Lion is commonly referred to as the “King of the Jungle” and the Polar bear in the Arctic is called the “Lord of the Arctic”.
Polar Bears live in a very specific habitat. They need cold, snow and ice and the polar region is the perfect habitat for these bears. They are found in five countries; Canada, Russia, US (Alaska), Denmark and Norway. Polar Bear population is roughly estimated at around 22,000 to 40,000 worldwide with close to half of this population living in Canada.
Unlike the wild animals in Africa or Asia, they have very few threats in the polar region from natural enemies. The threat they face comes directly from humans, by the way we treat the Earth and the environment.
Polar Bears are the world’s largest land predators and they rely on sea ice to hunt, breed and in some cases to den. Generally motherhood starts in mid-September with three months gestation and cubs are born in mid-December in a den insulated by a layer of snow. At birth, cubs are less than a kilogram, blind with little fur skin. The cubs grow very fast, with the help of the mother’s high fat protein milk, and within three months weigh up to 14 kgs. During February/March, they emerge out of the den. Cubs are with their mother until they are 18 to 24 months old. The adult male weighs from 300 kg to 650 kg, and is sexually matured at the age of 5 and not fully grown until he is over 8 years, while females weigh around 150 to 250kgs and mature at the age of 5 to 6 years. The adult generally needs 2 kg of fat per day and its main diet is ringed and bearded seal. The thickness of the skin is almost 11 cm which contains a fat layer that helps the bear as an energy reserve in times of low food availability, and also to keeps its body warm under low temperatures. The life expectancy of males in the wild is usually 20 years and females seldom pass 30.
The rapidly warming Arctic is the greatest challenge faced by the polar bear today with summer ice coverage in the Arctic shrinking to little more than half of what it was just 40 years ago. The remaining ice is soft and thinner. According to scientists, a shorter hunting season on the sea ice will not only lead to a drop in body condition, but affects reproduction in female bears and cub survival rates. They depend on ice as a platform from which they hunt their favourite food; the Seal, whose fat they eat as they need large amounts of fat to survive, leaving the remainder of the Seal for scavengers like Ravens, Arctic Fox and younger Bears.
There is a high estimated risk of future decline of the Polar Bear population due to climate change affecting their critical sea ice habitat. This is why the Polar Bear is now listed as a threatened species.
Having searched the internet for two years for the best location to see Polar Bears in their natural habitat, I found that Churchill, Manitoba in Canada was the best option.
Churchill is located in the western part of the Hudson Bay. By early October, Polar Bears begin to congregate along Cape Churchill, where the ice forming starts on the northwest coast of the bay, which attracts Bears anticipating the return to their hunting grounds. And it is the six-week window from October to mid-November and the Tundra Buggy (bus body on giant wheels), that makes it possible for tourists to see and photograph the Polar Bear.
Tours to see Polar Bears in Churchill start from the first week of October to mid-November. These tours are in great demand, especially the professional photography tours hence I had to reserve accommodation six months ahead of the tour. Tours generally start from Winnipeg, Canada. I reserved a tour of seven nights which had a four day visit to a wild life management area in Churchill and two nights in Winnipeg.
Lilani and I arrived in Winnipeg by air from Toronto on October 29, 2009. Temperature was almost zero degrees C. We met our tour group leader naturalist Richard Day, over dinner at the hotel and were introduced to all other participants of the tour.
Although the tundra buggy can accommodate 30 people, our group size was limited to 15. The following day after a delayed departure due to bad weather in Churchill, we finally arrived in Churchill safely in the afternoon, where the temperature was just below zero °C. We were checked in at Tundra Inn, I believe a three-star category hotel. A helicopter tour was on our itinerary but it had to be abandoned due to inclement weather.
We were told to be ready the following day, October 31 by 8 am. A bus was arranged to transport us to the wildlife management area located in the western part of the Hudson Bay which takes around 30 minutes from the city. This is where the launching pad to enter the tundra buggy, is located. The launching pad could accommodate 12 buggies.
The below zero temperatures could not dampen our excitement to see the Bear, as we swiftly got into the buggy with our camera equipment. In my case, I was using Nikon D3x and D3 bodies along with 80-400mm zoom lens and 2.8, 400mm Telephoto lens with two converters. I noticed that the others were using Nikon as well as Canon with different types of lenses.
