In the Land of the Ice Bears

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I'll never forget the first time I locked eyes with a polar bear.

It's a fairly common occurrence if you go to watch these silent giants in the wild – they aren't really afraid of much (definitely not humans), and are super curious creatures.

So when you're staying out on the Manitoba tundra at Frontiers North Adventures' Tundra Buggy Lodge and a bear wanders over to inspect the lodge's tires, it's likely that it will also look up, it's big black nose twitching, to also inspect YOU.

Buggy Love

My first polar bear encounter was on my first night at the Tundra Buggy Lodge. We were just getting ready to have dinner, when a bear suddenly appeared and proceeded to pad silently around the lodge. I went out on one of the decks in between cars – in my slippers – and marveled at is giant paws and fluffy fur that looked silky in the lodge's lights.

And then it walked over to the side of the lodge and stared straight up at me, locking eyes with mine and gazing curiously up at me for a full minute. I gasped, broke into a grin, and managed to snap this photo.

Those EYES! Those PAWS!

It's a moment I will never, ever forget.

There's a certain intelligence and fearlessness in those eyes; I know we're not supposed to ascribe human emotions and attributes to animals… but, you guys, I felt like that bear stared straight into my soul and knew what it was looking at.

Polar bears in Manitoba

The polar bear population that calls northern Manitoba “home” for part of the year is considered the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears, a population of roughly 1,000 bears.

The bears spend the winter out on the frozen Hudson Bay, and return to land during the summer. In the fall (October and November), they start congregating not far from the town of Churchill, Manitoba (population currently around 800 people), where the Hudson Bay will first start freezing as temperatures drop.

Polar bears at Hudson Bay in Manitoba
Polar bears at Hudson Bay

Because the bears here are so accessible, tourists like myself have been flocking to Churchill for decades in the hopes of seeing polar bears up close.

Seeing polar bears in the wild has been on my bucket list for a long time, and last year I finally had the disposable income available to book a dream tour to Manitoba. I booked a “Tundra Buggy Lodge Enthusiast” tour with Frontiers North Adventures, which included 3 nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge (located at the appropriately-named Polar Bear Point) and 3 full days looking for wild polar bears on safari-like excursions on the tundra.

This trip exceeded all my expectations (more to come on the tour itself soon!), and made me fall even more deeply in love with polar bears.

Polar bear on the tundra in Manitoba
(How could you NOT love these guys??)

Polar bear fun facts

I learned SO MUCH about these animals on my trip, and wanted to share some of that knowledge with you. Here are some fun facts about polar bears – some of which might surprise you!

1. A bear of many names

Polar bears are native to several countries that surround the Arctic; you'll find them in Canada, Greenland, Russia, and places like Alaska and Svalbard (Norway). Because they exist in a fairly wide range of places, they have all sorts of interesting names.

The polar bear's scientific name is Ursus maritimus (“sea bear”), but some other names for them include things like beliy medved or The White Bear (Russian), isbjorn or The Ice Bear (Norway), and some more poetic names like The Rider of Icebergs (Norse), The Old Man in the Fur Cloak (Sami/Lapp), Nanuk, meaning Animal Worthy of Great Respect (Inuit), and even The Master of Helping Spirits (East Greenland).

Polar bear in Manitoba
Ice Bear, Rider of Icebergs

2. They're marine mammals

Because polar bears spend so much of their lives hunting and living on the ice, they are the only bear species in the world to officially be classified as a marine mammal.

In proof of this, polar bears are excellent swimmers; they can swim at sustained speeds for days at a time, using their dinner-plate-sized front paws as paddles and their rear paws as rudders.

3. Polar bears aren't white

At least, not technically. A polar bear's skin is actually black, which you can see if you get a glimpse of a polar bear's paw pad. Their fur looks white, but it's actually closer to being translucent; each guard hair is hollow to help hold in heat, and the fur reflects visible light, making it appear white.

Polar bears sparring
Can you spot the black paw pad?

When they're hanging out on land, napping in piles of kelp and padding through the tundra before the snow comes, they get dirty and actually look more yellow than white!

4. They are BIG bears

If you thought grizzlies were big, just wait until you see a massive male polar bear lumbering towards you. Polar bears are the biggest bears on earth. A full-grown male can easily weigh 1200 pounds – during the fall when it's been fasting for 4 months!

Male polar bears will average around 1000 pounds when they're full-grown, and females will weigh about 600 pounds – but males can easily reach 1500 pounds, and females can pack on a couple hundred extra pounds when they're getting ready to have cubs.

Big polar bear in Manitoba
It's tough to tell in a photo with nothing to use for scale, but this bear is HUGE. At least 1300 pounds, our guide guessed.

And as for height? An adult male polar bear can easily be 5 feet tall at its shoulders when it's on all fours, and the largest polar bear ever recorded was over 11 feet tall when standing on his hind legs.

