POLAR BEAR WATCHING IN CHURCHILL, CANADA
By CHANTAL COOKE
There’s the Polar Bear. There’s me. And there’s just a few feet between us. And no, I am not in a zoo.
I am out on the sub arctic tundra in a large white tundra buggy, 25 miles east of Churchill on the edge of the Hudson Bay. It’s minus 10 Celsius and the wind is so biting I think my skin will fall off! But it’s worth it to be so close to a wild polar bear, in its natural setting. Its dark eyes survey me, its nose twitches and I’ve no doubt its thinking about food. After all, these bears haven’t eaten since June – and it’s now November.
However despite our proximity there is little chance of me ending up as supper. I am on a trip organised by Frontiers North, one of just two operators licensed to take buggies out into the Churchill Wildlife Management area. The tundra buggy is a safe way to observe these animals and the bears are used to the buggies and the inaccessible food they contain.
This is the ideal place to watch polar bears – in fact Churchill has been called the Polar Bear Capital of the World. Every year in late October the bears start to congregate in the area, as this is the first place where the ice forms on the bay. The bears need the ice in order to hunt ring seals – their staple food. As the ice thickens in late November and spreads across the bay the ring seals pop up through air holes in order to breathe and, as they do so, the polar bears grab them and drag them out of the water on to the ice. Dinner is served.
It’s too early for this now, and at the moment the bear are just hanging around, waiting. They amble across the snow, stopping to spar if the mood takes them. They aren’t out to win – it’s more of a way to get the measure of each other when there is nothing at stake – no food and no females ready to breed. But it does have a serious side. If these two bears meet later on the ice, when the stakes are higher, they will know whether to fight or back off.
But bears aren’t all serious – they love a good roll too. They lie on their back, all four paws in the air, rolling around, stretching, kicking – like a giant, white, furry baby on a play mat! And as if that’s not already cute enough – they sometimes flop out flat, legs spread out on either side as they press their bellies to the ice, to cool off.
However the biggest treat is a mother beat and her cubs. Cubs are born in December/January so the youngest you’re likely to see are 10 months old. They are already quite large but they have fluffier fur and cute baby faces, and they follow mum around copying her every move. They are not afraid to inspect the buggies – so if you’re lucky they will come up close. It will take your breath away.
Bears aren’t the only wildlife. You may see foxes, gyr falcons, ptarmigan and snowy owls too. And the good news; you’re in the relative warmth of the tundra buggy all the time. Ok, so you won’t be T-shirt-and-shorts warm, but you won’t be freezing cold either. The buggy is heated, with tea and cookies mid morning, and soup and sandwiches at lunch time.
Each evening you drive back to the Tundra Buggy Lodge (a “train” of trailers parked on the tundra) for a warm shower, home cooked food, and a comfy bunk – all with a view of the ice, the bay and the bears. It’s a real treat to start the day with a cooked breakfast and your first sighting of a polar bear just a few feet below your window.
If you, like me, thought polar bears were among the most inaccessible of wildlife and only ever likely to been seen by arctic explorers with dog sleds loaded with provisions – then think again. A trip to Churchill will allow you to lock eyes safely with the planet’s largest land carnivore.
For more information about visiting Canada and what the country has to offer see: www.keepexploring.ca
Air Canada fly direct from the UK to Winnipeg: www.aircanada.com
Frontiers North: www.frontiersnorth.com
The Frontiers North Specialist tour allows guests to spend time getting to know the wondrous charm of the town of Churchill, while also spending plenty of time on the tundra watching majestic polar bears, and other arctic wildlife, in their natural habitat. The tour is led by a professional photographer and knowledgeable guide, and you will stay on the Tundra.
About the Author:
Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency – Panpathic Communications.