'Polar bears are a great way to get the message out'
Meet BJ Kirschhoffer, Polar Bears International field operations director. (That means he's in charge of those awesome tundra buggies.) He's part of a team of experts in Manitoba to monitor the annual polar bear migration.
Tue, Nov 20, 2012 at 06:09 PM
Photo: Polar Bears International
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: My name is BJ Kirschhoffer and I am the director of field operations for Polar Bears International.
What is a typical day for you?
Well, it depends on where I am at. Up here in Churchill during the polar bear migration season, I work in Buggy One. We wake up here at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, have breakfast around 8 a.m. and head out on the buggy with our panelists, usually four folks and a photographer. We motor down around a polar bear and we broadcast. We do two broadcasts a day via webcasts and videoconferences. We touch base with students around the world and pretty much watch bears. We eat dinner and then do it all over again.
Could you tell us a little more about Buggy One?
Tundra Buggies are tourist vehicles up here in Churchill. They hold around 40 people. They are big to keep people safe and out of reach of polar bears. Buggy One is special because we have removed all of the tourist seats and turned it into a mobile broadcast studio. There are batteries so that we can operate all day long, it has antennas on it so that it can reach the Internet, and it has special computers and cameras so that we can encode video and send it out.
How do you get power out here on the buggy?
We have a big bank of batteries underneath the floor that sends power to an inverter, which steps it up to 120 AC power just like you’d find in a house.
How much energy do these batteries use here on the buggy?
That’s an interesting question. A lot of what we talk about here is polar bears and climate change. And energy reduction is what a lot of what people can do in order to help save greenhouse gasses. On the dash of the buggy we have a meter that shows how much energy we are drawing out of our batteries, because when the batteries are discharged, we are done; we can’t broadcast for the rest of the day. So we monitor that quite closely. If it looks like battery power is running low then we turn off our power strips, monitors and computers and things like that so it stops any vampire or phantom power that may be pulled out. So that is how we manage our power out here every day.
Are the batteries rechargeable?
Yes; they are military grade rechargeable batteries, and we have six of them on the floor.
Have the cameras had any close encounters with bears?
One of the cameras on the front of the buggy has the ability to move up and down on a boom system. A couple of years ago we had it on the ground for a low shot and a polar bear came by and popped its canines through the dome. So we no longer put it on the ground because those things are expensive.
How expensive is the equipment?
We transport about $40,000 worth of stuff from the states up to Canada and back every year, so it’s well over that. And a lot of time is invested, too, to make this what it is.
All the buggies have a radio system; how does that work?
Radios connect all the buggies together, and they’re for safety and for fun. There is an etiquette on the radio; you don’t ever say how many polar bears you see or what you’ve got, so you end up talking in code. This is to ensure that, if you see a mom and cub, you don’t say it over the radio and make a bunch of the tourists jealous that they are not seeing the mother and cubs. So a mom and two cubs would be “MC squared.” So you can work that into a conversation and they have a bunch of other stuff too. Some of the guys have funny code names, too. There’s a guy named Bob but some of the guys call him “Bobbles.” There’s also Buggy Brian.
What role does technology play for the common public?
Churchill is an expensive place to come visit. Flights to Churchill from Winnipeg is about the same as flying to Europe for most folks in the states. It’s an expensive place to visit, it’s a remote place to visit, and there’s a small time period during the year where you can see polar bears here; so, technology here plays a big role in allowing people all over the world to see the polar bears during the migration season. It also allows you to see the polar bears outside of the migration time. Explore.org spends a lot of time and money to help give that view and share the polar bear migration experience with everybody.
What is the one message you’d like to share with the world about polar bears and the Arctic?
It extends beyond the polar bear. I enjoy working with polar bears, but I spent some time over in Asia. The air is dirty, the water is dirty, and that is not something I want in our planet. I live in Montana and our skies are clean, our water is clean, and it’s a beautiful place to live. Polar bears are a great way to get the message out. It’s a hook to get people engaged and excited, but for me it goes beyond the bears.
This Q&A was written by Katie Billing and Erica Wills of Polar Bears International for explore.org. It is used with permission here.
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