, pertinent research of the preceding decades and fun facts about the life and times of this most unusual of bear species, a dark nose emerges from the snow, followed by a white head – a big one and two little ones. The cubs will have a difficult and dangerous life, Mulvaney predicts, and we believe him, however desperately we want them to succeed.

He goes on to examine human-bear interactions, an increasingly common phenomenon as human populations continue to expand into once-virgin Arctic lands. He writes intimately of the community at Cape Churchill, a small town whose industry revolves around catering to eco-tourists and polar researchers, whose very livelihood depends upon the polar bears its patrons come to see. This transitions effortlessly into a discussion of the wider impacts of human society on polar bears, such as Arctic research, poaching and most notably, global warming, which hits polar bears harder than it does any other species in existence. Here is where his preceding accounts – the tenuousness of Arctic life, the absolutely adorable cubs – pay off. Mulvaney has, in the preceding 100-or-so pages, accumulated enough sympathy – genuine sympathy, rather than shallow appeals via tear-jerking or fear-mongering – that the reader does not feel deceived, or that there was any sort of agenda or ulterior motive to the book. He advocates for the polar bear without gracelessly pounding the message home, which is an achievement in itself.

There is enough diversity in “The Great White Bear” to appeal to a wide audience, from scientists to activists to politicians and even to just the average reader with a soft spot for cute animals or a passing interest in current events. The book is a wonderful blend of popular science and memoir; it is eminently topical, but will remain timeless in its presentation.

Kirkus Reviews November 2010

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.

Booklist, December 1, 2010:
When author Mulvaney joined an expedition on the icebreaker Arctic Sunrise, he planned to watch polar bears on the ice along the Alaskan shoreline, but most of the ice was gone. After days of searching, he finally saw an emaciated bear swimming far at sea. Such may be the fate of the species if global warming continues unabated, for the polar bear is a marine mammal that lives more on ocean ice than on land, hunting seals and scavenging beached whales. The author found more bears in Churchill, Manitoba, but they were stranded waiting longer each year for the ice to form on Hudson Bay. Mixing historical accounts, research data, and his own observations, Mulvaney skillfully describes the harsh nomadic life of polar bears. Readers who enjoy nature writing will appreciate this sympathetic report on the endangered state of the great white bear. --Rick Roche