5. Unique pregnancies

Polar bears are pretty unique when it comes to having cubs. Breeding season for polar bears is usually in the spring out on the sea ice, but a female won't actually become pregnant until the fall – and only if she's fat enough. This is called delayed implantation, and I think it's fascinating!

If the mother bear isn't able to consume enough food in between when she breeds and when it would be time for her to build a den, the fertilized egg that's been suspended since mating simply doesn't get implanted and she doesn't become pregnant.

Mother polar bear and twin cubs
Momma with twin cubs – these guys are about 10 months old.

If the mother HAS packed on enough fat, then she'll build a den in late autumn (basically a small snow cave) and give birth to cubs usually in December.

Mother polar bears often have twins, and sometimes even triplets. Polar bears are born tiny (only about 2 pounds), blind, and completely helpless. They grow fast thanks to super rich milk, though – by March or April, they'll be leaving the den with Mom equipped to survive in the Arctic with her protection.

Twin polar bear cubs in Manitoba
Polar bear cubs are SO fluffy a cute at this age.

6. Solitary creatures

Polar bear cubs will stay with their mothers for 2.5-3 years, learning all they need to know about being polar bears. After that, when Mom is ready to mate again, she'll chase them off and they'll be on their own.

Other than when cubs are reliant on their mothers, polar bears – both males and females – are solitary creatures.

Polar bear on the tundra in Manitoba

This doesn't mean that they can't get along, though, or that they don't sometimes form friendships. When there's no food to fight over (like when the Manitoba bears are hanging out around the Hudson Bay, waiting for the ice to form), it's not uncommon to find bears napping near each other, or getting together for a friendly round of sparring.

7. Polar bears can be playful

If you've ever seen a polar bear in a zoo tossing around a bucket or splashing with a friend in a pool, you might know that polar bears can be pretty playful.

This is true in the wild, too. They're very intelligent animals, and it's not uncommon for them to get bored when there aren't any seals to hunt.

I saw polar bears striking yoga poses, playing with sticks and bits of kelp, and even sparring with each other.

Polar bear yoga
We named this one Yoga Bear
Polar bears sparring
Sparring bears

While it might look fairly scary when those huge paws and sharp teeth are flying, scientists have decided that polar bears spar mostly for fun. Sure, young male bears may be practicing for when they'll have to fight for real for females in the spring, but you can tell by watching that they're only play-fighting.

Even though a polar bear can knock a seal out with a single blow of a paw, they don't usually draw a single drop of blood when they're sparring like this in the fall.

Polar bears sparring
That paw could do a lot of damage!
Polar bears sparring
Polar bears sparring

8. Excellent noses

After their massive paws, the next thing you notice about polar bears is their big black noses. Their noses are almost like another appendage, always twitching around, sniffing for new smells.

And those noses are powerful – polar bears can smell prey from miles away.

Polar bear on the tundra in Manitoba
This bear looks like it's basking in the sun, but it's really stopping to get a whiff of us.

9. They eat mostly seals

Speaking of prey, polar bears primarily eat seals. In the Arctic, ringed seals are their favorite food, though they also eat bearded seals and the biggest bears might take down the occasional hooded seal. It's not uncommon for polar bears to eat other animals that have died, too (or even to eat other polar bears), though they hunt more than they scavenge.

A full-grown polar bear needs to eat the equivalent of one ringed seal per week in order to survive.

Polar bear playing with ice

Unlike other bears that are omnivores, a polar bear's diet is almost entirely meat/fat. This is mostly because they need the fat to survive in the Arctic (polar bears have a layer of blubber under their skin that can be up to 4 inches thick!), and berries just don't cut it.

You may see a bear eating berries or kelp in the summer months, but most bear scientists believe this is just to help the bears feel “full” since they really can't chew or digest anything other than meat and fat very well.

Polar bear eating kelp
A polar bear eating some kelp

10. Polar bears don't hibernate

Unlike some other bear species that hibernate during the winter months, polar bears are active year-round. They hunt on the sea ice during the winter and spring (November-June/July around the Hudson Bay), and then fast on land throughout the summer until the ice forms again.

Mother bears that come off the ice in July and go into dens to have cubs in the autumn can fast up to 8 months (!!!) until they and their cubs head back out onto the ice to hunt again. It's probably not surprising, then, that a mother bear can go into a den weighing 900 pounds and come out in the spring weighing only 300 pounds.

Polar bear nap time
They ARE pretty lazy, though, especially when they're waiting for the ice.

11. No natural predators

Polar bears are at the very top of the food chain and have no natural predators. Most polar bears will die of starvation, usually due to old age or injury that makes it impossible for them to hunt.

Subadult polar bears (generally any bear under the age of 5) sometimes have to fear larger bears – it's not uncommon for males to try to kill and eat cubs – but no other animal predates on these predators.

