As a new member of Nat Hab, I was initially nervous when I set out on my journey to Churchill, Canada—the Polar Bear Capital of the World. The excitement of experiencing one of the adventures I help facilitate combined with the anxieties of being out in the field made for a nerve-wracking departure. Would the trip be everything I hoped? Would the guests get to experience the “wow” factor that so many of our travelers rave about? Would I be able to use my knowledge of Nat Hab to enhance our guests’ trip? I hoped so, but was uncertain when my flight to Winnipeg took off.
My first interaction with guests at our welcome dinner quickly put me at ease, as I was instantly captivated in conversation over a delectable dinner and a couple glasses of wine. It was then that I knew a Nat Hab trip was not solely about immersing oneself in the wilderness, but also about befriending the travelers alongside you, connected by the knowledge that you’re about to witness some of the world’s most breathtaking wildlife together.
One traveler, in particular, Danny Aiuto, made an impression on me after I sat next to him on our Polar Rover outings. I quickly learned that Danny was dedicating his life’s work to protecting animals and promoting conservation. His passion for wildlife and love for nature resonated with me and reminded me why the job I do is so important. Our guests are never just numbers but rather individuals like Danny, whose love for wild animals prompted him to travel to Churchill, Manitoba, to see a white bear roaming the tundra. Danny, who had never before seen a polar bear in the wild, said this experience was one of the most memorable moments of his life. Being able to say I had a hand in making that experience for Danny; well, that was a pretty memorable moment for me.
I interviewed Danny about his animal encounters in the Arctic:
What prompted you and your mom to take a trip to see the polar bears of Churchill?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Arctic and its wildlife. I wanted to ensure that I had the opportunity to see a polar bear in the wild during my lifetime.
What was it like to see a polar bear in the wild?
It was like a part of my life had been fulfilled; seeing one of my favorite creatures on the planet in a setting all its own, not one built by man.
I understand you’ve worked with wildlife a fair amount in your field of work and study. How do you experience wildlife in your day-to-day world? How is it different from what you experienced in the wild?
Each day I research animals, sharing their life history and association with humans for conservation awareness. I’ve also always loved drawing animals and use them as the subjects of my art. I watch nature documentaries and visit zoos often, but seeing animals in their natural landscapes is an entirely different experience. It is such a profound adventure to be immersed in their world, and I was awestruck just to be able to enter into their lives as an observer. As I take in each breathtaking moment that I am beside a wild animal, I tune in to every single motion and behavior they display. Being with animals on their terms makes it easier to appreciate their individuality and existence on Earth, and to acknowledge how alike we are as we stand and breathe in the same space.
What was your favorite moment of the trip?
My favorite moment was when we saw a large male polar bear by the Tundra Lodge. That was the closest I’d been to a wild polar bear in my life. I savored every moment, every gesture and movement, and felt connected as we were in each other’s presence. I’d rate it among the top five most memorable moments of my life.
What was the most interesting fact you learned on the trip?
I’m not sure how to rank everything I learned. I’ve researched polar bears since childhood, but it was fun to learn new things to add to that knowledge, such as the fact that play-fighting in male bears is unique to the Hudson Bay population. Learning about the different indigenous cultures was also really special. The inukshuk stone figures, built by the Inuit as navigation landmarks, were amazing to see.
What do you think made this experience so special for you?
My most meaningful moments of the trip included:
- Seeing the tundra biome for the first time
- Encountering so many native species
- Viewing the aurora borealis
- Seeing lots of polar bears, including a family and a big male near our lodge
- Meeting polar bear experts in person
- Befriending the Nat Hab staff
What would you say to future travelers interested in embarking on this adventure?
I would absolutely recommend it. A trip to Churchill is probably the best opportunity to see polar bears up close. Also, you’ll learn so much about human-wildlife interactions between the Churchill community and the bears. It’s an experience you’ll remember forever.