Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Great White Bear by Kieran Mulvaney

The Great White Bear is a natural history of the that iconic Arctic animal, the polar bear. It makes fascinating reading – I wanted to quote so much from it, my copy is full of highlighted passages that I want to make everyone in the world read, because the polar bear in peak form is a muscle-bound miracle of evolution with a four-and-a-half inch layer of blubber, black skin and translucent hair that works so efficiently that, far from struggling to keep warm, the bear actually has to stay cool. It can smell a seal for miles, has been known to leap on the back of a beluga whale, and spends four months under the snow to rear its young.

Kieran Mulvaney has written for, amongst others, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife and Greenpeace, lived for seven years in Alaska and brings a lifetime’s interest and understanding to his subject. His book covers all aspects of the bear’s life (including the answer to the hoary question about why they don’t live in the Antarctic) from evolution and physiology to its future. Most important of all, though of little practical interest to most bears, is the unequal relationship with man, and Mulvaney demonstrates beyond question just how unequal that is: despite its being admirably equipped to kill, encounters between bears and humans are much more likely to result in the bear’s death. And bears are still hunted, of course, both legitimately by indigenous peoples, and illegally, even in Russia where hunting has been banned for longest.

In this accessible and readable book, Mulvaney combines history, mythology and science with his own first-hand travels and experience of “bear tourism” with Canadian polar bears in Churchill,  and an attempt to offer a deeper understanding of the bear’s experience as he describes its life through the course of the Arctic year. Thus it’s rather reminiscent of Kingdom of the Ice Bear, the hugely successful television series which followed a family of bears, and readers in search of “hard” science may be surprised at the degree of intimacy the approach offers. There’s no lack of solid information, though, and Mulvaney examines and presents it thoughtfully. I felt enriched as I read, intellectually and emotionally.

The final chapter is a consideration of the threat of global warming on the Arctic, an environment extremely susceptible to change as the sea ice declines, taking with it the algae that drives the Arctic Ocean’s complex ecology. While migrant species may benefit, at least in the short term from these changes,  the species which are dependent on the ice for breeding are already under threat, in the case of the polar bear doubly so, since the seals which are its prey are its companions in ice-dependency. We’ve all seen the film of a polar bear swimming in an ocean bereft of ice, and realised that the creature is almost certainly doomed to swim until it drowns – and indeed, the book’s US cover image is of a swimming bear (I’m not sure why the UK publisher decided to go with a less effective image). It may be as little as twenty years before the ice fails to replace in winter what has been lost in summer and our descendants will only know the polar bear on film, or as a sad creature in a zoo with concrete beneath its paws. We have evidence that the bears are already showing signs of decline both in size and numbers, and it’s more than time that the polar bear was declared an endangered species (rather than “threatened”, its current status), so that its welfare must be take into consideration and its habitat protected. Mulvaney’s book is timely and essential.

Note: The Great White Bear is published in the UK as Ice Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear. This review refers to the US version, which came from NetGalley. You can learn more about polar bears from Polar Bears International and both they and The Great White Bear have Facebook pages. Not a Canadian book as such, but one with extensive Canadian subject matter, I'm counting this book towards the 4th Canadian Book Challenge.


  1. Looking at what's happening here it looks like yours might be one of the blogs I can now only comment on as anonymous. But it's me... Cath from read_warbler. Just wanted to say that this one sounds wonderful and I'll search for it at the library. Excellent review!

  2. This sounds indeed like a very good combination of scientific facts and personal approach to a fascinating subject. I truly enjoy this kind of non-fiction. Thank you for reviewing it here.

  3. Why don't they live in the Antarctic? Is it because they feel threatened by how adorable the Antarctic penguins are?

  4. Cath, I really enjoyed it, although I found bits agonisingly sad.

    Librarian, I thought it worked extremely well. I like writers who engage personally with their subjects.

    Jenny, LOL - of course that *must* be the reason!