Follow in Nigel's Footsteps

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Looking for Ice Bears...

Day three of my visit to Churchill Manitoba and after a great morning in town it's time to take to the water to start searching for one of our largest carnivores.

Polar Bears Ursus maritimus have helped put Churchill on the map, it's nickname is 'Polar Bear Capital of the World' and each year they come ashore along this part of the Hudson Bay as the ice gradually melts and recedes. With no ice to fish from they swim to shore and basically chill out, not feeding until the Bay freezes again in mid November. Although they aren't catching their preferred prey of Ringed and Bearded seals at this time of year, it doesn't mean they aren't still extremely dangerous animals where we are concerned. A typical summer job in Churchill is as a bear lookout.

Patrolling for Polar Bears, an important job in Churchill.
Once on land they tend to remain close to the shore, hiding among the rocks or trying to keep cool by lying in patches of willows or other tall scrub. My best bet of seeing one was to join Lazy Bear Lodge's Hudson Bay Tour, which uses a custom built boat called the Samuel Hearne (after the famous explorer). These tours head out of the mouth of the Churchill River and then north-east towards Button Bay and Hubbard Point to maximise the chances of seeing one.

Prepared for the sea trip in fetching floatation suit.

Before leaving the river though you can't miss seeing some of the 3000 Belugas that make this their summer residence.

Beluga whales feeding on Capelin, Churchill River
Beluga, adult. You can just make out some scars on this one
though most have some from run-ins with predators
such as the Orca.
They are such inquisitive and friendly mammals. They'll come right up to the boat to take a look at you - that said I wasn't fortunate enough to capture them with their heads out of the water so I'll spare you a mass of 'white hump' photos and leave it at the above until my video footage has been edited. So on with the bears!
Arctic Skuas are very common out in the estuary.
Arctic Skua harassing a American Herring Gull
No sooner had we left the shelter of the river we discovered it was quite rough in the Bay - too rough to head as far north as planned so we loitered around the river mouth just off Prince of Wales Fort to watch more Beluga where we also had great views of Arctic Terns being harassed by Arctic Skuas. Then, just as the captain was making the decision to abandon the trip to go look at the fort instead, a Polar Bear was spotted high on the headland walking among the boulders. But they were brief views only lasting 30 seconds before it made a hasty retreat to the other side and out of view. It was decided we'd creep back around the headland in the hope of getting more prolonged views from the other side so that's what we did and it was a good call. Swimming just off shore we saw a mother and cub! As she decided to go back to shore we had great views of them both from about 150 m away and once again the Nikon P900 saved the day.

Polar Bear mother and cub emerging from the Hudson Bay
Thoroughly satisfied with views lasting several minutes, we headed back to the calmer waters of the river and a walking tour of the Fort before returning to Churchill.

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