A hungry polar bear has been witnessed diving and swimming underwater for more than three minutes without coming up for air, breaking a previous record of 72 seconds

Polar bear on vast sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Katja Riedel)
Polar bear on vast sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Katja Riedel)

The polar bear was observed in the Svalbard archipelago by Rinie van Meurs, an experienced Arctic guide on an expedition ship. As they watched and filmed, the polar bear began to stalk three bearded seals on a large ice floe on the other side of a large channel of open water, beyond the ship.

Normally, van Meurs said, when polar bears stalk seals from water, they hide behind other ice floes "but in this case, there was nothing" to hide behind.

Polar bear on vast sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Katja Riedel)
Polar bear on vast sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Katja Riedel)

Instead, the bear hid underwater, diving when it was about 40 metres away from the first seal. When that seal escaped into the water, the polar bear changed course towards the second seal without coming up for air.

Three minutes and 10 seconds later, the bear "exploded out of the water at the floe edge and propelled itself halfway onto the ice immediately in front of the second seal," wrote van Meurs and well-known Canadian polar bear researcher Ian Stirling, from the University of Alberta, in their research paper that was published in the journal Polar Biology.

The bear may have been driven by desperation, said van Meurs, it was most likely just an extreme case. The success rate for polar bears in this kind of hunt is very low, the researchers noted in their paper. Because of that, they said, they don't think polar bears can evolve better diving abilities fast enough to compensate for the rapidly melting sea ice. Polar bears rely on sea ice as a habitat for hunting seals, but as the Arctic gets warmer as a result of climate change, there is less and less sea ice, especially in the summer.

The sea-ice breaks up earlier and earlier in the Arctic (Photo: Katja Riedel)
The sea-ice breaks up earlier and earlier in the Arctic (Photo: Katja Riedel)

Previously, the longest dive ever recorded for a polar bear was 72 seconds, according to Stirling, who witnessed the 72-second dive in 1973. Records of polar bear dives are sparse. In the past they happened also under different circumstances, such as when the bears were diving for fish. Therefore it is not clear if the dive was really that unique.

Regardless, the low weight of the skinny bear was enough to convince van Meurs to cheer for the animal, which - despite its effort - did not catch the seal. “How cute seals are, of course, with the big black eyes,” he said, “But I felt sorry for him. He really needed that seal."

Source: CBC News