The bond between a polar bear sow and her cubs is extraordinary. This month, viewers can experience the remarkable relationship up-close with Disneynature’s newest film, Polar Bear. Streaming exclusively on Disney+ beginning April 22, Earth Day, the documentary tells the story of a mother polar bear and her two cubs as she shows them the ways of Arctic living. Navigating the harsh climate, this single mom teaches her offspring how to hunt, swim, and migrate, while also demonstrating the best ways to survive in such a quickly changing ecosystem. It’s a tale of hope, strength and familial bonds told through these “bears of the last frontier.”

It’s also a film of breathtaking cinematography. In the same way as it did with movies like Penguins and Elephant, Disneynature utilizes nature’s own beauty and the incredible relationships among wildlife to draw us into a unique world, one that’s both inspiring and thought-provoking. Polar Bear helps us gain an increased understanding of the needs of denning polar bear families, especially with the rise of human activities such as mining and drilling across the landscape in which they reside. One way the film accomplishes this is through the use of remote, solar-powered cameras to document crucial aspects of denning behavior. Typically, sows dig their dens deep into snowbanks, where they can often go undetected through more traditional mapping methods. What’s more: both Disneynature and the Disney Conservation Fund are collaborating with Polar Bears International, a non-profit organization founded in 1994 with an overall mission to ensure the polar bear’s long-term survival, to bring new attention to the plight of polar bears amid climate change and simultaneously motivate change.

Polar bears are the kings and queens of the Arctic food chain, and they play an important role in this fragile ecosystem. The planet’s far north is already an inhospitable place for all but the most resilient creatures, the bulk of which have spent their entire existence adapting to such a harsh and ever-changing environment. Bowhead whales, insulted by a thick layer of blubber nearly two feet thick, have evolved to become the only baleen whales to live in Arctic waters full-time, while walruses use their long tusks to haul themselves out of the sea, as well as break through ice for food. Here, in this land of extreme temperatures and vast tundra, the wildlife is used to long winters and summers that are short and brief. However, the remote polar region is also warming three times as fast as the global average, a process that results in the mass melting of sea ice and permafrost and causes polar bears and other animals the need to travel further for food. This sometimes results in new and unexpected encounters with humans and affects the bears’ behavior and physical condition, among other things.

It’s an indisputable truth: the Arctic and its wildlife residents need our protection. According to a 2020 study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, polar beaches could even become nearly extinct by the end of the century if greenhouse-gas emissions continue as they’ve been. Another cause for concern is the chance for new diseases as the Arctic warms and human activities—including oil and gas exploration—increase. Spilled oil could easily contaminate the ice and water, poisoning the entire ecosystem for years.

polar bear sow and cub walk on ice floe in norwegian arctic waters and illustrated against sun in distant horizon, wide angle of view

More About Polar Bears and Their Families

Intelligent, playful, and extremely curious, polar bears are estimated to have evolved from brown bears approximately 500,000 years ago. Over time, their colorings changed from brown to white, a form of camouflage to help them blend in seemingly with the Arctic’s stark white scenery. Polar bears also evolved the ability to eat massive amounts of fat, including loads of blubbery seals, without any blockage buildup around their heart or within their arteries. In fact, they can build up so much insulation that at least half of their overall weight is fat, without any risk of heart disease.

Polar bears have multiple layers of fur and fat for insulation, a regulatory system that keeps their body temperature at an average of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, typical for most warm-blooded mammals. They’re also terrific swimmers, with webbed toes and large paws that help propel them through the sea and an oil coat of fur that repels water. These paws also display rough surfaces of hairs and bumps, which provide plenty of traction while walking on ice.

By the time they’re adults (typically between the ages of 4 to 6 for females and 6 to 10 for men), they can weigh up to anywhere from 550 to 1,300 pounds, depending on their sex. Polar bears are also considered by many to be the largest bears on Earth, vying for top position with the Kodiak bears of southwest Alaska.

The Birth Cycle

Most mating occurs in the late spring and early summer and takes place upon the sea ice. However, female polar bears experience something called “delayed implantation,” meaning that the fertilized egg remains dormant for several months, and they don’t become fully pregnant until fall.

During this time, female polar bears build up as much fat as possible, which they can later convert to energy for themselves and their soon-to-be young ones. Once ready, the bears build their dens into a snowdrift and crawl inside for the winter, typically giving birth to one-to-three cubs (with twins most likely) in December.

This denning time is actually the most vulnerable time in a polar bear’s life. Babies are born small, blind, and toothless, and the sows devote all their time and energy toward caring for them. It’s not until springtime that the group finally emerges, and the polar bear cubs are ready to start learning the tricks and trades of polar bear living.

For the next two-and-a-half to three years, the mama bear teaches her kids how to hunt seals, swim in the Arctic waters, and quite simply survive.

A polar bear in the Arctic

Seeing Polar Bears Up-Close

Disneynature’s Polar Bear provides an inside glimpse into the life of these magnificent creatures, which you can also see for yourself on Nat Hab’s small-group Classic Polar Bear Adventure. Limited to just 16 people, this incredible expedition brings its participants to the heart of polar bear action: Churchill, a northern frontier town on the shores of Hudson Bay in Canada’s Manitoba province. The area surrounding this small community is home to one of the largest concentrations of polar bears on the planet. There are thousands of them, in fact, earning Churchill the nickname “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Nat Hab utilizes custom-built Polar Rovers, each with its own outdoor platform, to view polar bears up close in a way that’s both safe and non-invasive. It’s a perfect opportunity to honor the planet’s amazing offerings and get a first-hand look at these curious and amazing beings who need our help to endure.