The importance of the polar bear to Hull’s whalers

Published: Wednesday 10th May 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Polar bears are incredible creatures and have become iconic symbols of the natural world.

Nowadays they’re depicted on Christmas cards and winter decorations. But did you know that this huge furry mammal played a vital role in Hull’s whaling heritage?

Ursus maritimus is the Latin name of the polar bear. It means “sea bear” and came about because of the mammal’s advanced swimming skills and ability to hunt underwater.

Polar bears have thick white fur that helps them to survive the harsh, cold conditions of the Arctic. It also allows them to stay camouflaged when hunting in the snow and ice. Meanwhile, coarse hair on the soles of their paws assists them when padding across the treacherous landscape.

As you may already know, these ice bears are massive. They can grow up to 3 metres long and 1.5 metres high, weighing as much as 770kg – that’s three times the weight of a lion. Incredibly, polar bears can run up to 25 miles per hour over short distances.

It’s no wonder then that whalers, who regularly saw these enormous mammals during their working day, were a bit cautious of them. Whaling crews would come across many exotic creatures on their travels. These animals included polar bears, as well as walruses, musk oxen and different birds.

Unfortunately, small numbers of bears were killed or captured during the height of the whaling industry. Despite being great in size and power, their solitary lifestyle resulted in them being quite defenceless when surrounded by men with lethal weaponry.

The whalers did not just do this for fun, of course. The crews often became stranded in the Arctic, especially during the winter, and would have to kill the creatures for food to survive. They were also used for their valuable skins.

Hull’s seafarers were not the only ones who used animals in this way. Throughout history, countless species have been transported across the oceans for various reasons.

Crew would keep animals aboard as food, whilst others were simply pets. Many were brought back to the country to be sold to zoological gardens and menageries. The latter is the main reason why polar bears first came to the UK.

The skeletal and stuffed polar bears on display at Hull Maritime Museum were probably kept alive originally to be placed in zoos. This was usually the only place where the general public would see non-native animals. The stuffed bear is an adult male and measures almost 9 feet long.

At Hull Maritime Museum, you can also see carvings and artworks by whalers that depict these ferocious yet much-loved beasts. There are several paintings of polar bears incorporated in whaling scenes, but much of the imagery shows whalers approaching the strong beasts with weaponry.

The image of the polar bear was a key symbol for Hull whaling crews and continues to be in the city today. It also inspired the name of The Polar Bear, a popular pub down Spring Bank.

Nevertheless, climate change and treatment by humans have had a detrimental impact on polar bear populations. Due to habitat loss and overhunting, the polar bear is unfortunately classed as a vulnerable species. At least three of the 19 subpopulations are currently in decline.

Polar bears have had strong links with Hull for many decades, even centuries. If you would like to continue that relationship in a more positive manner, you can find out more on the Polar Bears International website and even adopt a bear through the WWF. 

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Published: Wednesday 10th May 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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