Nothing will prepare you for your first polar bear sighting in Manitoba.
Polar bears are tumbling around in the snow as I watch from the viewing platform of a heated tundra buggy near Churchill, Canada, which is considered to be the polar bear capital of the world.
More than 1000 polar bears located in northern Manitoba on the western shore of Hudson Bay, head to the Churchill area in autumn to wait for the ice to form so they are ready for the start of the early seal-hunting season.
As well as the polar bears, animal lovers from all over the world base themselves in the small town of Churchill, with a population of about 900, to join excursions to see these magnificent creatures in their pristine environment.
© Sue Wallace
The polar bears roam the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, about 20kms from the town, where residents leave car doors unlocked and front doors open just in case they need a quick escape from an inquisitive polar bear looking for food.
© Bob Debets
Churchill even has a polar bear lockup with 26 cells, where rogue polar bears who stray a little too close to the town are locked up for 30 days and then relocated.
A polar bear nicknamed Dancer was well known to locals and returned annually to the area but hasn’t been seen for some time.
One thing is for sure: nothing prepares you for your first sighting of polar bears in the wild – they are simply captivating as you watch their daily lives unfold.
© Simon Gee
Polar bear viewing quickly becomes addictive and you don’t want to miss a thing.
We see more than 13 polar bears over my three-day stay spent at the Frontiers North Adventures tundra buggy lodge, a motel on ice that saves you travelling from Churchill daily.
© Frontiers North
You soon become mesmerised watching the polar bears roll, stretch, tumble and spar with each other, search for lichen, and toss boulders around as if they are marbles.
Often what starts as a fun sparring session turns into a serious encounter with the best ‘man’ winning.
“Don’t be fooled, these polar bears are one of the world’s most dangerous animals and they are naturally inquisitive,” says our guide wildlife biologist Angele Watrin.
© Bob Debets
During the day we travel in a specially designed all-terrain heated tundra buggy across the 85,000-hectare Churchill Wildlife Management Area that is the largest wildlife management area in Manitoba.
Dressed in warm snow gear to combat the minus –14°C weather, we watch the bears from the outdoor viewing platform, warming up again inside where we have a picnic lunch.
© Frontiers North
The polar bears take little notice of us but are inquisitive and like to lick the huge tyres providing great photo opportunities.
The lodge is a cosy home away from home with comfortable dormitory-style accommodation, shared bathrooms and a lounge where wildlife experts provide educational sessions about polar bears.
© Eric Lindberg
After three days of intensive polar-bear spotting, I am completely under their spell and like many, worry about their future as climate conditions change.
My lasting memory is of a hefty polar bear and her cub playing in the snow then wandering off across the tundra – simply magical.
© Bob Debets
Experience and observe polar bears up close in their natural habitat staying at the world-famous Tundra Buggy Lodge.
How to get there
Churchill is a 2.5-hour flight or a two-day train ride from Winnipeg, Canada. It is located about 1000km north of Winnipeg.
Best time to go
Peak polar bear season is October/November, but polar bears often arrive in the Churchill area as early as July.
Frontiers North Adventures offers three-night stays at the Tundra Buggy Lodge and daily excursions from Churchill. Churchill Wild offers a variety of tours and a stay at its eco-lodge. And Great White Bear Tours offers day trips from Churchill.
Ways to make it more affordable
Book your own transport and accommodation in Churchill and take a day trip to see the bears.
Polar Bear International is the world’s leading polar bear conservation group dedicated to saving polar bears by preserving their habitat. Frontiers North Adventures sponsors the organisation.
Dreaming of meeting a magnificent polar bear in person? Head to Destination Canada’s website to discover how to make your dream holiday come true, or check out Adventure World’s offers.
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