A guide to polar bear spotting in Canada
The chance to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most magnificent predators in the wild is up there as one of the greatest natural wonders.
However, due to the polar bears remote natural habitats, the opportunities to see them are limited… this is a real once-in-a-lifetime encounter. We take a look at how you can be one of the world’s luckiest wildlife seekers on a trip to Manitoba – Canada’s ‘Land of 100,000 Lakes’.
It’s a destination that probably doesn’t naturally spring to mind when thinking about a wildlife adventure on the Hudson Bay, however every polar bear-watching trip begins in the city of Winnipeg, the provincial capital. Often overlooked in favour of Canada’s more iconic cities, this cosmopolitan city is the gateway to Hudson Bay and the arctic tundra of northern Manitoba.
While most packages only include a couple of nights here, this should be enough time to see the city’s main attractions such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Assiniboine Park and The Forks National Historic Site. From here you will set off towards north Manitoba and the settlement of Churchill, either by air or an incredible two-day, two-night train journey.
Churchill – the polar bear capital of the world
Unreachable by road, the small isolated frontier town of Churchill is situated on the vast Hudson Bay at the edge of the Arctic. Once a remote fur-trapping outpost and then a busy seaport and military base, the town is now a favourite spot with wildlife enthusiasts.
Every year in mid-Autumn hundreds of bears begin to gather on the shores of the bay, anticipating the formation of sea ice which will become their hunting ground for the winter… it has often been described as a ‘winter waiting room’ for polar bears! Aside from its wildlife, the town also features a number of heritage sites such as the Cape Merry Battery and the York Factory National Historic Site of Canada that are well worth a visit.
When to go
The prime bear-watching season is from October to November. This is when the concentration of polar bears is at its highest, however it’s not uncommon to see them on the shores of Hudson Bay – although in smaller numbers – during the spring and summer. The ‘out-of-season’ months also have their own attractions. In the summer you can spot beluga whales in the waters of the Churchill River, while during those short winter and early-spring days the northern lights often make an appearance in the dark skies above the town.
Viewing the bears
The best way to visit Churchill is as part of a pre-booked tour which begin and end with a night in Winnipeg. Your flights between Winnipeg and Churchill, accommodation, some meals, some of your sightseeing and all of your bear-watching will be included in the cost. We highly recommend booking early as there is limited accommodation in this small town – particularly during the height of bear season. The hotels in town tend to be more rustic than luxurious, however they are unique properties and really add to the experience of being in Manitoba’s wild north.
From Churchill you’ll head out into the Wildlife Management Area in purpose-built all-terrain vehicles from which you can view the bears safely, for both the bears and you. Depending on the package you choose, activities such as dog-sledding and a tour of the town might also be included.
A stay on the tundra
For a completely immersive encounter, there’s the option to actually sleep out on the tundra in a converted Tundra Buggy, the Tundra Buggy Lodge. While you will have to share your accommodation with others – there are two buggies each with 20 beds – you’ll be right at the heart of the action. There are few places in the world can you wake up, look out the window and possibly catch a glimpse of a polar bear. This round-the-clock bear-watching opportunity is a real trip of a lifetime.
This feature was published on 31 October 2016. The information within this feature is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of print. Feature by Emma Tibbetts.