Churchill’s Fierce, Strong, and Playful Polar Bears

December 6, 2016   10 Comments »

When I think about being exposed to different personalities, I always think about online dating. As I slowly rode the tundra buggy around in search of polar bears, I wondered what a bear’s dating profile would look like.

“I get hangry when I don’t eat.” “I like to date outdoorsy bears.” “Must be a good swimmer.” “It’s ok if you’ve had other relationships.”

Would you swipe left or right for that cuddly polar bear?

I had heard people say bears have personalities, but quite honestly I hadn’t experienced it yet. When I viewed polar bears on Russia’s Wrangel Island, we were never able to stick around long enough to really see the personalities and unique behaviors come out. We saw plenty of polar bears, however we couldn’t spend a lot of time observing the bears while we were in little zodiac rafts floating precariously near the bears! So the only personality I had really experienced when it came to bears were the fictional ones – Yogi the Bear and Smokey the Bear. And I was pretty sure that these polar bears in Churchill weren’t going to steal picnic baskets or warn me against forest fires.

When I showed up to view polar bears in Churchill, there was a part of me that wondered if my Canada bear curse would bleed over into the world of polar bears. What if I came all this way, and still don’t see a bear? Considering my track record with grizzly bear viewing in BC, it was a real possibility.

Tundra landscape

Tundra sunrise

After enjoying a spectacular sunrise from the Tundra Buggy, I sat in my seat scanning the white bumpy landscape, trying to detect movement as we slowly chugged along. Suddenly there was pointing, yelling, and people were putting down their windows as the buggy slowed down to a stop. There they were 3 cream colored bears sauntering across the tundra. No polar bear curse – Yippee!  I quickly grabbed my cameras and ran out on the buggy balcony focused on the 3 bears coming closer to us with each step.

The Teenagers

A couple of tundra buggies, including ours, had stopped in the path of an approaching mother and her two cubs. The two cubs, being curious teenagers, stopped at the buggy in front of us while the mother was saying, “Move along now, there’s nothing to see here…” She got tired of waiting, and kept going out on the ice past the buggies on the other side. One dutiful cub followed her and one stayed – still curious sniffing around the buggy and up on his hind legs. The mother kept walking and looking back, and finally I imagined her making a big ‘huff’, rolling her eyes, as she turned back around to get the errant, misbehaving cub. The curious one eventually saw the glare of mom and started back towards her, head held a little low.

polar bear personalities churchiill

Mother and cubs - you can tell which one listens and which one marches to his own drum in this pic alone...

The Toddler

Next we came across a mom and her COY (cub of the year) which means that this cub was still a toddler. As mom walked around sniffing for seaweed, the little cub kept on playing in the snow – putting its nose in the snow and then popping back up, make the snow fly. Is it possible for a polar bear to smile – because I could swear that this little one was. It had a little glint in it’s eyes, mischievous and fun. It even tried to chase/play with a raven at one point. Oohs and aahs were heard all over the buggy as we all watched this little cub play in the snow in pure delight, as the mother sort of tolerated the behavior, but nudged him along.

polar bear behaviors

Snow can be so much fun to a cub!

Aren’t They Cute…But Wait…

As we continued on slowly all aglow in our polar bear experiences, I thought about bear personalities, and how heartwarming it was to see how the bears interacted with each other and in their environment. I found myself assigning personalities and stories to each of them that I saw. It’s natural to do so, however it’s important to also realize that we see them through a heavy filter of our own feelings. I even learned a new awesome scrabble word – anthropomorphization – the projection of human personalities on animals. It’s fun, but can also be a bit dangerous as when we humanize these wild animals, we assign them the responsibility of being human and the morals that go along with it. And quite frankly, they are very dangerous animals, and we can never forget that. They each do have personalities, you can see that, but it’s easy to flip that personality into an expectation of how humans act.

You might have seen the recent viral polar bear and dog video that everyone went wild about. Quite frankly when I saw it, I didn’t feel that warm ‘awwww’ feeling, instead it made me nervous. Maybe because I had just been in Churchill and seen those dogs, and I knew that the interaction might not be as we all projected it to be. Then we found out a few days later the bear attacked one of the dogs …because they are wild animals and they are hungry.

That point was driven home when we witnessed some of our next encounters that were a reminder of the more wild side of these bears’ personalities.

Polar Bears in Training

When we came across the two male bears, it looked like they were two friends just hanging out, they even looked cuddly. However the cuddling turned to nudging, turned into both of them up on their hind legs sparing. It was actually pretty shocking to see. I gasped when the bear stood on their hind legs due to the sheer size of these creatures! Cameras were clicking and the Chinese couple in my group were giving a commentary in Mandarin as we all vied for position on the balcony to watch. After a while the two bears stopped, lay down and astonishingly took a little nap next to each other, nose to nose.

