Seeing (and Saving) Polar Bears in the Wild

Photo by Jayme Moye

In the subarctic tundra along Hudson Bay, about 20 miles from the town of Churchill, Manitoba, a polar bear emerges from a patch of willows beside a frozen pond. Across the pond, inside a Tundra Buggy — a highly specialized all-terrain vehicle — a group of 20 tourists, conservation biologists, and climate change scientists watch from behind the school bus-style windows. Their tour, which intentionally blends science and tourism, is the first-of-its-kind for Frontiers North Adventures, a local outfitter that's been leading polar bear viewing expeditions for tourists for three decades.

As the polar bear — a teenager in bear years who is still young enough to be curious, according to guide and naturalist Hayley Shephard — approaches the Tundra Buggy, the people inside clamor to lower the windowpanes and adjust their cameras. The amount of excitement the bear generates isn't lost on John Gunter, the second-generation president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, who is seated near the back of the Tundra Buggy. "What we do, at the most basic level, is broker safe interactions between polar bears and humans," he says. "And once you lock your gaze with a wild polar bear, its hard not to become invested in their existence."

You don't have to be a conservation biologist to understand climate change's threat to polar bears. According to Polar Bear International, since the early 1980s, Canada's Hudson Bay polar bear population is down 22 percent, the direct result of the earlier breakup (and later formation) of sea ice, which narrows the time polar bears have to hunt seals — their main food source — out on the ice. "It's a pretty simple problem, really," says Steven C. Amstrup, PhD, the Chief Scientist at Polar Bears International, and another passenger on the Tundra Buggy. "Polar bears need sea ice to eat, and greenhouse gas emissions are causing the disappearance of sea ice on the Hudson."

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Amstrup, like Gunter, hopes that increasing tourists' awareness of climate change's threat to Canada's polar bears (which are 60 percent of the world's total population) will inspire conservation ethics, and ideally, conservation actions. And not just because his (and Gunter's) livelihood depends on polar bears, but also because the human race is dependent on how we, as a planet, handle climate change.

"This isn't just about polar bears," Amstrup says. "Polar bears are extremely sensitive to warming temperatures. They're like the canary in the coal mine. But eventually, all species will be impacted by climate change. Including humans. And those most immediately affected are the people with the most modest means, living most closely to the earth."

Gunter and Amstrup engineered the VIP Tour, as they're calling the fusion of tourists and scientists, as an annual event coinciding with Polar Bear Week, a time in early November when polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay to wait for the sea ice to form, making them easier and more predicable to spot. In November, it's not uncommon to see 10 to 20 bears a day — mothers leading cubs, young bears rolling around play fighting, and adult males sparring (not to mention curious bears approaching the Tundra Buggy), along with arctic foxes, ptarmigans, and snowy owls.

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During day trips into the tundra to view bears, VIP Tour participants are treated to short workshops with scientists and naturalists, and professional arctic photographer Daniel J. Cox mills around offering photography tips. In the later afternoon back at the lodge (Tundra Buggies built as sleeping and dining quarters), tourists and scientists mingle at happy hour, dine together, and in the evening, world-renowned climate change scientists and conservation biologists present slideshows.

VIP Tour participants also get the rare chance to visit Tundra Buggy One, a vehicle that Frontiers North Adventures donated to Polar Bears International as a mobile broadcast station, featuring polar bear cams that stream live footage all over the world, and a Google Trekker device — a sphere containing 15 cameras that also collects 3D geometry data to map the remote, inaccessible environment as part of Google's Arctic Street View project.

Beyond the annual VIP Tour, Frontiers North Adventures and Polar Bears International are working on more ways for interested tourists to become engaged in polar bear conservation. Currently in prototype, a citizen science program will put a conservation biologist from Polar Bear International aboard select Tundra Buggy tours to educate participants about how climate change is destroying critical polar bear habitat, and train them to collect research data through observation and digital photographs during their tundra tour. "There is nothing like this anywhere in the world that I know about," says Amstrup. "It's exactly the kind of change we need."