Polar Animal Encounters

What's on your bucket list? You still have time to see the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba.

A polar bear in Manitoba near Hudson Bay.

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You'd think that starving polar bears would be bundles of bad attitude, nothing but snarls and growls wrapped up in white fur. But the bears that gather by the hundreds each October on the coastline near Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, maintain a regal, Zen-like serenity that belies the emptiness of their stomachs.

Three months removed from their last decent meal, the bears lumber along rocky beaches and sit on their haunches and yawn, showing three-inch canine teeth going to no good use. They scratch their bellies and roll in beds of orange moss and patches of brown grass on the not yet frozen tundra.

On a recent visit to Churchill—a small port town of about 900 people on the western shore of Hudson Bay that calls itself the Polar Bear Capital of the World—I saw two big males playfully pawing and gnawing at each other before collapsing for a nap on a kelp bed. Sparring males reliably put on the best show on the tundra. Now and then, both will stand on their hind legs and throw seemingly friendly jabs.

I also watched a year-old cub spend a good 45 minutes chewing on a root. Its mother surveyed the nearby audience of German, British, Canadian, Dutch, Australian, and American visitors, their telephoto lenses poking through the windows of a huge four-wheel-drive tundra buggy parked in the mud 60 feet away. She sniffed the air and quickly went back to her snooze. With the root finally conquered, the cub snuggled next to her and tucked its head out of the wind.

The bears seem at ease with the tourists who travel by plane or train to Churchill each fall. (Even if you were willing to drive 650 miles north from Winnipeg, the highway doesn't go that far.) The largest land predators on earth—males can weigh more than a thousand pounds, or about twice as much as a typical male grizzly—polar bears are not easily spooked. The more curious animals will walk right up to the tundra buggies, stand on their hind legs, and peer into windows nine feet above the ground.

Shrinking Ice, Lost Bears

Like all polar bears, the Churchill animals depend on ice, a resource that's becoming increasingly scarce in the far north.

Even in the best of times, fasting is normal for the Churchill polar bears. When Hudson Bay is frozen, the bears subsist by ambushing seals on the ice. From the time Hudson Bay melts (usually in July) until it freezes up again in November, the bears are landlocked, reduced to a kind of walking hibernation with practically nothing to eat. When the chill returns by October, they gather near the coast and wait for the ice.

Shrinking ice, however, means empty stomachs and, inevitably, dwindling numbers of bears. "I'm very concerned," says polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher, a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "Under the current scenarios for climate change, we will lose polar bears in many different parts of the Arctic, probably within our lifetime." And because Churchill is at the southern edge of bear country, he fears that these bears—the most accessible population in the world—could be among the first to go.

There's no doubt that the north is getting warmer and the polar bears are suffering, Derocher says. Later freezes and earlier thaws mean that the bears are staying landlocked three weeks longer than they did just a couple of decades ago. To the untrained eye, the Churchill bears may look burly, powerful, and gorgeous, but the adults are about 60 pounds lighter and a few inches shorter than they were back then. Still, the most troubling trend is the head count: In 1987, 1,194 bears lived in the Churchill area. By 2004 that number had dropped to 935, a 22 percent decrease.

Bear Town

Everyone in Churchill knows the phone number: 675-BEAR (2327). It's the hotline for the Churchill Bear Patrol, a group of government employees who protect people and bears alike from potentially deadly confrontations. Carrying shotguns loaded with cracker shells—essentially flying firecrackers designed to get a bear's attention without causing injury—the patrol members shoo bears out of streets, front yards, and parking lots, and back onto the tundra. Repeat offenders are shot with tranquilizers and shipped to polar bear jail, a complex of cages. Jailed bears don't get fed; the last thing anyone wants is to reward them for visiting town. When Hudson Bay freezes, the detainees are airlifted to the ice.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, polar bears who visited town out of hunger or curiosity could expect a bullet, not a cracker shell. Today, bullets are an absolute last resort. "Everybody protects the bears, because we know they are special animals," says Dave Daley, a local dogsled racer and airplane mechanic.

Although Churchill lies smack-dab in polar bear country, attacks are surprisingly rare. According to Polar Bears International, bears have killed just two people in the town's nearly 300-year history—and one of those was walking around with fresh meat stuffed in his pockets.

The bears deserve credit for the lack of bloodshed, says Jane Waterman, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida who studies polar bear behavior. Although mothers with cubs can be protective and surly, the males tend to be mellow, largely because they don't produce much testosterone in summer and early fall.

View from a Tundra Buggy

The 20 tourists in my group hang on as our tundra buggy, a vehicle with the seats and windows of a school bus and the speed and handling of a Sherman tank, starts crawling and bouncing over a muddy, rocky trail. Every seat is full, most having been booked months in advance at a cost of several thousand dollars. Late October turns out to be a good time to see bears, especially if you don't insist on a background of white. In early to mid-November the bears are still around, and there's a better chance of snow. "Some people are disappointed if there's no snow, but that's my favorite time to photograph bears," Waterman says. "The fall colors of the tundra are just incredible."

Looking across the vast landscape, as flat and treeless as a Dakota prairie, you may spot white ptarmigan hopping around red willow bushes or even see a scraggly caribou. And when that first bear comes into view—and the second, and the seventh, and the 10th—you'll feel a rush that justifies your long trip north.

Barring a stunning miscalculation by a caribou, the giant predators will go hungry until the bay freezes. Waterman once saw a bear eat a lemming, a rodent that must have been as filling as a breadcrumb. Another made a game attempt at stalking geese. But these were diversions, not a way to make a living.

For thousands of years polar bears have hunted seals on sea ice, and they won't be able to change their ways just because the ice is disappearing. Theoretically, the Churchill bears could move north where there's more ice—for now, anyway—but geography isn't one of their specialties. Neither is climate change. "They don't know anything about global warming," Waterman says.

Even as their hunger grows deeper and their numbers drop, the bears will remain committed to this place. They'll continue to gather by the coast in absolute faith that the sea will stay frozen long enough to get them through another year.

This article was first published in September 2008 and updated in March 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.