Unlike goblin sharks or T-Rexes, the largest carnivore walking the Earth today is used for soda campaigns and screensavers. A playful and innocent appearance belies the fact that polar bears are ruthless, powerful killers. To see one in the wild Arctic is a rare and risky wildlife encounter. Fortunately, there’s a place where you can remove the danger, but still get close enough to gaze into the dark brown eyes of a polar bear.
Churchill, Manitoba: The Polar Bear Capital of the World
Welcome to Churchill, northern Manitoba, a small outpost town on the Hudson Bay. For eight weeks each October/November, Churchill becomes Polar Bear Central. Emerging from their summer hibernation-like state, over 900 bears gather around the town waiting for the bay to freeze. Scientists, media, and tourists gather by the thousands to observe this spectacle on the tundra.
It is not uncommon for bears to wander directly into town. Surrounded by bear traps, the streets are closely monitored by the Polar Bear Alert team. There’s also a jail for offending bears that continue to present a risk. After a 30-day incarceration period, the bears are safely relocated back to the tundra.
Considering hungry bears surround the town, attacks are rare. The most recent was on Halloween 2013, when a bear attacked and injured two people. Still, Churchill has remained a model of how humans and wildlife can live together.
The safest way to enter the bears’ habitat is on customized Tundra Buggies. Heated with propane gas stoves, these 40-passenger vehicles have anti-fog windows, with 5.5-foot tires and a customized fire truck chassis. Safely elevated, viewing windows and an outdoor deck ensure photographers can get all the angles. The Buggies travel on rough and muddy trails, the going slow. Tours depart each day from the town.
GETTING UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL
It doesn’t take long to encounter the bears. Some stalk the tundra alone, while others might socialize together—a rarity for the normally solitary species. Females with cubs lay low to avoid aggressive males attacking their young. After a long summer, the bears can appear painfully thin. They have not eaten in half a year, and are desperate to head north to feed on seals, their primary food source.
These young males are learning the skills they’ll need to survive into adulthood. Nose-to-nose greetings are how bears ask for permission. Head wagging precedes playing or sparring. Submissive bears move downwind of dominant bears. Snorting and a lowered head indicate aggression.
Churchill’s bears have adapted to the Tundra Buggies. They can smell your odor, and will raise themselves on their hind legs to peer into windows or outdoor decks. But a fed bear is a dead bear. As the world’s most closely studied polar bear population, feeding bears here is prohibited. Scientists and environmentalists agree that human intervention must be kept to an absolute minimum, even in the tragic case of bears starving to death.
For those who’d prefer to stay on the tundra surrounded by bears, there’s Frontiers North Adventure’s Tundra Buggy Lodge. Buggies dock the 330-foot train-like lodge, which has comfortable bunks, a dining and lounge car, marine latrines, and staff quarters. Evening meals are accompanied by wine and nature talks. The mobile Buggies allow guests to explore more terrain. Since the lodge is located at a particular gathering point for bears, the on-board crew don’t touch ground for the entire 8-week season.
Bears have grown accustomed to the lodge, and staff can often identify them by appearance and personalities. Here, Dave the lodge handyman is having a conversation with a sub-adult male.
Although freezing cold (temperatures at this time of year can plummet to -40F), it’s a photographer’s dream to see bears in such a habitat. Polar bears do not have white fur, as commonly believed. Pigment-free, transparent hair sits atop black skin. With their fat-rich diet of seals, polar bear hair during winter can turn a shade of yellow.
Climate change has resulted in longer summers, which means the ice takes longer to freeze on the Hudson Bay. Churchill’s bears have not had time to adjust their biological clock to awaken later. Some starve to death as a result. As winter arrives ever later, these are among the most threatened of the estimated 20,000 polar bears in the Arctic.
SERIOUSLY: DO NOT FEED THE BEARS.
A bear sniffs around under the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Guests are repeatedly told that under no circumstances can bears be fed. Put your fingers near them and they’ll swipe off your arm. The deadly predator is often overlooked for the cute and cuddly. After all, polar bears do have impressive puppy dog eyes.
Tundra Buggy staff call this male Harry Potter, because of the scar on his face. Polar bears have a sense of smell 100 times more powerful than humans, and they can rotate their noses to pick up scents. On the ground, you get a sense of just how large these bears are, standing up to 8 feet tall and weighing between 775 and 1200 pounds. From the back of the Buggy, you’ll need to wipe away the fog of their breath on your camera lens.
On-board bear experts and staff from Polar Bears International keep guests from around the world informed about polar bear behavior and the latest scientific research. Many alternate as grizzly guides during the summer months. Of interest: hunters have killed grizzly/polar bear hybrids, also known as pizzlies or grolar bears. Incredibly, these rare hybrids are not protected by any hunting laws.
READY FOR THEIR CLOSE-UP
If you’ve ever seen a wildlife documentary featuring polar bears, chances are it was filmed in Churchill. Each year brings filmmakers from around the world, who have easy access to the bears, shooting in relative comfort on a customized film crew Buggy.
Sparring is the most spectacular behavior. Standing on their hind legs, young males learn how to wrestle to exert their dominance in the wild. The sparring can get aggressive and it’s not uncommon to see blood. On the ice, sparring can be far bloodier and even deadly.
Moments later, our sparring partners appear to be hugging and smiling—just the sort of behavior that has endeared polar bears to an adoring public.
Although the season is short, a ride on a Tundra Buggy during the annual polar bear migration is without doubt something to do before you die. With melting sea ice, rising sea levels and the increasing threat to their natural habitat, you might want to act before the polar bears surrounding Churchill sadly beat you to it.