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An essential guide to polar bear watching in Canada

posted November 11, 2016


Polar bear watching in Canada

As we have seen on the incredible BBC Two programme, Arctic Live, which aired at the beginning of November, the enchanting reaches of arctic Canada are perfect for polar bear watching.

But before you get your very own Arctic Live experience with Canadian Affair, you need to read up about a whole host of things to ensure your trip is the once in a lifetime event it should be.

Our essential guide on polar bear watching covers topics such as facts about the animals, the best times to see them, their habits, what weather you can expect and the tours you should head on.

 

The best polar bear watching tours

Best for the polar bear enthusiast

Tundra Buggy Lodge Adventure
6 nights, 7 days – from £5,125

 

The Tundra Buggy Lodge Adventure tour is perfect for the polar bear enthusiast in your family.

You can stay at the Tundra Lodge, which is aptly located on the vast Arctic tundra just outside of Churchill.

Here you will be able to experience fantastic polar bear viewing from sunrise to sunset and will explore the tundra in specially designed vehicles.

Alternatively, you can immerse yourself amongst these mighty creatures from the observation decks at the lodge.

The tour includes two nights in Winnipeg and four nights in Churchill at the lodge. You will also be able to go dog sledding during this trip.

 

Best for the culture vulture

The Ultimate Polar Bear Expedition Holiday
7 nights, 8 days – from £4,695

 

The ultimate polar bear expedition holiday not only takes you on a unique adventure into the winter wilds of Churchill, but it also lets you visit some historic sites.

You will combine climbing on the Arctic crawler, which is vastly different from the hire cars in Canada that you may be driving, to explore the Tundra. Get up close to polar bears, arctic foxes and hares with visits to cultural and heritage sites such as the Polar Bear Jail, Cape Merry and the plane crash site of Miss Piggy.

What’s more, this tour includes a night-time dog mushing experience! This will demonstrate how locals travelled the land before there were snowmobiles.

 

Best for all round wildlife

In winter

The Churchill and Polar Bear Experience Adventurer
4 nights, 5 days – from £2,309

 

The Churchill and Polar Bear Experience Adventurer tour gives you two full-days on the tundra buggy and provides ample time to see the area’s wide range of wildlife.

Expect to see a variety of species that call the Arctic home, such as polar bears, artic foxes, arctic hares, snowy owls and other animals.

 

In summer

Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure Holiday
6 nights, 7 days – from £3,325

 

If you are visiting in the summer then our Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure Holiday is the perfect fit for wildlife lovers.

This holiday incorporates a Hudson Bay coastal tour by boat to see the polar bears along the coast and in local river estuaries. You will get another chance to see polar bears later in the trip when you get to go on a Tundra Tour.

The fun will continue as you take to the waves again on a three-hour beluga whale boat tour. Beluga whales come in their thousands to the area during the summer months and you can see these ivory-coloured whales from water level without getting wet.

This tour also visits a number of historical sites such as the historic Prince of Wales Fort and the Eskimo Museum.

 

What time of year is best to see polar bears?

What time of year is best to see polar bears

Churchill in Canada, also known as the polar bear capital of the world, is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be seen in the wild and as a result, thousands of outdoor loving, wildlife enthusiasts from across the globe descend on the town.

The best time to see these magnificent animals is in the autumn.

The prime viewing times are in October and November, when the bears descend upon the shores of Hudson Bay to begin their move from their summer habitat on the tundra back to seal-hunting territory on the pack ice.

In late winter or spring you can potentially see female polar bears and their young cubs appear from their dens at the Wapsuk National Park.

If you would prefer a summer holiday in Canada, you can still see polar bears out on the tundra or along coastal rocks during the summer months.

 

Weather you should expect

Winter

Winter in Canada

In October and November, which are the best times for you to go polar bear watching, the average temperatures are cold.

In October the ClimaTemps website says the average temperature is -1.4 °C, while in November it will drop down to -12.5°C.

What to pack: Lots of layers of clothing, including an insulated parka/waterproof jacket, insulated boots, gloves, woollen hat, snow boots and snow/ski trousers.

 

Summer

The summer months in Churchill are a lot warmer compared to the winter. June sees an average temperature of 6.1°C, July 11.8°C and 11.3 °C in August.

What to pack: Waterproof jacket, hiking boots, shorts, trousers, sun cream, insect repellent and a hat.

 

Facts about polar bears

Polar bear with snow on its snout

– Polar bears are the planet’s biggest land-based carnivores and are usually 7-8 feet long from head to tail, weighing in at a staggering 410-720kg on average.

– Polar bears roam the Arctic ice sheets and sit top of the food chain in the region.

– The bears spend most of their lives around water and ice and as a result are considered marine mammals.

– They are uniquely suited to life in icy habitats as their fur is thicker than any other bears’ and the thick layer of blubber beneath it provides insolation and buoyancy.

– Polar bears generally live and hunt alone.

– These powerful predators main prey are ringed or bearded seals, but are known to eat walrus, bowhead and beluga whale carcasses.

– The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates there are 26,000 polar bears left in the world.

– Female polar bears usually give birth in winter and their young cubs stay with them for around 28 months.

 

Habits of polar bears

Polar bears have a number of fascinating habits and here are some you should know about before your trip.

 

Communication

Polar bear with cub

Polar bears use body language, scent markings and vocalisation to communicate.

Head wagging from side to side usually means polar bears want to play and nose-to-nose greetings usually occur when a bear asks another bear for food.

Chuffing sounds are a response to stress, sniffing and snorting with a lowered head signify aggression, loud growls are warnings and polar bears charging forward with their heads lowered and ears back is when they attack.

 

Mating and birthing

Polar cubs with their mother

Mating often takes place on the sea ice from April until late June and females often give birth to cubs about two months after they enter the maternity den, which is generally in early January.

Cubs drink their mother’s milk for at least 20 months, so the mother’s success at hunting is critical for her cub’s survival.

 

Hibernating

Something little-known is that with the exception of pregnant females, polar bears do not hibernate and non-pregnant and adult male bears continue to hunt throughout the year.

Pregnant females dig a snow den, usually in snowdrifts along coastal hills near sea ice, to give birth and then emerge three months later. Along the Hudson Bay, mother bears have been known to dig into raised peat soils along the shore.

During this hibernation period the bears live off their fat reserves and then emerge from their den in March or April.

 

Hunting

Seals are the main prey for polar bears

As previously mentioned, polar bears’ main prey are ringed and bearded seals and they usually hunt the seals by patiently waiting for them to breathe at openings in the ice.

Seals usually cut 10-15 breathing holes in the ice and they keep these holes open through the winter months. Polar bears use their incredible sense of smell to locate these holes and then lie in wait for the seals to appear.

Polar bears also stalk seals that are basking on the ice, as shown in the below video from BCC One’s The Hunt.

 

Polar bears have also been seen eating shoulder-to-shoulder at a single walrus or whale carcass. Geese, bird eggs, vegetation and human rubbish are other food sources for polar bears.

 

Image Credit: Sam Hearne, flickrfavorites, Vladimir Melnik, Ondrej Prosicky, Emma.

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