The maximum speed of the buggy is around 15 kmph, and the inside is heated to a comfortable degree. Before the start of the buggy trail, the naturalist, Richard and the driver briefed us on the day’s tour and some facts relating to the Polar Bear. After over an hour an eager voice was heard from the back of the buggy saying there, there, Polar Bear! I was very excited as this was going to be my first sighting of the Polar Bear in the wild. All the photographers were busy getting ready with their equipment and pushing down the windows of the buggy. The outside temperature was around minus 10 °C and with the wind blowing our hands froze in no time, in spite of leather hand gloves. The Polar Bear came from the far end of the right side of the buggy and crossed to the left side and disappeared into nearby bushes. Each photographer would have easily taken more than 50 images during those few minutes of the sighting and in total more than 500 images. The pictures taken from my camera were great and after seeing this magnificent predator, I believe it is fitting to call the polar bear “Lord of the Arctic”.
Within an hour there was excitement again. A magnificent specimen was coming towards us from the far right of the buggy around 300 meters away.
Most of us were busy opening the side glass windows on the right side and placing the bean bags on the window base to hold the huge lenses, which weigh around 4.5 kg, and focusing on the Lord of the Arctic with a correction to overexposure. It stopped halfway near a rock on the snow. The outside was snowing with wind and had very dull light. Holding a camera under such conditions and taking pictures was almost impossible. While we focused on the Bear, the photographer next to me sighted an Arctic Fox far away running forward and coming near the bear. Normally the Arctic fox is a friend of the Bear but on this occasion it chased the fox away as it came near it. Apparently, a picture with both species together is rare, especially a Bear chasing the Fox. While watching the movements of the Bear and its behavior and the Fox who was still within our sight, lunch-snacks were served. There is an open deck on the back of the buggy and some went outside for photography. A buggy behind us had spotted a Bear sleeping inside the bushes behind the vehicle. So we all had a look at that Bear too. We continued our tour towards Hudson Bay for further sightings of Bears and other arctic animals which include the Arctic Hare, Snow Owl, Red Fox and Ptarmigan (bird). We had a passing glimpse of the Tundra Buggy Lodge which was located near the Hudson Bay where one could stay a few days and tour the area. The Buggy Lodge consists of a few buggies connected to provide restaurant facilities and accommodation with toilet conveniences for at least 20 people. On our way back to the launching pad we were lucky to see and photograph a mother with two grown up cubs within the range of 200 meters. The usual time to be back at the pad is 5 pm. In addition to video photography, Lilani had an additional task given by the rest of the tourists to count the number of Polar Bears sighted for the day. The count for the day was 23 Bears.
The temperature was further down to minus 15 °C the following day, the 1st of November. But thankfully there was no strong wind compared to the previous day. As usual, the bus came to pick us up at 8am and we were transported to the launching pad. Carrying camera gear and getting into and out of the bus in the cold weather was not easy. We were on the buggy by 8.45 am, looking forward to another great day of viewing Bears and other arctic animals. Since this tour was mainly organized for wildlife photographers, on this particular day we were more focused on action and unique shots of the Bear. During the morning hours, we sighted over 10 bears and on one occasion a mother with two cubs scampering away from our sight. Later, one of the photographers from Switzerland using a Sony camera requested the buggy to be stopped immediately with his hand pointed towards the bushes covered by snow. We all looked at the pointed direction and saw a bird similar to the bird of the Grouse family, and the naturalist said it was a bird named White-Tailed Ptarmigan, who hardly flies and has feathered legs. This guy is a great spotter! There were occasions that we encountered Polar Bears near other tundra buggies as well as coming near to ours and even trying to stand up straight by holding the buggy. Just before the end of the day’s trip a Bear was spotted with a cub and later feeding on the mother, but the sighting was unclear. Pictures were not that good.
According to Lilani, the head count of Bears seen for the day was 26. We would have seen some of them on the previous day as well. The tour operator had arranged dinner at different restaurants for the five nights in Churchill, a decision hailed by all.
The third day of our Tundra Trails, November 2nd, was a great day with a bright sunrise. We were at the launching pad by 9 am and with the sun shining on the ice the whole landscape looked spectacular. The buggy driver took a different route in the morning and spotting Bear was not that electrifying having seen many on the first two days. Even on this day, having seen and pictured many Bears in different areas in various positions, it was in the last hour before we came back to the launching pad that we spotted a Bear with the rays from the sunset falling on its body. All got busy with their cameras shooting pictures of the Polar Bear under these conditions, getting excellent images.
Before we commenced our closing trail, a group photograph was taken with the buggy in the background. The agenda for the day was to photograph the cuddly white creatures in various poses. The script couldn’t have been written any better. Out there were two playful males having fun-together, posing and moving, triggering the incessant clicking of cameras. On that happy note the tour culminated; a very successful and gratifying journey of the arctic wild.
Last day of our stay was reserved for the city tour. I got the opportunity to take the dog sledge drive which was exhilarating. We returned to Winnipeg in the evening and had our last get-together at the hotel. Our return to Sri Lanka was via New York on the 11th of November.