Like any small town, Churchill, Manitoba, has its share of local gossip, colorful figures and Rockwell-like traditions.
It also has nearly a thousand polar bears lumber through every fall.
Welcome to the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” where each year, this town of 800 gets overtaken with 1,200 pound bears making their way from the northern woodlands of Canada to the frozen Hudson Bay in search of seals.
In the purest sense, Churchill is like no other place on earth. Polar bears need a high-protein, high-fat diet in order to survive arctic conditions. (Side note: There are NO polar bears in Antarctica. The worldwide population of between 20,000 to 25,000 lives entirely in the five arctic countries; Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States.) In order for the bears to build up 4.5 inches of fur, blubber and hide, they primarily hunt seals that swim near the annual ice masses that form around the Arctic Circle. For Canadian polar bears, Churchill is like the entrance to an arctic buffet line. The geography of the land provides late fall ice along the shore, giving these bears direct access to the food they need.
This is what makes Churchill so special. And why there’s something called a “Tundra Buggy.”
While you can scour the rocky coastline of Churchill looking for bears, you are almost guaranteed to come within arm’s length of one, thanks to these 25,000 pound arctic rovers.
These things roll onto the Canadian tundra, carrying wide-eyed tourists into prime polar bear territory. They’re part mobile home, part monster truck, completely customized, diesel powered trams that keep people a safe distance from the bears. And from an open-air, elevated platform, you can breathe the same frosty air as these beautifully powerful predators searching for seals.
Despite being the size of a compact car, polar bears are nimble and eerily quiet. There’s a disconnect with what you see and what you hear, when a polar bear walks within earshot. You would expect a 14-inch paw, scraping along the ice, to generate a thundering sound. But all you hear is the wind, whipping icy snow against the rocks, and your heart, beating in your throat.
It’s nature. It’s fascinating. It’s why Explore.org has setup a series of web cameras in this part of the world to capture this annual arctic migration.
As part of the Annenberg Foundation, Explore.org has installed remotely operated cameras to bring this polar wonder to the entire world. Without having to bundle up and trek onto the tundra, you can see how these bears make their way onto the ice, searching for seals, teaching young cubs, and even sparring.
Explore.org founder Charles Annenberg has a straightforward purpose for opening up the tundra to everyone. He says he wants people to fall in love with the world again, and amplify the awareness of global warming.
“Let’s make it the new Groundhog Day where we celebrate the day our beloved friend, the polar bear, can start migration and go home and eat,” he said.
Since the polar bear was listed as an endangered species in 2008, Polar Bear International and scientists have been explaining why this migration is so essential to the species’ survival. Dr. Steve Amstrup, world renown for his work with polar bears, said that without arctic ice, the polar bear loses its habitat. The cold climate provides the ideal condition for ringed and bearded seals, staples of the bear’s diet. And heavy, deep snow creates the perfect maternity den for pregnant females trying to sustain the population.
Take away the arctic, take away the polar bear.
So this year, things are different for Churchill. The town is not just for the buggy riding tourists or 800 locals. The whole world is watching polar bears take their last steps on solid land before heading into their frozen existence on the tundra.
Maybe this year, the town will get a traffic light.