Travel diary: Climate change and the Arctic icons, the polar bears

Climate change is gradually affecting the lives of the Arctic icons, the polar bears, in their natural Tundra environs. 
Polar bears in Churchill
Polar bears in Churchill

It was minus nine degree Celsius outside when the chartered Convair 580 twin turbo-prop jet of Nolinor Aviation touched down at the airport in Churchill. The early morning flight from Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba in middle Canada, was two hours long, taking us to the northern part of the province.

We shivered as we walked out of the aircraft in the piercing cold to reach the warm terminal building on a freezing, wind-swept autumn day in late October. Then, as we boarded a mini-tour bus, our guide announced that before we reach the hotel, we have a sightseeing opportunity of a town on the southern shore of the Hudson Bay.

The tour begins with a visit to a facility that resembles a warehouse. Well, it’s actually the world’s only polar bear jail! This polar bear prison — or correctional home, if you like — is actually an airplane hanger converted into a holding facility for the delinquent animals and their rehabilitation.

<em>The white furry beasts of the tundra</em>
The white furry beasts of the tundra

Ringed seals with a kiss
Welcome to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, that’s also famous as a beluga whale watching hotspot,  a birder’s paradise, and one of the best places to experience the northern lights — all at various times of the year.

Yes, it is in Churchill that you find a human settlement where the mighty polar bear can be spotted from unique tundra vehicles. The bears gather along the shores of the Hudson Bay waiting for the ice to freeze.

A visit to this sub-arctic region for polar bear sightings can be in your bucket list, but the tour 
to this remote Canada town is a tad expensive. Located on the edge of the Arctic, Churchill offers the feel of a frontier town with a population of just about 1,000 residents. 

The next morning was the day we were all waiting for. Our group set out on the polar bear sighting mission in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, about 850,000 hectares in the subartic habitat with a 33 km trail, where you find the bears. You sight them from the buggies, which are specially designed all-terrain vehicles.

<em>Capturing a polar bear in camera from a buggy</em>
Capturing a polar bear in camera from a buggy

A Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Adventure is the best and safest way to view the majestic polar bear in its natural environment. The name Tundra Buggy is a registered trademark of the Frontiers North Adventures. We started early and then the Tundra buggy rolled like a military tank along the partially frozen dirt track, breaking the thin ice like shards of broken window pane glasses. We had to wait for about 90 minutes before the first polar bear was spotted. 

We were finally glad that we got to spot the Arctic icon, albeit from a fair distance, as about an hour into the tour, I’d begun to feel that the probability of finding a bear would be like finding a big cat on an any Indian tiger safari.

But then we spotted another and then the third one we spotted was a real showstopper. After about 45 minutes of viewing its movement from a little distance, where we had parked the vehicle, the bear finally started moving towards the buggy.

The whir and click of camera shutters, video shooting and braving the punishing cold for a vantage spot in the open deck of the buggy — all followed for a closer view of the animal that would come close to the vehicle and even claw its sides.

<em>Polar bears in the wild</em>
Polar bears in the wild

But once you spot a bear from a distance, you may have to wait for upto an hour to see it up close, as it leisurely starts moving towards your buggy. The fantastic beasts are dangerous animals and can attack if you’re not at a safe distance.

Called the “Lords of the Arctic”, polar bears are huge in size, and a male can grow to more than 600kg, and stand 3.05 metres (10 feet) tall. Remember, despite their big size and apparent leisurely movement, they can move with surprising speed and agility.

With a highly acute sense of smell, they’re also skilled hunters that can pick up a scent from over 30km away, and can even detect the presence of seals under three feet of snow and ice. The bears subsist on a high-fat, high-protein diet consisting mainly of ringed seals.

Polar bears have no natural enemies and consequently, no fear. Once it’s near your buggy, it offers you enough time to shoot with a camera, and track the white furry beasts in their tundra environment.

