Polar bears are one of the most popular bears that we endear ourselves to. Large and cuddly, yet so fierce. It is with fascination and awe that we can look on these creatures and catch a glimpse into their lives. Here in Australia, you can only do this from a viewing platform that has a clear, wide and very secure glass barrier.
With news of the resident female polar bear, Leah’s, pregnancy, Sea World engaged the builders, Astute assist them with the construction of a new polar bear enclosure. G.James Glass & Aluminium were sought for the supply of the glass viewing panels.
Polar bears swim as cubs – it is a basic skill for them as is walking and running.
Nelson, the father bear, lives separately to his new born offspring, as it would occur in the wild.
A new addition to the Sea World Polar Bear family
Leah has been living with Nelson and Hudson (who are twin brothers) in a large enclosure at Sea World. The prospect of the cub came as a little surprise, as Leah was not known to be pregnant until late into her 8 month gestation period. Cub twins were born in May 2013 to Leah and father, Nelson. Unfortunately, only one has made it to this age, but Henry is doing very well. A new enclosure was required as the mother and cub needed to be separated from the male bears. Leah needs to care for her offspring and males have been known to try and eat cubs.
Hudson enjoys a roll in the sawdust, and Nelson pads over to have a play and perhaps a wrestle…
This large enclosure houses Nelson and Hudson. Leah spends her time as a mother in the new enclosure.
Designing a New Enclosure
Work on a new enclosure was started immediately. The planning and layout for the enclosure began 10 years ago, but the final design still needed to be resolved. It was done in cooperation with the polar bear keepers, Sea World officials and biology professionals to ensure the safety and well being of the new inhabitants.
The majority of the enclosure is concrete and timber with the glass viewing panel making up the majority of one wall – all products need to be non toxic. The layout was designed to be aesthetically reminiscent of a polar bears natural habitat and in keeping with the existing enclosure. It includes two ice wells (ponds where ice can be left for exploration and play), a waterfall, chilled sea water pool, trees and three cooling misters. The pool has loops in the bottom of it which toys can be attached to for the polar bears to play with.
The new viewing platform. In the foreground, you can see one of the misters that are disguised as logs to cool the air in the enclosure.
The trees have not had time to take root securely, so it is hoped they will last…
The waterfall up the back is their fresh water source. To the right of it is the security niche that a person can slip into in case the security doors fail.
The polar bear entrance is a wide area that is partially hidden from the viewing area, and so rocks have been strategically positioned to discourage the polar bears from hiding in this corner. This area was in its final stages of preparation when we visited, and mobile scaffolding made by QuickAlly Access Solutions was being used to support the workers completing the job.
The entry is partially hidden from the viewing platform, so rocks deter the animals from spending much time there.
QuickAlly mobile scaffold is ideal to fit in tight locations for an ultra secure access solution.
The enclosure is visited by the polar bear keepers daily to ensure the safety and health. The polar bears retire to their “room” while the keepers do the inspection and clean.
The more serious aspects of the pen are an isolated waste catching system, security door locking mechanisms, and a safety escape niche. Polar Bears are never tamed. Keepers cannot be in an enclosure with them, as they are at risk of being attacked. The security door prevents the polar bear door to open while keepers are in the enclosure, and in case of failure, the niche only fits a person, and has an alarm button in it to highlight help is required.
The risk factor when in close quarters with bears makes the viewing panel not only important for visitors, but it is the only area they can be easily watched by their keepers at eye level. All photography for recording the animals behaviour and publicity purposes are taken through this panel.
The enclosure is made to replicate their habitat as much as possible.
Henry explores his new surroundings. Polar bears are curious and will scratch at the glass. These scratches need to be polished out every couple of years.
An edge of the glass panel shows how particular the finishes need to be.
An unfinished edge of the glass shows how thick and impenetrable it is.
The viewing panel is important for visitors, and is the only area they can be easily watched by the keepers at eye level.
The Viewing Panel
The type of glass used in the polar bear enclosure is specified. The glazing has to be thick and secure enough to ensure the safety of the polar bears, and visitors. Four layers of glass, laminated together ensure this. The glass is around 40mm thick and each of the 8 viewing panes weigh 495kg. Polar bears will scratch at the glass, and these scratches need to be polished out every couple of years. The edges of the glass, and gaps in between need to be specially designed. Polar Bears will test edges and explore gaps, so they are constructed to minimise their ability to grip and claw areas.
All photography for recording the animals behaviour and publicity purposes are taken through the viewing panel.
All three polar bears lived in the existing enclosure until Leah needed to be separated due to her pregnancy. The design for the new enclosure is based on this layout.
The viewing area has two levels to assist the many expected visitors to get a good glimpse.
On completion of the enclosure, officials from the Australian Institute of Marine Science inspect the final result. Any potential hazards or dangerous surfaces are highlighted and addressed prior to the polar bears being introduced to their new surrounds.
The Cubs Entrance to Public Life
Leah has been monitored daily since the birth of her cubs. She was living in her “maternity ward” and exercising in a special enclosure for the polar bears until September. Her new home was opened to her in mid September, and it was expected she would explore it for a week or two before she and the cub were comfortable with their new surroundings. It has since been opened to the public.
In Comparison to a Wild Life
In the wild, a mother will lie in a dormant state (similar to hibernation) in a den made inland of snow and ice for about the second half of the gestation period. After birth, the cubs are reared in the den for the first couple of months of their lives before being introduced to the world. The cubs have about 2 weeks to gain their strength and learn to walk over distance and run before journeying to the sea. They spend between 1 ½ and 2 ½ years with their mother before going out on their own.
Click on the images for more Polar Bear facts.