Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Churchill: Polar Bear Capital of the World

For a long time, I have wanted to go to Churchill for birds. Between the prospect of seeing Ross' Gulls, and all the nesting shorebirds, Churchill always seemed to me a place where the tundra was accessible place than say, Alaska (probably due to my east coast bias). But while this place has been on my radar for its birds, Churchill is perhaps far more famous for it other wildlife. Enter the big mammals (particularly the big white mammals).

Caribou. While not abundant around Churchill, if you spend enough time, you will see some.

Starting in June, when the mouth of the Churchill River opens up, hundreds of Beluga Whales arrive. The whales move into the river not only to feed, but to breed. It is a spectacular sight, seeing that many whales in one place. The whales stay around the mouth of the river until late August or so, when they disperse and head farther north. During this time, a lot of people come to Churchill to see the whales. Tour companies take boats out to see the whales, and you can even kayak with them.

That white blotch out there in the water is a Beluga. That's about as good a photo as I got of a living one. I did get better looks at them though.

Dead Beluga on the beach.

Of course, the respective stars of the show are the Polar Bears. Churchill is known the world over as being one of the most accessible and reliable places to see Polar Bears. Part of the reason Churchill is such a good place to see bears is because of the geography of the region, and Hudson Bay itself. All of the bears that live on Hudson Bay come ashore in the summer because the Bay completely melts (in other parts of the world, bears will stay on the ice all year long). Bears that come ashore typically don't eat, and so they depend on their fat reserves to get them through the summer. As it gets colder and colder in October and November, bears congregate around Churchill because it is the first place on Hudson Bay that ice forms. As soon as the ice forms, the bears leave the land and go out so they can hunt seals.

During October and November, Churchill is truly bustling with tourists. People come from all over the world to see the many Polar Bears that gather around Churchill, which are waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay. Many people who travel to Churchill to see bears ride around in Tundra Buggies, which are enormous bus-like structures that ride around on the tundra to get up close and personal with the bears.

The Tundra Buggies

My first Polar Bear!

We watched this large male Polar Bear on the ice as it was eating a seal it had just caught. After it finished its meal, it meandered across the ice toward shore. Since the ice was so chunky, he often fell into the water, and would have to climb out.

A young male bear just wandering around and resting.

Two large male bears during a brief disagreement. They shortly went on their way and went to sleep in the rocks

While the Polar Bears that we saw were awesome, their presence around Churchill meant that we had to be particularly careful when doing field work. We always had to be vigilant, and carry a shotgun around with us for protection. At the study center, we kept track of all the Polar Bear sightings around the area, so that people doing field work would know whether a bear was spotted in their study area, and can be extra vigilant.

The white board: where we sign out when we leave the Study Centre each day, and where Polar Bear sightings are posted

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