churchill polar bears

Fall 2013

Churchill, Manitoba lies about 1300 miles north northwest of Toronto, Canada on the western side of Hudson’s Bay.  By far, Churchill is best know for its Fall polar bear migration.

Each year some 1000 to 1500 polar bears congregate in and around Churchill waiting for the ice to form on Hudson’s Bay.  When it finally forms, the bears go onto the ice where they winter, mate and feed until the ice thaws.  Winter is the most active season for these bears which do not hibernate but do live in dens in the late Spring, Summer and early Fall.

Polar bears are solitary animals that can weigh up to 1200 lbs and  stand 10 feet tall on their hind legs.  In the wild, they live 15 to 18 years.  Seals are their primary diet and the bears do not eat once they leave the ice in the Spring.  Females give birth in the Fall and the cubs stay with the sow for 2.5 years.   They are an endangered species.

Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and fear nothing.  When the bears are congregating, it is extremely dangerous.  Walking around Churchill, especially at night, has its perils.  Just a week before we arrived, two locals were mauled and injured critically by a bear as they walked home from a Halloween party.

We photographed in a fifty square mile area of Tundra just outside of Churchill that is protected for the bears by the Canadian government.  We were in “Tundra Buggies” that are licensed to travel on the land.  These buggies stand high enough for the bears to visit but not high enough for them to get in.

It was unseasonably warm during our visit.  All of the days were overcast, and we had snow or snow flurries every day.  The temperature was between 10 & 20 Fahrenheit, but the wind is strong, incessant and from the north which made it feel much colder than the temperature suggests.

We were extremely lucky.  Over the 3 days on the Tundra, we encountered some 45 bears and had ample opportunity to observe their behavior and do photography.  Because the bears are at the top of the food chain, they showed no fear of us or the buggies, so we could get close.  A few times, they chose to visit us!  Clearly, this is their world, and we are mere visitors.

Sadly, the polar bear habitat is being affected by climate change, and Polar Bears International has predicted that by 2050, no longer will there be polar bears going through Churchill.