We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
The chance to see polar bears in the wild might seem like a bucket-list dream that’s difficult to achieve — especially if you don’t live near the North Pole. Classified as endangered, polar bears are threatened as global warming decimates the sea ice they call home. To get a close-up look at the world’s largest carnivore is a privilege and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’ll need to visit Canada to make this dream a reality. Here’s all you need to know about the small town in Manitoba that’s considered the “polar bear capital of the world.”
What Is It?
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates there are between 22,000 and 31,000 polar bears remaining in the wild, and 60% to 80% of them live in Canada. The town of Churchill, Manitoba, claims to be the polar bear capital of the world — for good reason. Though there are regions on Earth with greater numbers of polar bears, to find so many congregating close to a single settlement is rare. In terms of accessibility, the title is justified.
Churchill is a small town that reported a population of just 899 people in the 2016 census. Each year, at least as many polar bears (if not more) migrate south across the Hudson Bay to join them. The human population swells dramatically too, as tourists from across the globe descend on the place in search of the ultimate wildlife experience.
How Do You Get There?
No roads lead to Churchill, so when it comes to transportation, you have a choice between taking a train or flying. Both trains and flights depart from Winnipeg, Manitoba, so it’s possible to use one mode of transport to get there and the other to get back. VIA Rail services depart around midday and pull in to Churchill’s station around 9 a.m. the following morning, so you may want to opt for a comfortable sleeper cabin.
Flying into Churchill is considerably quicker but also pricier. Flights with Calm Air, the only operator to offer a direct connection, take roughly two and a half hours, and you might have a layover in Thompson. Services, though weather-dependent, are generally more reliable than trains, which spent months out of commission in 2017 after unusually severe flooding washed away part of the track.
Best Time to Go
Polar bears are the greatest swimmers of the bear family since they live on the ice and regularly swim to hunt for ringed seals and other prey. As temperatures rise, the ice floe breaks — forcing the bears to return to land and wait out the summer.
As with all wildlife travel, there are no guarantees you’ll see polar bears in Churchill, but to give yourself the best chance of an encounter, you should visit in late October or early November. In summer, although there are as many as 1,000 polar bears in the area, they’re spread out along the shoreline. Come October, the polar bears gather near the shore as they wait for the pack ice to encroach into the bay.
What to Expect From a Tour
A summer kayaking excursion or a boat ride occasionally results in a polar bear sighting, but there are other ways to have an encounter in fall. In October and November, most tours take place on specially designed, all-terrain vehicles popularly known as tundra buggies, polar rovers, or arctic crawlers. These high-clearance vehicles are huge, with tires five feet in height.
Tour operators Great White Bear Tours, Frontiers North Adventures, and Lazy Bear Expeditions travel a short distance out of town to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and Wapusk National Park, where they follow an existing set of trails to reach the bears.
For a chance to spot migrating bears from above, you can hop on a flight from Hudson Bay Helicopters over the taiga, tundra, and boreal forest. If you’re willing to travel a little further, Churchill Wild offers snowmobile and walking safaris from three remote lodges accessible by air from Churchill. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, which is a 70-minute flight from Churchill, has tours to catch a glimpse of mother polar bears with their newborn cubs — an expedition that will satisfy even the most intrepid travelers.
Is It Safe?
Residents and tour operators are used to their ursine visitors. As long as you follow local guidelines, you won’t have a problem. Manitoba’s Polar Bear Alert Program helps protect polar bears, people, and property. Bears that enter Churchill are safely removed out of town by Manitoba Conservation staff. The town also has a procedure for relocating polar bears that get too close and refuse to stay away.
The “intruders” are held in a facility for roughly a month before being tranquilized and relocated to the tundra — a safe distance from downtown Churchill. Since the 1980s, serious polar bear attacks have been rare and the vast majority of tourists visit without incident.
Impact on Polar Bears
By and large, the polar bears are curious, and it’s not uncommon to see them up on their hind legs to get a closer look at visitors, or sprawled over a tire trying to get a look at what’s underneath the tundra buggies. A study of changes to polar bear behavior in the vicinity of tundra vehicles was conducted in 2001, and a carrying capacity review in 2015 noted that there was no significant impact on the polar bears from tourists in tundra buggies.
What to Pack
Even in early fall, temperatures plummet in Churchill, so bundling up is imperative. Clothing should be waterproof, windproof, and able to withstand temperatures that might drop below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Decent winter boots and thick hats, scarves, and gloves are also essential.
If the sun makes an appearance while you’re visiting the tundra, you’ll even need goggles, sunblock, and protective chapstick. And while you’ll probably remember to pack a camera, spare batteries, and a charger, you might overlook the importance of a Ziploc bag, which will help reduce the chance of fogged lenses when you head back indoors.
Churchill’s Other Tourist Attractions
Churchill might be the polar bear capital of the world, but it’s definitely not a one-trick pony. A summer trip to the town appeals to visitors keen to spot the thousand or so beluga whales that arrive in July to calf. Pods gather where Hudson Bay meets the Churchill River. These playful, round-nosed, white whales are unfazed by humans kayaking in the water and will even nudge paddles.
In winter, the action shifts from sea to sky. On a clear night, you have a good chance of catching a glimpse of the northern lights as Churchill sits right beneath the Aurora Oval, a massive ring above the Earth's Geomagnetic North Pole, known for its high aurora activity. Year-round, the Itsanitaq Museum is worth checking out for its collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts. It sounds like an exciting trip to Churchill should be on the horizon!