Big dark liquid eyes stare at me. It’s the adorable furry face of a natural born killer. I would reach out to pat him on the head, if it were not for the reinforced plexiglass and the alert wildlife guides separating us.
Our guide tells us not to be fooled by its teddy bear looks. We learn they are the fastest and most powerful carnivores on the planet. I’m sure it would eat me without a second thought.
I’m in “the polar bear capital of the world” in the remote Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba, staying at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, an independent, not-for-profit research and education facility.
It’s one of the world’s top research facilities for studying Arctic science and offers a series of ‘learning vacation’ programs, with all proceeds going to support scientific research in Churchill.
Polar bears of Churchill
I expected it to be more difficult to see the animal officially designated as a threatened species and one that appears near the top of many ‘most endangered’ lists; but before our custom-built tundra vehicle has even left the lodge, a fuzzy white fellow makes an appearance straight from central casting, and ambles right up to the vehicle’s door.
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have become somewhat of a calendar model for climate change.
Magazine covers worldwide use photographs of single bears adrift on solitary ice floes as a universal symbol of global warming.
It’s no wonder that seeing these hugely charismatic creatures in the wild has become such a hot eco-travel drawcard.
The Churchill Wildlife Management Area is Manitoba’s largest wildlife management area. It’s almost 850,000 hectares. In summer, it’s a resting area for polar bears.
Over the next few days, we see around 100 bears, and it’s a satisfying feeling to know that we’re contributing to the body of knowledge about these ‘Lords of the Arctic’ – which the researchers explain are literally ‘treading on thin ice’.
Polar bear conservation
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are around 22,000 polar bears left in the world. If global warming trends continue at the current pace, the polar bear population could disappear.
Their dependence on ice makes them particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures because melting ice reduces their ability to hunt effectively for their favourite meal – blubbery ringed seals and beluga whales.
Our “all terrain” vehicle looks like a portable classroom on tyres. Binoculars poised, we squint across the landscape for the tell-tale creamy-gold shape against the white snow.
I’m surprised at how quickly we find them, just a few kilometres from the lodge. We’re given a ‘bear’s eye view courtesy of the ‘Bear-Cam’ mounted on the vehicle, along with the large (bear-proof) windows and viewing platforms.
We witness the heart-breaking parenting tale of a female bear casting off her two-year-old cubs, who she now considers old enough to fend for themselves. Again, I stifle the urge to jump out and just hug one of them.
Another time, a huge male brazenly approaches our truck, stands up and leans his paws against the vehicle. That’s enough to convince me to keep inside.
As if seeing polar bears in the wild was not enough, we also take a thrilling helicopter ride along the rugged coastline of Hudson Bay, spend an afternoon dog sledding and visit the world-famous Eskimo Museum and a local Inuit community to learn about the history of hunting polar bears in their culture.
Churchill is a long way from anywhere – there are no inbound roads, so the only way to get here is by plane or train (or perhaps dog-sled if you have time).
The accommodation at the centre is basic, but comfortable, with dormitory-style rooms, shared washrooms with private showers, and communal meals in the dining room.
There is also an indoor viewing room where you can get a 360° view of the surroundings and the night skies from the warmth of a glass ‘bubble’.
The CNSC also offers programs throughout the year on Inuit culture, bird-watching, beluga whales, astronomy and the aurora borealis or ‘northern lights’. Churchill is one of the best places on Earth to view them.
In addition to offering educational programs for travellers, there is also the opportunity to volunteer at the centre for a few weeks, in return for board and meals. Don’t expect it to be an easy ride.
They expect volunteers to work at least six hours a day; six days a week. You’re more likely to spend most of your time helping out in the kitchen, washing dishes or stuffing envelopes.
While there are other ways to visit Churchill’s most famous residents, this is the ‘real deal’, working alongside scientists involved in valuable research – which might just one day save the coolest animal on the planet.
The optimum viewing time to see polar bears in the wild in October and November. Other operators include Frontiers North; the Great Canadian Travel Company; Churchill Nature Tours; and Churchill Wild.
For more wildlife in Canada see Best of Canada.
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