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Polar Bear Invasion

Out On The Town

For more than a dozen years, Thuraya Weedon, owner of Churchill Nature Tours in Erickson, Manitoba, has been taking visitors out to see the polar bears that amble each autumn to the shores of Canada's lower Hudson Bay.

Thousands come to see Churchill's polar bears each year.
NATURE Online asked what the year 2000 bear-watching season was like -- and how it feels to get face-to-face with one of the world's largest carnivores.

How was the bear watching in the fall of 2000?

It was excellent. The ice on Hudson Bay didn't break up until the end of May, so the bears had lots of time to hunt seals and came off the ice fat, roly-poly, and beautiful. They were in absolutely excellent shape; we didn't see one skinny bear.

That has been a concern?

Yes. There has been a lot of concern and media attention about the impact that global warming may be having on the ice pack. It has broken up earlier in recent years, and in those years, the bears were a little leaner. So we were overjoyed that they came off the ice this year so healthy.

How many bears do you see on a typical trip?

We take up to 13 groups a year, and each group sees numerous bears -- from 10 to 100. The tour includes a helicopter flight, and you see lots of wildlife from the air. We see arctic fox, caribou, and also some birds, such as ptarmigan and the gyrfalcon. We also visit a special Eskimo dog pack. The bears come and interact with the dog pack.

What is the most common misconception your guests have about the bears?

They are often surprised to learn just how dangerous they are. Just looking at them, they seem beautiful, fuzzy, and warm. But we always have to remind people to be mindful that they are on the bears' menu. The bears are very curious, have no fear, and are very hungry [after a summer fast]. If you aren't mindful, they can just sneak up on you. We remind [visitors] not to have any camera straps or scarves hanging down.

Why is that?

When you are out in the tundra [in a vehicle], the bears will sometimes come and stretch themselves up to look in the window. They are very strong animals and could pull you out a window.

What is your most memorable bear-watching moment?

Once, this thousand-pound male stretched up to look in a window. There was just a thin pane of glass between me and this huge head [which measured] over a foot across. I just wanted to pet him so badly, being that close to this magnificent creature, one of the world's biggest carnivores. They are so beautiful. I also remember watching a mother with twin cubs feeding. It was a wonderful feeling.

What makes Churchill such a popular tour destination?

Well, it is the most accessible place to view bears in the world. And it's a wonderful place to go and visit and enjoy nature. The tundra ecosystem is so different. You can also have a very interesting cultural experience. There is great art, you can watch the Northern Lights, you can see the bears. We have people come back again and again, it is such a remarkable area.

Bear Trouble
Polar bears invade Churchill.

Great Wanderers
Discover what researchers are finding out.

Out On The Town
Learn why tourists visit Churchill.

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