As more and more concerns were raised about their survival, linked to the issues of climate change, I thought that my chance for an eye-to-eye encounter was now or never. So it was with excitement that I set off for Canada, flying to Winnipeg for a night before continuing north to Churchill on Hudson Bay where the southernmost of the world's 19 populations of polar bears live - the one currently most threatened by global warming.
After settling in on arrival in Churchill, we set off on our first outing by comfortable Polar Rover that same evening, hoping to see our first sunset over the tundra, our first polar bear, and maybe even the Northern Lights.
I was really impressed by the purpose-built monster vehicle; the wheels were taller than I was, which gave a pretty good indication of the size of a polar bear, and how high off the ground we had to be for our own safety! Being a small group of 16 was great, as we all had two seats to ourselves, so there was plenty of room for winter gear and camera equipment - which made it a lot easier to grab the right lens when the moment came.
As we drove deeper into the barren landscape and the sun started to go down, excitement grew…We continued along the coast, everyone peering through binoculars in hope of being the first to spot a bear, while checking a few rocks in the distance. Jenny, from New Zealand, suddenly announced that one of the white rocks was moving! As we approached, we could clearly see the unmistakable outline of a bear stretching after waking up, then slowly walking away. After this first encounter, we watched a stunning sunset in the unexpectedly clear sky, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying snacks while listening wide-eyed to our naturalist guide, Eric, sharing tales about bears, their habitat and behaviour. I had to pinch myself to be sure that this wasn’t a dream, that I was really here and had just seen my very first polar bear in the wild!
The next two days proved even more exciting! And on the second day, it snowed - providing a lovely contrast between the red colours of fall and the sparkling white expanses of fresh snow.
On our first full day out on the tundra, after driving for a couple of hours and seeing nothing at all, we were getting a bit desperate to see any sign of life, be it a snowy bunting or a willow ptarmigan, but the land all around looked deserted. Until, that is, we neared another Polar Rover ahead of us, and saw a sub-adult male approaching from far off. After quickly donning a few layers against the cold, I made for the outdoor viewing platform at the rear of the Polar Rover to get a wider view, and watched as the bear walked right past the other vehicle towards us. He continued along our own polar rover up to the platform, stopped and lifted his head to sniff the air, and as I looked down at him our eyes met for a few seconds. My heart almost stopped as I saw the gentle look in his eyes. When they look at you like this, it’s hard to imagine that these are the most ferocious carnivores on earth. He then passed under the platform, and we watched through the steel mesh as he sniffed one of our member’s shoes before slowly walking away.
We also saw a mother and two cubs; one of the cubs had a mind of its own and wandered off to roll in the grass, before mum brought him back in line. And we were extremely lucky to get good sightings of a beautiful snowy owl and a fluffy Arctic hare on two occasions at fairly close distance, as well as a red fox running away along the coast.
This trip of a lifetime will stay with me forever, and I pray that we find a way to preserve the bears’ territory so that future generations may enjoy such magical encounters.