<em>At the Eskimo Museum</em>
At the Eskimo Museum

Polar bears are solitary animals and you see them mostly alone, unless you see a mama bear with cubs. Owing to the climate change effect, which affects their food source, they no longer give birth to triplets. Now it is mostly singles and rarely twins, say wildlife experts.

A tundra buggy driver is always your interpretive guide in these trips and these drivers are knowledgeable and jovial people, who work seasonally, because they love driving a buggy with tourists seeking adventure. Tundra Buggy also has collaborations with the leading conservation group Polar Bears International. 

So on the buggy itself, you can learn a lot about the bears and how these carnivores who survive on ringed seals are facing threats from climate change, since with the early melting of ice, it gets difficult for bears to prey upon the ringed seals, which are much faster in the water.

<em>Miss Piggy, the crashed freight plane from 1979</em>
Miss Piggy, the crashed freight plane from 1979

Tundra to the dozen
On the second day of our visit, we met more success with the sighting of four bears in total, including one which smelt food in the kitchen of the buggy lodge parked in the bear point, and almost chipped away a part of the buggy’s bottom, until it was shooed away.

Churchill is one of few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild. Prime 
viewing times are in October and November, when the bears begin their move from their summer 
habitat on the tundra back to seal-hunting territory — the pack ice that forms every winter over the Hudson Bay. You can also see bears during summer and winter.

Churchill is also known for the aurora borealis (or the northern lights) phenomenon. While the best views are generally from January to March, even on an October night, we watched the natural wonder with nervous excitement, as our tour guide called us in our room phones to step outside.

We rushed down the stairs almost tripping, and gathered outside before an open field to see the dancing curtains of light glow in a rainbow of colours, primarily as shimmers of green streaking the night sky. 

While in Churchill, one should also not miss the chance to spend time with the sled dogs, and you 
can get the most authentic Dog Sledding experience with Wapusk Adventures, which boasts of the largest sled dog kennel in Canada.

<em>Sled dogs of Churchill</em>
Sled dogs of Churchill

In a forest area sheltered by treeline, we met the dogs’ leader, the super guy Dave Daley (he has some cool tattoos) who has been featured in Animal Planet. Dog sledding was really fun! After some hot chocolate in the warm cabin of Dave, who is from Métis (aborigine) community — we had a ride as the dogs pulled our custom-built sleds like they’re participating in a chariot race.

As you explore the rocky Hudson Bay shoreline in Churchill, you cannot miss Miss Piggy,  a Curtiss C-46 freight plane, which on a 1979 flight had developed engine trouble during its approach to the runway, and managed to land among the rocks without a fatality. 

Since then, the airplane wreck adds to the attraction of the scenic back road skirting the shore of the Hudson Bay, along with the Inuit cultural symbol that is Inuksuk, a figure made of piled stones or boulders to communicate with humans throughout the Arctic. 

The Inuits, more popularly called the Eskimo, the indigenous people dwelling in the vast territories of northern Canada called Nunavut, live barely 110km away from Churchill. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? An Eskimo museum here is another attraction for tourists as well. 

Churchill is a great place for food despite its remoteness. Not to be missed: Arctic chars, a member of the Salmonid family, though genetically closer to trout. 

More info at,,, and

<em>Spotting a polar bear from a buggy</em>
Spotting a polar bear from a buggy

Tundra Inn is a good place to stay in Churchill, but there are other options on booking sites. You can also stay in a buggy lodge in the core area for early morning tours. 

Take a flight to Winnipeg via Toronto from Delhi/other cities. From Winnipeg, another two hours of flying — Calm Air International — can take you to Churchill. If you are with Frontiers’ North Adventures, they have their own chartered flights run by Nolinor Aviation, sans the usual airport hassles.

WWF in Churchill
There are currently 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears in the wild, and their survival is in jeopardy. Studies show that their population will decline by more than 30% over the next three generations, by 2050. Climate change, which leads to the loss of Arctic Sea ice, is the leading threat. For updates on 
ongoing conservation efforts visit

Related Stories

No stories found.