By Rachael Axelrod (WWF’s Senior Program Officer for Climate, Communities, and Wildlife) and Elisabeth Kruger (WWF’s Manager for Arctic Wildlife Conservation)
Before flying into Churchill, our Natural Habitat Adventures group was told our chances of seeing a polar bear were promising, but nothing could be guaranteed. This is nature, after all!
In mid-November, we were traveling at the tail-end (pun intended) of polar bear season, the handful of weeks between mid-October and mid-November when the polar bears of Nunavut and Manitoba converge on the Hudson Bay shoreline waiting for sea ice to form. Show up in Churchill too late, and you run the risk of missing the bears as they venture deep onto the ice hunting seals.
Just 15 minutes into our first day, we quickly discovered we had not missed the bears. We collectively gasped as our driver pointed out a bear off in the distance, slowly trudging across a frozen pond. That first bear was one of nearly 30 we witnessed that day. A pair of sparring females, several family groups of moms with cubs, countless bears lounging in the sun—sightings were abundant!
Cause for Concern
We were both elated and conflicted. This trip to Churchill was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness polar bears in their natural habitat—an experience most people never have. But the sight of so many bears roaming around the shoreline of the bay also meant something else: The sea ice had not yet formed. As guests on one of Nat Hab’s special climate departures, we knew this was cause for concern.
Polar bears are built for feasts and famine. They are efficient digesters of seal blubber, converting up to 97.4% of the blubber consumed and storing whatever energy isn’t needed in the moment as fat reserves to use later when seals are scarce.  When polar bears have access to a stable platform of sea ice, they hunt as many seals as they can, packing on the pounds that will tide them over during the ice-free summer to come.
Sea ice is a complex and dynamic habitat, but as our world warms due to climate change, the ice will continue to form later and melt sooner. This change is shrinking the polar bears’ hunting season and forcing them to fast for longer and longer periods. Polar bears can only eat so many seals during the winter when they have access to sea ice, and warming caused by climate change is now testing how long they can go without sustenance.
Seeing so many bears on shore at the tail end of the season was a tangible reminder of the very real threat—and current impacts—of climate change.
A Delicate Balance
What really drove this point home was the opportunity to delve into the intricate ecosystem that sustains the polar bear population. Nat Hab’s expert guide, Nikki Sentinella (whose photos are featured here!), provided us with invaluable insights into the delicate balance of the Arctic, explaining how each component—from the smallest microorganisms to the largest marine mammals—plays a crucial role in supporting the polar bear’s way of life.
Likewise, other Arctic species benefit from the bears. We watched as ravens and foxes trailed closely behind polar bears, ready to feed off their leftovers. Learning about the interdependence of species in this extreme environment underscored the fragility of ecosystems like this one in the face of rapid global warming.
Getting Closer (Safely)
This was a profound experience for me, as I normally work on climate change issues from a desk in Washington, DC.
As my colleague Elisabeth said several times during our trip, “It’s one thing to know something intellectually, and a whole other thing to see it and feel it.” This encapsulated my experience. When speaking and writing about climate change, it’s easy to feel lost in the scale of the problem. But being confronted with an Arctic ecosystem that’s not adapting quickly enough to our rapidly changing climate felt immediate in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
For Elisabeth, who works on Arctic and polar bear issues every day from WWF’s office in Alaska, this trip represented an opportunity to safely observe polar bears being polar bears in their natural habitat. Often, when she sees polar bears in the course of her work, her first reaction is to make sure she is safe, which may involve deterring the bear away from people. It was a real treat for her to be able to watch the bears do their thing, without fear.
As representatives of WWF, we had the privilege of engaging in many conversations with our fellow travelers. These discussions emphasized the importance of collaborative efforts in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
With the background of the frozen tundra behind us, these talks felt both engaging and urgent. The engagement and curiosity of our group was inspiring, and we left Churchill with a renewed sense of purpose. We can’t thank WWF, Natural Habitat Adventures, the town of Churchill, our fellow travelers, and, of course, the polar bears enough for providing such a unique and memorable experience.
 Best, Robin. (2011). Digestibility of ringed seals by the polar bear. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 63. 1033-1036. 10.1139/z85-155.