photo by Susan Waymire
photo by Susan Waymire
Extinction.... a powerful word when it comes to wildlife. Impact travel has become the new buzzword in the travel industry, referring to travel that makes a difference to either people or wildlife. In this case we are looking at threatened animals on the brink of extinction. Many species worldwide are battling both man and nature while attempting to survive. There are many trips now that focus on these wildlife efforts, and I was fortunate to travel with Natural Habitat Adventures, who specializes in these trips as they have local naturalists that are educated on each species throughout the world.

Recently, I traveled to Churchill, Manitoba. Why? Churchill is home of the polar bears right on Hudson Bay just south of the Arctic Circle at the 58th parallel. These magnificent bears call the tundra their home when the ice melts during their summer. We came face to face with these white giants for three days. While traveling, we were accompanied by our own bear expert, learning about the polar bears in their Arctic habitat. Lumbering along in our giant polar rover (a fire truck chassis on massive tires), we were given full lectures on the bears and their habits as well as the impact of climate change in the Arctic. Prime time for viewing the polar bears is for 6-8 weeks from early October to mid-November. Having traveled to wildlife-dense areas of the Amazon and Africa, my expectations were low that watching bears alone would be exciting.

I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Polar bears are considered marine mammals, as they depend on oceanic life. They are the master hunters of all bears. Churchill and the outlying areas around this small town of 950 is the resting place for the bears after the ice melts. As we learned, the bears travel great distances gorging themselves on ring seal while on the ice. After it melts, they return to the tundra and fast — perhaps some nibbles of kelp, but no protein. So, after returning to dry land, the bear conserves energy patiently waiting for the ice to return in November or December. Even while fasting polar bears are animated, and we saw all kinds of excitement. We witnessed forms of curiosity, intelligence, cleansing, sparring and of course, just “conserving energy” in the form of a nap. Polar bears are experts at conserving energy as they fast for months. It was bears being authentic — no ice pools behind bars, no balls or other stimulation... just polar bears being themselves in their own habitat.

The bears looked very healthy, as they had fed on the ice through last July. With this extended season, their coats were full, mothers healthy and cubs fed. We asked about the impact of climate change and global warming. At this time (each year varies), 2019 was a great year: no skinny bears. These massive hunters are top of the food chain in the Arctic. With ice melting at various rates, their primary source of food, the ring seal, remains dependent on the fish under the ice. No fish, no seals, no bears. Should the ice not remain for a long enough period of time over the year, the bears starve as the seals are fewer, and this becomes their battle for survival.

Hudson Bay is relatively shallow (800 feet at its deepest) so the ice usually remains through June or July; in some recent years it has been only May. A couple of months of less feeding makes a big difference to a polar bear. A mother polar bear will not reproduce if she is not adequately fed. It used to be two cubs per birth; now, it’s down to 1.2 in statistics. With the ice being in flux, a mother’s ability to reproduce is diminishing. That’s impact.

Polar bears need to adapt to being around humans in Churchill. Should a bear stray through town, that bear will be transferred to polar bear jail. The bear remains there for 30 days. At that point, the World Wildlife Fund will transport it via helicopter 40 miles away — far enough away from being a human threat. It requires a $3,500 donation to transport a bear out of jail and WWF actually lets you designate your donation to get a polar bear out of jail.

Churchill has a 10 p.m. curfew, and walking alone at night is not allowed. I viewed Churchill as an Arctic version of Sisters: many self-employed people — artists, writers, and shop owners — all making a living in a small town when tourists arrive. Everyone has respect for the bears as they rely on them for their livelihood. The authenticity of this place and the people touched me. Surprisingly, they have year-round tourism: the northern lights from December-March, the beluga whales during the summer, and then the polar bears from October through mid-November — so fairly steady business for these people living on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

While on this trip, we received a bonus: an early season display of the northern lights. From January through March, Churchill is home of this spectacular light show and one of the best viewing places in the world. We were driven to our closest InukShuk (Inuit cairn) to witness this extraordinary natural phenomenon…in late October! This light show, with the help of my new iPhone Promax 11, made for no less than a spiritual experience. The only words I have to describe this are amazingly breathtaking! I was thankful for having purchased two great cameras for this trip, a Nikon with a traditional 300?mm lens for close-ups of the bears, and the new iPhone 11 for more up-close shots, scenery, and nightmode.

This year I celebrated a milestone birthday, and my goal was to travel and have some unique adventures —cultural, active, and wildlife. Having done some incredible travels to Egypt and the Dolomites this year, I have to say this trip topped them all —short, sweet, but with impact.