Polar Bears, a life changing journey.
Within minutes of the Tundra Buggy Launch there was the first shout of “Bears at 9 o’clock” from right next to me. There they were, a mother bear and her two cubs, all cuddled up and hunkered down behind some bushes that were shading them from the strong blustery winds.
The chatting and conversations of the travellers on the buggy stopped in an instant, and hushed excitement filled the vehicle. The brakes go on and people clambered to open the windows and dart out the rear door onto the open space of the Tundra Buggy. Cameras, tablets, phones and video recorders were all called upon to capture this moment and the cries of joy could be heard as the dream of all on the Tundra Buggy was realised – witnessing polar bears in their natural wild habitat. It was the beginning of an amazing two days enjoyed by everyone aboard.
This life changing adventure had started much quicker than expected, and Darcy our Frontiers North driver/guide for our first day was happy we had seen this so soon and proceeded to talk about the 3 bears, giving us all relevant information on the mother and her 2 male cubs.
After about 40 minutes, lots of pictures taken and more excited conversation, we headed off onto the Tundra to view all we could find. All along the tracks the military had made many years before Darcy would talk about what more we could expect to see and some history about the Tundra and Churchill and how things are changing with global warming. Over the next few hours we enjoyed plenty of new introductions, new bears (5 in total for the day) willow ptarmigans, Arctic hares and a lone red fox.
Lunch was thick vegetable and pasta soup and deeply filled rolls, all tasty and welcomed by all. After lunch those that wanted to were able to take control of the Tundra Buggy for a short while, something I was not expecting but loved every minute.
When the time came we headed back to the town of Churchill to enjoy the evening at our own leisure. We booked into our hotel, the Polar Inn & Suites, which was quick and easy and the room was spot on, free wifi, coffee and bathroom en-suite.
Off we went to the local gift shops and then to the Tundra Inn Pub for some fantastic food, beer and to play pool. Breakfast was also laid on the following morning at the Tundra Inn Pub, full continental, American and English, everything you could possibly need which set us up very well for a day we would never forget. We checked out at 8am via the lobby gift shop which normally does not open until 9am, however the owner did open for us, she was a star, very cheerful and happy to help and so we were able to make some purchases before heading off for our 2nd day.
Day 2, Luke was our Driver/Guide and we also had Emma from Polar Bear International – an organisation that is dedicated solely to wild polar bears. They know polar bears–their habits, their ecology, their threats-and are recognized leaders in their conservation. Emma gave a talk on the polar bears which was very informative. It did take us a little longer to find our first bears, but soon we came across 2 male bears, that were to give us an amazing display of polar bear behaviour.
Whilst one was being very inquisitive around the Tundra buggies and Lodge, another was asleep next to our Tundra buggy. Within minutes sleepy bear awoke and started to sniff the air, noting bear 1, who was 100 meters away now and proceeded to follow. After a while, we followed and found them together, sizing each other up and then the games began. Normally, Luke says, they play fight for 10-20 minutes tops and then go their separate ways until they meet in the breeding season. However, they moved on and play fought for over an hour.
It was spectacular and no-one could stop watching throughout, a memory for each and every one of the 38 people on board that will be there forever. This took us up to lunch that was as good as the day before and off we went looking for new sightings. Suddenly there was a shout as a Short Eared Owl came into view and an Arctic Hare and plenty of Snow Buntings flying around and off went the clicks of cameras being used to the max. The rest of the day was taken up with more sightings of polar bears, some male and some females with cubs, ptarmigans and arctic hares and then back to the Launch site, ready to be transported to the airport for our flight to Winnipeg.
After chatting with Darcy and Luke, it is showing that climate changes and global warming is having an impact on the ice-cap and to the polar bears. Times are changing drastically with seasonal changes taking longer than usual. The Hudson Bay is taking longer to freeze – up to a month longer, and this is impacting on the polar bears arriving, feeding and breeding. This also has an impact on Churchill as they converted a military hangar into a 28 celled polar bear Prison back in 1981. The bears have to eat and their search for food has driven them into the town of Churchill and scavenging in bins. When this happens, local guards do what they can to remove them from the town but if the bears refuse or return 3 times, they are sedated and tagged and put into the prison for up to 30 days or until the prison is full and then they are shipped out 70 miles from the town. If a mother and cubs are captured, they have priority to be removed back into the wild but this should not be happening in the first place, but unfortunately, this is happening today and the foreseeable future. The town also have a curfew siren that starts up at 10pm. It does not mean you cannot go out but to be aware and travel in groups of two or more and follow instructions on the sign posts around town, certain streets are advisory not to enter at night and during the day, you must enjoy this awesome town.
Polar bears’ primary habitat is sea ice, using it as a platform to hunt seals and there are 19 different regions where polar bears live, extending across Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, Russian and the United States. All 19 subpopulations of polar bears have experienced some degree of ice loss. Overall, sea ice loss poses the single biggest threat to polar bear numbers, which are declining and they are now vulnerable, facing a risk of extinction in the wild in future years. Temperatures are rising in the Arctic at least twice as fast as the global average and sea ice cover is diminishing by almost four per cent every 10 years. The loss of sea ice affects polar bears’ ability to find food and feeding on ringed seals that live at the ice edge, gives them two thirds of the energy they need for the entire year. With the ice retreating earlier in spring and forming later in winter, the bears have less time to hunt and have to go without food for longer. This can result in a decline in body condition and lower average weight in adult females, causing fewer cubs to survive and the ones that do are smaller, research suggests. While polar bears have shown some ability to adapt to changes in their surroundings – for example, by foraging for food on land as in Churchill, they will become more food-stressed as sea ice diminishes and populations may decline.
Overall this was a journey that will never be forgotten and the whole experience was easy to organise, with the help of Frontiers North employees. Each and everyone who help us on our journey will be recommended to all my friends and family for years to come. A special thanks to Guilhem Roche who helped enormously to arrange this journey of ours.
Written by Karl Tullett
Photographs by Karl Tullett & Maria Wolens