Saturday, 19 November 2011

Churchill Polar Bears 8th November 2011: Arrival in Churchill

Churchill Station

The new Northern Studies Centre

After an early breakfast of my customary oatmeal and pancakes, we arrived in Churchill, disembarked and travelled to the impressive new Northern Studies Centre. The facilities are far more lavish than the building we’d stayed in on previous trips, and it’s an exceptionally efficient design. Any nostalgia for the old facility or concern about luxurious overkill was quickly put to one side.

A polar bear on the horizon

The temperature may have been worryingly warm, and the snow cover sparse, but the bear viewing started almost immediately after we boarded our rented school bus, and in the afternoon one came right up to our window. However, the first bear we saw was seriously underweight, in common with about half of those we were to encounter. We also saw ptarmigan, and enjoyed one of Churchill’s gorgeous candlestick sunsets before heading back to the Centre for dinner.

The lack of snow and relatively mild temperatures were a concern

This is no ordinary tourist vacation: instead it’s a learning experience. Tonight legendary polar bear expert Chuck Jonkel gave a lecture with some disturbing conclusions. Here’s a brief summary of some of the things we learned:

  • Icebergs attract polar bears as more invertebrates and therefore seals are found around them. Unfortunately tundra buggies resemble an iceberg from the distance, and so also attract bears.
  • For a long time little attention was paid to polar bears, and there was limited scientific knowledge about them, especially in Canada. They were disliked around Churchill and Svalbard, and Chuck cited an example of 200 bears being killed by one person in one year. Most Canadians didn’t even know there were polar bears in their country, assuming they were only found in Alaska.
  • Around the time of World War II 10,000 troops were stationed in Churchill, and pilots practised shooting by aiming at polar bears.
  • Native people didn’t have much influence on policy, and the Manitoba Government ignored their interest in polar bears.
  • Most polar bears are ‘big pussy cats’, not trying to hunt people all the time, and their fearsome reputation came from zoo keepers (note this does not mean that safety precautions in polar bear country are unnecessary!).
  • Polar bears den in the summer when they can’t hunt seals, sleeping for several months. They are now forced to go out later because sea ice hasn’t formed yet, and to come in earlier in the spring due to earlier melt.
  • Some have learnt how to hunt flightless geese, and eat berries, but if they go inland they will be in competition with black bears, and this low protein food source could only ever sustain a very small population.
  • It’s possible with the current rate of global warming that Hudson and James Bay polar bears could be almost extinct in 3 years as it’s barely getting cold enough to form the ice platform. They are loosing 4-6 weeks feeding time in spring, and the same again in autumn. Note that this population comprises almost half the polar bears in the world.
  • Seals also need this platform as have their young out on the ice, and their population has already declined.
  • There has been a significant decline in the polar bear population in Russia, exacerbated by drilling offshore, and Chuck sees this country as the main threat to conservation efforts.
If you want to investigate these majestic creatures in more detail I recommend reading this book by Ian Stirling.

Next post: Exhilaration and Sadness
Previous post: Day 2 on the Train

Hudson Bay in the afternoon

A Bear Bear near the Centre

Our Group Looking for Wildlife
Hudson Bay


End of the day

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