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Polar bears are also called ice bears (after their winter habitat), Ursus maritimus (scientific name, meaning sea bear), Wapusk (white bear in the Swampy Cree language) and Nanook (the Inuit name for polar bear in Inuktitut).

Churchill Manitoba polar bear
Churchill Manitoba polar bear
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You can learn a lot of interesting facts about polar bears on a photo safari. Even if your Tundra Buggy or Polar Rover excursion is not a designated photo tour, you will get great images and information about polar bears. Our polar bear-viewing trip was a perfect example.

Best time to see polar bears

When is polar bear season? Between mid-October and mid-November the predatory mammals gather along the western coast of Hudson Bay.

Why do polar bears come to Churchill, Manitoba? They are waiting for ice to form so that they can use it as a platform for hunting seals. (Ringed seals are their preferred diet.)

If you take a Hudson Bay helicopter tour you can see that ice forms near Cape Churchill up to one month before other shoreline areas. Why? Prevailing winds and fresh water ice from the Churchill River create the early freeze-up.

What do polar bears eat in summer? After spring, when melting ice forces them ashore, they survive on fat reserves, seaweed, grass and carrion.

How many polar bears can you see?

According to the last official survey, the population of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay is about 1,000. The world polar bear population is 25,000 to 50,000, divided into 19 sub-populations (13 of them in northern Canada).

The number that you will see depends on when you go, the weather, which tour you take, where you stay and luck.

David and Helena Eschrich
David and Helena Eschrich
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

People from around the world come to Churchill MB for polar bear-viewing. Our tour group was an eclectic mix of 19 travellers from Canada, the USA, Italy and England.

Polar bear photography

Although we were all animal-lovers, it was hard to top the record of David and Helena Eschrich, from Lakeland, Florida, who were on their fifth polar bear-watching trip. "We just love polar bears" exclaimed Helena.

"We booked two back-to-back trips this year." Avid photographers, they print their polar bear pictures on Christmas cards to send to friends and family.

"We always book one year in advance, because tours fill quickly." she added.

How big are polar bears?

The largest bear that Helena and David ever saw was the first one we sighted during our trip. We will never forget him.

Male polar bear
Male polar bear
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

He was standing on his hind legs checking out the passengers in a Great White Bear Tours Polar Rover in front of us. Our driver, Ward Brown, approached and stopped our tundra vehicle several meters away.

The curious bear abandoned the first vehicle and ambled toward us. He had scars on his nose, probably from battling other males for breeding rights to females.

"He must weigh at least 1,200 pounds (550 kilos)," said Steve, noting that male polar bears can weigh up to 1,500 pounds (700 kilograms). How heavy are female bears? They can weigh up to 550 pounds (250 kilos).

How long is a polar bear? The average length of adult polar bears is six to eight feet (1.8 to 2.5 meters).

How fast do polar bears walk and run?

Steve pointed out the lumbering male's distinctive pigeon-toed walk, as he placed his rear foot in the same footprint made by his plate-sized front foot a second earlier.

"Polar bears walk at speeds of five-to-ten miles (eight-to-sixteen kilometers) per hour and run up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour," explained Steve. "With their long strides, they can move quickly."

Polar bear looks through window
Polar bear looks through window
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The great white beast poked his black teacup-sized nose against a window and peered inside. We gasped. His shaggy paws had claws as large as a garden trowel's.

How many teeth does a polar bear have?

His sharp teeth could crush a seal's skull with one chomp. Polar bears have 42 teeth, 20 on the top and 22 on the lower jaw.

Curiosity satisfied, he dropped to the ground to amble to the back deck. Cameras in hand, everyone rushed to the windows to take pictures.

When Scarface left us, we were disappointed but happy that we had a close encounter with the magnificent Arctic predator.

Polar bear behavior

Each bear that we saw had a unique personality. Near Gordon Point, we encountered a sleepy bear, snoozing with his head on his paws.

Polar bear rests on icy ridge
Polar bear rests on icy ridge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We named one bear Rototiller, because he pounced on the ground to break the icy crust, and then reached deep under the snow and pulled out a long string of kelp to chew.

Another bear straddled an icy ridge and rested his head on a snow-covered rock. Periodically, he raised his head, sniffed the air and tasted it with his long, black tongue.

What color is a polar bear's coat?

We asked Steve why the bear's coat was so yellow. "Their hair is hollow and clear, so it reflects the light around them," he responded.

Other bears were belly-scratchers and play-fighters (juvenile males testing their strength and building up stamina for real battles for dominance as adults).

Why do polar bears float in water?

Steve Clubb told us about a playful bear that he saw in shallow water, laying on his back to juggle a rock that he kept picking up every time it fell below the surface.

He explained that polar bears have five inches (12 centimeters) of guard hair on top of two inches (five centimeters) of warm fur above two inches (five centimeters) of body fat. "That's why they bob in water and need no energy to stay afloat."

Polar bear rubs itchy back
Polar bear rubs itchy back
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Polar bears swim at speeds of six miles (10 kilometers) per hour.

Funny bear

The funniest bear that we saw had an itch that he couldn't scratch, even after nearly folding himself in half to try to reach his rump.

He finally wriggled his back on the snow and raised his legs up in the air, as if he were doing yoga exercises. We could see the six black pads on the bottoms of his feet, and a sublime look on his face, indicating that there is nothing more satisfying than an itch that's been scratched.

Polar bear cubs

Undoubtedly, the cutest bears that we saw were two cubs that followed their mother, mimicking her movements. "They are coy, which means cubs of the year," said Steve.

Mother bear and cubs
Mother bear and cubs
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When they became tired, their mother stretched out on the ground, so that the cubs could rest their heads on her soft, furry hindquarters. But mama bear was also a strict disciplinarian.

When one cub wanted to investigate a parked tundra vehicle, she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dropped him to the ground. Lesson learned, he dutifully followed her away from the vehicle.

Steve explained that female bears absorb or abort fertilized eggs if they don't have enough body fat to give birth and feed cubs. Female polar bears need an average weight of 440 pounds (200 kilograms) to have a successful pregnancy.

Fortunately, this mother had enough milk to keep her playful twin cubs healthy and well-fed.

Life span

In Manitoba, The Endangered Species Act lists polar bears as threatened species.

How long do polar bears live? In the wild, the average life span is 15 to 18 years. Some bears have lived for more than 30 years.

Is the Canadian population of polar bears in decline? It depends on whom you ask. Inuit people say that the number of polar bears is stable, based on their history. Government biologists say that numbers are drastically falling. Both groups have vested interests.

Polar bear footprints

Ward Brown thought he saw another bear across a frozen pond, so he stopped the tundra vehicle and used his scope to check out the white mound.

"Nope. It's a rock bear," he concluded. "I've been fooled more than once by a rock that changes its appearance with each snowfall."

Mother polar bear and cub in blizzard
Mother polar bear and cub in blizzard
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The stop gave us the opportunity to enjoy some tundracinos (hot chocolate mixed with coffee) and view big paw prints leading to a polar bear's day-bed dug into a snow bank.

David and Helena Eschrich noted that each of their polar bear tours was different. In October, they saw the great white bears on brown tundra. In November, they watched the polar bears in a snow blizzard.

We talked with the American couple about the joys of polar bear-watching. "We can't understand why more Canadians don't go see the bears," said Helena, "especially when they live much closer to Churchill than we do."

Now that we've visited Churchill during polar bear season, neither can we.


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