Friday, 22 July 2016

Polar Bears...

Polar bear, Ice bear, Sea bear, Nanuq - call it what you will, it has many names. It's certainly a maritime species much more at home on sea ice and in the water than it is on dry land. At this time of year though they have no choice other than to leave the retreating ice flows, which are currently around 20 miles off shore of Churchill and swim that distance to land to wait out their time until the Hudson Bay freezes once more allowing them to go and hunt again.

The owner of Lazy Bear Lodge, Wally Daudrich, has been guiding for bears and belugas for over 25 years and his knowledge of how they behave and where they will be is second-to-none. Although they can (and do) turn up anywhere along the south western shore of the Bay, just like migrating birds they have preferred spits of land that they will try to reach if they can. Locally there are several hotspots, the best being a place called Hubbard Point 50 miles to the north east of Churchill and this is where we were heading on day 4 of our visit.

Wally Daudrich, Owner/Operator
of Lazy Bear Lodge.
The Samuel Hearne. Specially built for Lazy Bear this
aluminium speed boat has an ice-reinforced hull, a drop
down drawbridge at the front, holds 40 people and skips
across the waves at just over 30mph.
After leaving port we headed to Eskimo Point just past Prince of Wales Fort where we saw the mother and cub coming ashore a couple of days ago and to our surprise they were still there. They were both very cautious at first with just their noses appearing above the rocks to sniff the air as we approached but the cub's curiosity soon got the better of it and it came out to see what all the fuss was about, closely followed by mum.

Inquisitive cub coming to take a look at our boat.
Mum is understandably more cautious and keen to
keep en eye on her little one.
Mum was constantly sniffing the air.
After watching them (watching us) for about 10 minutes, we started the journey to Hubbard Point 90 minutes away. An hour later the engines slowed and captain Wally announced that he could see a large pod of Belugas about a mile in front of us. He eased the boat quietly forward and 10 minutes later we found ourselves drifting into a superpod feeding in just 15ft of water. Superpods are formed when several large pods join forces to feed on a particularly good supply of Capelin, their favourite fish. The average size of such pods is usually around 1000-1500 animals but this was a 'super' superpod, which Wally estimated at around 4000 strong. It was certainly a spectacular sight!

Attracted to the outboard motors the largest adults fed
constantly around the boat. 
Part of the feeding frenzy.
The feeding frenzy wasn't exclusively for the whales, they were joined by dozens of Arctic terns complete with entourage of Arctic Skuas, Eider ducks and White-winged scoters.

Arctic Tern joining in the feast.
I will expand on this post and add some video of the whales once I get back to the UK. We easily spent two hours with the whales and it was a magical moment I will never forget. We dropped a hydrophone into the water but you could hear them calling just as easily without it, they are a very vocal species earning them their other name, Sea Canaries.

Eventually the pod moved off and we continued to Hubbard Point another 20 minutes to the north and only 40 miles from the border with Nunavut territory. As we approached the headland I spotted three adult bears lying in the grass on the highest point. It didn't take long for them to stand up and start sniffing and looking in our direction, even from a quarter of a mile away. Two big healthy males disappeared into the water while another slightly skinnier bear stood its ground and gave great views.

Polar Bear, adult male: R. Harris
Polar Bear, adult male: R. Harris
We decided to move around the headland to see if the other two bears were anywhere to be seen and we soon found them swimming around in the Bay - two huge healthy males estimated at over 1600 lbs a piece!

There they are! Powering their way across the Hudson Bay
Head of the largest male: R. Harris
I can't begin to describe the size of these two.
You certainly wouldn't want to meet them on land.
Polar Bears, Churchill, Manitoba
Hand held from the boat.

So the boat trip was hugely successful. On return to port I decided to take my chances and walk back to town - not a decision I took lightly! I really wanted to stop by the pools that I visited the other day though just to see what was around. I kept a careful eye out on all the scrub that I passed and was ready to scale the chain-link fence into the old sea port if required but thankfully no encounters with Polar bears was had. I port worker even stopped and asked if I wanted a lift back into town - I guess I looked nervous!

The pool delivered again with close views of three Sandhill Cranes, the red-necked phalarope that I saw distantly the other day, a nice Lesser Yellowlegs, the drake Surf Scoter, loads of American Wigeon and of course the Arctic Terns nesting close to the road.

Pool just on the outskirts of town, Churchill
Lesser Yellowlegs: R. Harris
Lesser Yellowlegs: R. Harris
Red-necked Phalarope: R. Harris
Red-necked Phalarope: R. Harris
Arctic Tern and chick: R.Harris
Sandhill Crane: R. Harris
Savannah Sparrow: R. Harris
Surf Scoter: R. Harris
Ring-billed Gull: R. Harris
Tree Swallow: R. Harris
Richardson's Ground Squirrel: R. Harris
Not a bad way to end the expedition. I will update with videos when I get time to edit them together.

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