Our first stop in Manitoba is polar bear jail. Arriving at Churchill airport, I’m told to head to the polar bear facility — effectively the jail for bears who’ve been caught in town.
And this morning they’re going to release a mother and her cub. We’re kept at a distance, but near enough to see that the animals are sedated, looking like lifeless glove puppets, ready to be transported 50 miles by helicopter and then released. The cub is put inside the chopper while its mother is suspended in a net beneath. It’s not exactly first-class travel but it might teach her to stay away.
It’s not that easy for people to get to Churchill for now either. At the moment, the only option is a direct flight from Winnipeg, since the railway line has been out of action after flooding damaged the track last May. During the winter, temperatures get to -40C and the sea freezes over.
The town itself began as a fur trading outpost on the shores of Hudson Bay, and subsequently became a busy port in the early 20th century, exporting grain from the prairies. During the cold war in the 1950s, it housed a huge military base where soldiers were trained to survive Arctic conditions. Now the troops are gone, the port is closed and a deserted rocket launch pad is the only eerie reminder.
These days, Churchill is a mecca for wildlife watchers instead — in summer, after the ice breaks up, almost 57,000 white beluga whales arrive in the bay, with around three thousand spending a couple of months giving birth and feeding on the fish in the warm waters of the river mouth.
Nicknamed “sea canaries” for their strange high-pitched whistles, clicking, chirping and other underwater vocalizations, these playful whales have few natural predators. The best time to see them is July and August and you can get up close on a small inflatable or kayak, or even get in the water and snorkel among them.
At this time, it’s also possible to get occasional glimpses of polar bears but you’ve more chance of sightings later in the year, from October to November. They gather on the shores, waiting for the sea to freeze over, before venturing out on the ice to catch seal. The hungry bears sometimes wander into town but there’s a dedicated 24/7 bear patrol to scare them away, and, of course, the polar bear Jail for the most fearless.
It’s estimated that around one thousand bears call the area around western Hudson Bay home and I’m here to see these fearsome predators in their natural setting, roaming the tundra rather than the streets. I climb aboard a Tundra Buggy, a purpose built 4WD coach running on giant tyres to keep it high above the ground. All the windows open and an open-air viewing platform is ideal for taking pictures.
The first hour’s excitement is limited to bouncing through deep ruts and ice pools as we make our way slowly across the snow to the shore. Our guide prepares us for disappointment by saying that there’s no guarantee that we’re going to see any bears. I scan the horizon but see nothing and start to think it’s going to be one of those days.
Suddenly, a young mother and her cub are right on our path. We stop and they come close to the vehicle, so near that I can hear the cub making a low hissing sound at his mother. This “chuffing” is essential polar bear communication and across the snow I spy the reason for her concern. Another bear is approaching and they run off, but not before we’ve all captured the moment on our cameras.
The intruder is a frisky two-year-old male who is definitely curious. He starts making leaps at our Buggy, rearing up on his hind legs, trying to paw at the windows. Luckily I’m just out of reach but close enough to feel his breath. It’s easy to forget that these are dangerous wild animals and I resist the temptation to reach out and touch him. It’s like being in a zoo, except we’re in the cage.
As we move across the tundra, I can see bears on all sides, mainly mothers and cubs. I could spend all day watching these, but our guide is keen to find big males. He’s a shrewd idea of where they might be and shortly we’re watching a polar bear wrestling match. Two young males test their fighting skills in a playful display of force.
It’s a long day on the Tundra Buggy but it’s never boring. Just when you think you’ve run out of bears, you turn the corner and there’s the next lot. There’s always a certain amount of luck involved but most tours offer two days out on the tundra to maximize your chances. I end up with a tally of over 50, despite my earlier pessimism.
As the sun goes down, I’m hoping to see one of Churchill’s other attractions — the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. It’s one of the top three places in the world to see them with the town situated directly beneath the Auroral Oval in the Northern Hemisphere. Statistics show that these shimmering ribbons of light dance across the night sky 300 days a year. Unfortunately my luck has run out — every night is cloudy and the Northern Lights refuse to appear. Perhaps when I return to swim with the Belugas I’ll see them shine.