Our guide David explained this was a typical ritual that the males engage in as they get ready to go back out on the ice for hunting. David said we could consider this like humans going to the gym to get in shape, that’s what these bears were doing, getting back in shape for hunting seals and protecting their bounties. It was interesting to put it in such a human perspective, but it did seem to make a lot of sense to me.

While they napped, we had lunch, and trust me, there’s something pretty surreal about eating lunch while watching polar bears nap and fight outside your buggy window. Once they woke up they were at it again, paws flying, biting, and basically wrestling. When they stood on their hind legs and pushed each other with their paws they even looked human to me. Eventually one got tired and walked away with a little streak of red blood that stood out on its white fur.

Hungry and Hunting

I know how I get when I’m hungry, and it’s not pretty. These bears have been on land waiting for ice to return now for 4 months and they probably still have another 3 weeks to go. When on land, they don’t eat – normally. But when you are hungry, and you need food to keep up your strength to get back out on the ice and hunt you’ll do about anything. It’s not like they are carrying extra Clif Bars along like I do in case of emergency.

The weather had changed drastically and I stood out on the buggy balcony trying to hang on to my camera in the wind and keep some feeling in my increasingly numb fingers as a mother and her big female yearling approached our buggy. The wind and snow was blowing fiercely as the pair crossed our path stopping only a moment to sniff us. This was the closest yet I had gotten to the bears and I wasn’t about to let a little weather stop me.

After they had crossed by and sauntered out of sight, a large, but skinny male bear came down that same exact path, taking his time, sniffing, and acting as if he were a kid that was trying to avoid going to church on Sunday morning. What David later explained is that the male bear was following the scent of the previous females, likely hunting them (specifically the cub) out of hunger. Once this big male passed by us he used his nose to follow exactly where the females had gone; their sense of smell, even in the 26 mph winds is amazing. To all of our surprise, the females had started to head back towards him, as they couldn’t see him yet, and he was still trying to stay on their scent. When they all met on the ice a few hundred feet apart and saw each other the women took off at lightening pace with the male chasing after them. He eventually gave up for the time being – choosing not to extend any more energy. However I figured he had to be pretty hungry to think that he was going to take on those two females who looked a bit healthier than him.

polar bears churchill

The females making their way through the storm

One Tough Mother

Much like humans, a female bear has a lot of responsibilities, and quite frankly has a much harder time than her male counterparts. David made a calendar of the female’s life for us to illustrate how tough their journey into motherhood can be.

The males fight for mates in March, and when they mate the female isn’t pregnant right away – it’s a delayed implantation. However Mother Nature takes over and knows the pregnant female needs to be fat enough to ensure the survival of the cubs. The pregnancy gets held in suspension until she is at a safe weight to carry the cubs. She needs to be around 400 to 450 pounds in order for the pregnancy to go forward. So if she has a lean spring on the sea ice then it will naturally abort. If she’s heavy enough, then she will go den up in September. While in the den, she delivers the cubs in the end of December and in mid March she emerges from her den with new cubs. September to March, 7 months, she hasn’t eaten a thing, has given birth, and now desperately needs to find food for herself and her new family. Luckily baby ring seals are born just as she’s coming out of the den, so there is a food source if she can get to it with her new cubs. She hunts and eats for about about 3 1/2 months feeding and teaching her young ones. When the ice disappears she comes ashore in June/July – where she doesn’t really eat again until the ice forms in November. And she has to constantly protect her cubs from potential hungry males in November.

polar bear cub

Mom and cub

See what I mean – one tough mother. If I go 7 hours without eating I become a bear, she goes 7 months and is a bear.

You Won’t Look a Polar Bears the Same Way Again

polar-bear-behavior-50Two full days of being out on the tundra viewing bears in this unique land environment was eye opening and educational to me. In some ways it felt as if I were watching a soap opera unfold in front of me with overacting and intense personalities. There’s nothing quite like being able to sit and observe wild animals in their environment safely. And with the changing conditions of sea ice, no one really knows how much longer this will be possible. As much as I want to think that these bears are furry, cuddly animals with human personalities, it was clear to me that they were wild and simply trying to survive.

As I finished my 2nd day of the Polar Safari on the Tundra Buggy, I thought back to what our guide David said on the first day, “The goal of a trip like this is that we don’t want you to look at polar bears the same again.”
I had spent two days getting ‘close’ to these fascinating creatures, closer than most humans will ever get. I learned about their lives, environment, and struggles. I spent a great deal of time wide-eyed and astonished as I watched their behaviors and observed their personalities, but I walked away much smarter as well as concerned about the bears as our world evolves.

Mission accomplished!

How You Can View Polar Bears in Churchill

Frontiers North runs a number of different polar bear viewing trips. Check out the Frontiers North Website for more information.
This is what I did, a few days out on the buggy, but stay in the town of Churchill to get a complete cultural experience.
Churchill Town and Tundra Enthusiast

See more snippets of my Tough Tundra Experience with Corning® Gorilla® Glass 5 and HTC Bolt

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I was a guest of Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North on this Polar Bear Adventure, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

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