Polar Bear - King of the Arctic
Animals have always been shipped across the seas on various types of vessels and for many different reasons. Many were carried as food for the crew and some were taken as pets. Others were brought home for sale to zoological gardens, and this is the main reason why many polar bears came to Britain.
Amongst the mariners who shipped polar bears across the seas were whaling crews. When hunting in Arctic waters, whalers came across many different animals including polar bears, walruses, musk oxen and birds.
Not surprisingly, whaling crews were cautious of polar bears. They are the worlds largest land predator and are well adjusted to their environment in the Arctic. The polar bear's Latin name is Ursus Maritimus, meaning "sea bear". This name most likely originated because polar bears are very accomplished swimmers and do much of their hunting under water.
Polar bears have thick white fur which enables them to endure the Arctic winds and creep up on prey in the snowy landscape. They also have hair on the soles of their paws to grip the ice. They grow up to 3 metres (10 feet) long and 1.5 metres high. They can weigh as much as 770 kg - three times the weight of a lion or tiger - and run up to 25 miles per hour over short distances. The stuffed polar bear on display at Hull Maritime Museum is an adult male and measures almost 9 feet long.
Encounters with Polar Bears
Sighting and confronting a polar bear in its natural habitat must have been a frightening experience! Nevertheless, small numbers were overcome and either captured or killed. Despite their great size and strength, polar bears are solitary creatures so would have been reasonably unprotected when surrounded by people with weapons.
Whaling crews often became stranded in the Arctic during the winter and might kill polar bears for food. They were also shot for their valuable skins. The stuffed and skeletal bears at Hull Maritime Museum were most likely taken onboard ship alive for sale to zoos back home, the only place where the general public could see this splendid creature for themselves.
However, such treatment by humans over time, as well as climate change and growing pollution problems, has today made the polar bear an endangered species.
Popularising Polar Bears
Polar bears have captured the popular imagination of many people for being cute and adorable yet ferocious and powerful. Some carvings and artworks at Hull Maritime Museum have been inspired at least partly by polar bears and show how commonly the animals were encountered by whaling crews. Polar bears are included in various paintings of whaling scenes. Many pictures show cautious members of whaling crews approaching the bears with weapons such as guns and spears.
In the early 1900s, 'Peppy' the Polar Bear became the icon of the major sweet product Fox's Glacier Mints. The great white bear has even inspired the name of a local pub down Spring Bank, which has now been called 'The Polar Bear' for decades! These magnificent creatures are clearly still admired in awe as much today as they ever have been.