Sleeping polar bear
Which is why they can dig little “day beds” in the snow and nap out in the open.

After natural causes, humans have always been the largest threat to polar bears. 50 years ago, an aggressive sport hunting industry threatened to wipe polar bears out, until the nations with polar bear populations (Canada, Denmark, Norway, the U.S., and Russia) signed the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in order to regulate things like hunting.

Today, it's mostly only indigenous communities that are still allowed to hunt the bears, and they no longer face extinction from hunting.

Polar bear yoga

But that doesn't mean that polar bears have nothing to worry about…

Polar bears and climate change

Currently there are about 26,000 polar bears spread out across the Arctic, divided into 19 subpopulations. While 26,000 sounds like a fairly healthy number of bears, the truth is that polar bears are a threatened species, and several subpopulations being studied are in decline.

A lot of people on my tour to Churchill said that their motivation for booking a trip was because they wanted to see polar bears “before they're gone.”

And, even though that seems a bit extreme to say, the truth is that the Arctic habitat polar bears depend on IS changing – and it's changing fast.

Polar bear at the Hudson Bay in Manitoba

In Canada, the Hudson Bay is still 90% covered with ice each winter. But the ice is thinner than it used to be, and the bay is freezing later and thawing earlier each year – meaning the Hudson Bay subpopulations of polar bears are having to fast a little bit longer each year.

The loss of sea ice has a trickle-down effect; because the polar bears have a shorter hunting season, they're coming off the ice weighing less than they used to. And it's entirely possible that there will come a time in the not-so-distant future that female polar bears just won't be fat enough for their bodies to support pregnancies any longer.

The Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears (the ones that call the Churchill area home) is one of the most-studied groups of bears in the world. And that population experienced a 30% decline from 1987 to 2011, according to Polar Bears International.

Polar bear in Manitoba

Polar bears aren't going to disappear overnight; but there's a very good chance that they COULD disappear. In fact, it's predicted that polar bears may no longer be around by 2100 at the rate the Arctic is changing.

How we can help polar bears

I don't want polar bears to be yet another extinct animal kids learn about in school 100 years from now. But when you read about all the threats to the Arctic – from global warming and pollution to oil drilling to mining to, yes, even increases in tourism – it seems a bit hopeless.

Is there anything we can actually do?

Well yes, there is.

Polar bear in Manitoba

Here are a few, tangible things you can do that can help save polar bears:

  1. One of the biggest things we all can do is get out and VOTE for leaders and representatives who actually believe in climate change and the importance of taking steps to slow down global warming. And consider pledging, volunteering, or donating to the Environmental Voter Project, which aims to turn already-eco-conscious people into more regular active voters.
  2. Visit Polar Bears International and learn about ways you can take action based on what you like to do. They have great suggestions for everyone from teachers to business owners. If we all start to take small steps to be kinder to the environment, it can snowball into a big impact.
  3. And consider ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. (Which I know is an ironic thing for a frequent traveler like me to say!) In addition to making better choices in my everyday life, I personally donate each year to a carbon offset program, too. My friend Alex from Alex in Wanderland has a great post on choosing a carbon offset program.

Polar bears in Manitoba

There's no guarantee that we can save the sea ice or the polar bears… but we at least can try.

Because even though I was a wildlife advocate before, seeing these majestic bears in the wild has made me even more of a champion for them and the Arctic.

Do you love polar bears, too? Did you learn anything new about them in this post?

 

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Polar bear fun facts and photos
Polar bear fun facts and photos

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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10 Comments on “In the Land of the Ice Bears

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  1. Lovely post about the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba. I’ve been fortunate to have been up to Churchill 6x during the four seasons (and yes, they do get hot summers, but they are short!) Here’s hoping the polar bears are able to find a way to survive in this changing climate.

      I certainly hope they can find a way to survive – they’re too cute to go extinct! And lucky you to have visited Churchill so often! I’d love to go back in the summer to see the belugas!

    Great article! I tend to prefer the warmer climates myself, but love reading about others cold related adventures.

      I know I’m weird in that I don’t really mind the cold at all – especially when it goes hand in hand with adventures like this!!

    I loved this post. This was so educational and well-written. What an unbelievable, once in a lifetime trip!

      Thank you, Danielle! It definitely was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and worth every penny!

    Thanks for this post! I learned a lot about polar bears… and would love to see them someday. It was fun to see your pictures. I found some of them really cute. Also, thank you for sharing information about climate change and what people can do on political/structural and personal levels. It’s so important.

      Thanks for reading, Leah! Climate change is one of those things that almost seems like too big of a problem to solve – but we have to try!

    Oh wow you have taken so many gorgeous shots of polar bears! You had me at the fact they are black though. This post has taught me a lot about polar bears and I’m shook 😉

      They’re fascinating animals – not to mention so darn photogenic!

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