Many have seen polar bears confined in the artificial environment of a zoo, but only a fortunate few have had the exhilarating experience of witnessing these fascinating and majestic creatures up close in their natural habitat. Every fall, the small grain port of Churchill, Manitoba on the west coast of Canada’s Hudson Bay becomes a gathering point for wildlife viewers, nature enthusiasts, photographers, and adventurers from around the world who come to observe one of the great thrills of nature, the polar bears of Churchill. Churchill, where the approximately 1000 residents are outnumbered by an estimated 1200 polar bears, is situated near the southern limit of where they are able to live year round and is one of the most accessible places for one to observe polar bears in the wild, making Churchill the best place on earth to view polar bears in their natural habitat.
After the spring thaw, the Hudson Bay bear population roams the tundra, eating little but berries, grass, and sea weed during the summer months. In the fall, while pregnant females move to denning areas, non pregnant female and male polar bears congregate around Churchill waiting for the waters of Hudson Bay to freeze.
The freeze allows the polar bears to migrate over the ice packs in route to their winter seal-hunting grounds. Seals are the main food source for polar bears. According to Steve Donino, Field Director for Natural Habitat Tours, “It’s impossible for bears to hunt free-swimming seals, and Churchill is one of the first places ice forms on the bay.” Donino, who has been leading polar bear tours to Churchill for Natural Habitat Tours for 10 years, is a professional wildlife photographer who frequently works with scientists around the world documenting their research and has served as an ecotourism development consultant for the Inuit community of Coral Harbor in the Northwest Territories as well as an instructor to the National Audubon Ecology Camps in Maine.
Usually polar bears are solitary creatures, but around Churchill during October and November one can see large numbers of them, which is why Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” According to Donino, at this time of year travelers can expect to see anywhere from 2 to 50 polar bears on the tundra surrounding Churchill. “Although Churchill has a large population, there’s no guarantee as to how many bears we’ll see [on a tour]. On average we’ll see 12 or so bears, but its wildlife so it’s unpredictable.”
Travelers observe the polar bears of Churchill from the safety and comfort of a tundra vehicle, sometimes referred to as a “tundra buggy.” Through the windows of a tundra buggy, travelers have the incredible opportunity to see young males play fight in preparation for future competition for mates, mother bears explore the landscape with their cubs at their sides, and solitary adults lumber across the tundra. Often tundra vehicles are surrounded by curious polar bears nibbling at the tires or standing on their hind legs to look in on travelers. It is truly a unique and extraordinary wildlife experience. The bears respond to the tundra buggies in one of three ways: they either completely ignore them, they approach and investigate them, or they simply go away because they don’t want to be bothered. But the bears are extremely curious creatures according to Donino. “It’s the best experience when the bears come check out the tourists.”
Natural Habitat Tours offers several trips to view the polar bears of Churchill. According to Donino, what makes Natural Habitat Tours unique is the quality of their guides.
“We have the best guides in the world. Our guides have a very strong commitment to ecotourism and to giving people the best experience that they can have.” Natural Habitat Tours, a long-time Supporting Member of The International Ecotourism Society, has made the practice of high ecotourism standards an integral part of its mission and has been featured in many publications as one of the select, responsible nature tour operators. Donino told Ecotravel.com “Ecotourism is evolutionary. We look at a lodge or facility and see what’s being done, if there is need for improvement, and then we try to encourage and facilitate that improvement. Clients assume that we’re doing something positive, that we’re doing it for the benefit of the local people and not harming the environment.”
Putting their philosophy into action, Natural Habitat Tours has assisted the world’s top polar bear scientists from the Churchill Northern Studies Center and the University of Saskatchewan in performing vital research and is currently in the process of establishing a scholarship fund for polar bear research at the University of Saskatchewan. Natural Habitat Tours is also working with tundra buggy operators to create a manual on the ethics and standards of polar bear viewing for guides who drive tundra buggies. For Donino, the result of efforts such as these is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being involved with Natural Habitat Adventure’s tours. “I take a lot of pride in having this positive effect. That, to me, is ecotourism – having a positive effect.”
Natural Habitat Tours offers polar bear viewing not only via tundra vehicle but by helicopter as well. On such a heli-journey the traveler may also see Arctic fox, caribou and other wildlife as well. Travelers are also offered the chance to crawl inside an unoccupied polar bear den, a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
For an extraordinarily intimate experience, travelers with Natural Habitat Tours can stay at the locally owned and operated “Mothers & Cubs Lodge” located across the Churchill River from town, which offers an exclusive getaway where mothers and cubs tend to congregate. The lodge is encaged in bars, like a shark cage, with a porch area around the lodge and walkways on top where travelers can view the bears. Bears look in the windows and come up to the bars around the lodge to look in at visitors. The lodge, built in the early 1900’s and once a local trading post which attracted local Inuit, Cree and Chipawa Indians, implements environmentally friendly practices such as self-composting toilets, water conservation, and careful waste disposal.