On the southwest coast of Canada’s Hudson Bay is the town of Churchill, Manitoba, known for its sled dogs, auroral views, and, in the fall, its grand title “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.” As ice sheets form off Churchill’s shores—the first place to freeze in Hudson Bay thanks to a confluence of freshwater and Arctic wind—polar bears congregate awaiting their chance to get back on the ice.
Why is sea ice so important to polar bears?
“It’s all about food,” says Nat Hab guide Dr. Court Whelan. Polar bears evolved to hunt their primary food source, the ringed seal that is found exclusively on and under sea ice. This is one of the (many) reasons polar bears are only found in the Arctic region, where there are nearly six million miles of sea ice. The polar bear might even be the Arctic’s most defining feature: the word “Arctic,” in fact, comes from the Greek word for bear—arctos. When watching the bears arrive in Churchill during the refreeze, it’s easy to see why.
But you might be wondering… what happens when the ice melts in the summer and pushes the polar bears ashore?
What do polar bears do in the summer?
While the water closest to the Earth’s northern pole stays frozen year-round, summer in the subarctic brings electric blooms of purple fireweed, the milky white backs of Beluga whales breaching in Hudson Bay, and a seasonal slow-down for polar bears. In the summer, the bears are often spotted lounging on rocky shores and in tundra meadows.
Unlike brown and black bears, polar bears don’t seasonally hibernate. During their short summer, the bears conserve energy by entering a fasting state. They will occasionally feed on shellfish, eggs, kelp, and berries, but none of these summer food sources sustain the fat reserves they need. In just a few months, the bears lose a significant amount of body weight, up to four pounds of fat per day.
Can you see polar bears in the summer?
While it’s not uncommon to see polar bears around Churchill in the summer months, they are often spread out over a larger area, sleeping or inactive, and viewing them takes you a bit further off the beaten path. However, thanks to the WWF species tracker, you can keep up with bears from anywhere in the world.
With the help of local scientists and polar bear researchers, WWF is following the bears’ locations as they travel off the ice and back again. The project involves the use of radio collars that beam the bears’ positions via satellite to trace their paths. Use the tracker to watch the bears zigzag their way through Hudson Bay and beyond, and you’ll soon see how they earned their Inuit name, nanuq, meaning “the ever-wandering one.”
How does tracking the polar bears’ locations contribute to the species’ conservation?
The tracking program aids conservation efforts in many ways. When researchers fit the bears with collars, they collect important data about their health such as weight, blood samples, and metrics to estimate their ages. These data points help monitor both population health and the well-being of the species overall.
The tracking project also provides information on the bears’ movements, so scientists are better able to understand their travels and how climate change impacts these behaviors. Over time, the program will increase insight into how the bears are adapting to depleting sea ice.
The shrinking sea ice is perhaps the most important variable in the study, especially in Hudson Bay—the polar bears’ southernmost territory—where the summer is the longest and the ice melts first. Rising temperatures will extend this already long summer, threatening the fasting bears with starvation. The Autumn of 2021 brought one of the latest freezes on record, and the bears around Churchill spent 170 days total off the ice: 50 days longer than average.
For the pagophilic (ice-loving) polar bear, climate change threatens the species’ survival. Shrinking Arctic habitat causes a chain reaction of harmful conditions that scientists call the “Arctic Squeeze.” This is a process that forces animals to adapt by moving northward or finding higher ground. But for polar bears in the Canadian subarctic, options are limited. In many cases, they’re spending more time on land looking for other kinds of food.
Is it safe to see polar bears?
One consequence of shrinking habitat is that the bears have been pushed toward human communities. Like black bears roaming backyards and brown bears frequenting backcountry campsites, polar bears living in close proximity to humans have been known to explore trashcans, abandoned buildings, and anywhere else their powerful sense of smell might take them.
Unfortunately, human-polar bear conflict has been on the rise. A key part of conservation efforts is minimizing uncontrolled encounters with bears and educating humans on how to make these interactions safer for all. The species tracking program has made great contributions to human safety by allowing researchers to keep an eye on bears that might make their way out of the wild and toward human-inhabited areas.
Luckily, after years of declining numbers, conservation efforts supported by the WWF species tracker have been successful, and the sub-population in and around Churchill is now considered stable.
So, what is the best way to see polar bears?
Of course, watching the bears’ locations beam from the Arctic to your computer screen is a wonderful way to interact with wildlife from a safe distance, but there really is no substitute for seeing the bears in their habitat. Should you follow the bears using the species tracker this summer, you might even recognize individuals while visiting Canada in the fall.
Most Nat Hab adventurers are stunned by the number of bears they see on a trip to Churchill. With over half of the world’s polar bear population located in Canada—and the southern shore of Hudson Bay being the very end of this territory—Churchill, Manitoba is one of the most accessible areas in the world for seeing polar bears. As just one of two tour operators with exclusive permits for polar bear viewing, Nat Hab takes visitors where most tour guides can’t.
From a helicopter dropping you near a vacant polar den, to state-of-the-art tundra trucks with steel mesh floors and wide windows, there are abundant and unique opportunities for safe yet intimate viewing of the bears. Nat Hab’s expert guides are all naturalists in their own right. Each brings an average of ten years of experience leading bear tours. The guides receive additional training from WWF scientists and immerse travelers in local conservation efforts, including the collaring and tracking program.
Seeing the bears in this capacity reminds most that they are marine mammals with migratory patterns determined by sea ice. With the knowledge that sea ice is slipping away makes seeing the bears—online or in person—even more impactful.