Eye to Eye with Wild Polar Bears

Hali is attending Keeper Leadership Camp, sponsored by Polar Bears International, in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Camp for Keepers.

Today was an amazing day out on the tundra. Before we even left our dock, a polar bear wandered into our camp area to explore the Tundra Buggies®. After sniffing about under our sleeping quarters, the bear slowly ambled over to our buggy to investigate US! Words just can’t describe the emotions I felt when I locked eyes with this beautiful animal. We saw each other, and the tears welled up. To be face to face with a wild polar bear in it’s own home was truly priceless.

Once we got going on the road, we had the pleasure of seeing several other species. Although they were a far distance away, with binoculars we could see three bald eagles tossing about a fish. They appeared to be an adult and two juveniles, perhaps receiving a hunting lesson. Cruising along we saw many snow buntings and a group of ptarmigans. But the most incredible part of the day was when we witnessed a mother polar bear and her two cubs walking along at a casual pace some distance up the road. We stopped the buggy and gave her space so as not to disrupt the family. After feeling assured that our presence was not an issue to her, we slowly crept up to get a better look. There we stayed for a few hours while we ate lunch and held our discussion groups about climate change. It was raining, and the bears just stayed put snuggled together, Mom chomping on grass.

Safely inside the buggy, with a polar bear family as a backdrop, we listened to a wonderful lecture from Bill Watkins of the Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection branch of Manitoba Conservation. He discussed the importance of protecting species to maintain a balance in nature, as it affects our resources for food, medicines, and materials. Each species plays a vital role in the ecosystem, and when we lose just one, we can lose many as a result.

Once back at the lodge, we continued with presentations, including John Gunter, general manager of Frontiers North and Tundra Buggy Tours. It was wonderful to hear about the company’s sustainable practices and commitment to helping save the polar bears. Great stuff!

Hali O’Connor is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read blog posts from her fellow keeper/campers.

23 Responses to Eye to Eye with Wild Polar Bears

  1. WOW!!! :@)

  2. Oh, Hali, what a fantastic moment it must have been to lock eyes with such a magnificent creature! My envy is great! But, I am thrilled for you and your experience and all you are getting to learn and witness firsthand.
    In regard to your approaching the mother and cubs….I go on a live daily safari (via the Internet) in South Africa and it is truly amazing how wild animals react when you treat them with respect. That is one of the main things man needs to learn in order to live in peace with the animals whose habitats WE invade.
    Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures and all the things you are learning. Hope the trip continues to exceed all your expectations!

  3. Gorgeous photos! How wonderful to have such close encounters so quickly! And nice to see twin cubs, too!

  4. Awesome, Hali. Just think in a month or so, you could help facilitate the rearing of twin polar bear cubs when you return to SDZ. Chinook will be glad you had the opportunity to see her relatives in the wild, and to see first hand how she was raised as a young cub.

  5. Love the mom and babies pic! I hope she is able to find better food to eat than grass.

  6. I’m sure I would have cried too. Incredible experiences. Hope they rest of the trip is wonderful.

  7. I am always nervous about reading anything about polar bears because the news usually makes me very depressed. I am glad, however, that you wrote this blog. The future of these cubs is uncertain, but your eye-to-eye contact and study of them must be a lifetime thrill that might make you feel very hopeful for them. Just think, the mother polar bear might carry with her the memory of YOU!

    The efforts that are made to protect and insure the survival of other endangered animals can partly be accomplished by setting aside appropriate land space and minimizing human encroachment. But the threats facing the polar bears seem almost impossible to solve. The possibility, even probability, of their extinction in the near future is so hard to bear. I truly hope your research will provide answers that can assure their survival.

  8. It brought tears to my eyes to remember the first bear we spotted in Churchill. Took my breath away! Enjoy these beautiful bears – they are to be treasured.

    And don’t forget to take lots of pictures to share! :)

  9. Isn’t it thrilling? I always think of it as life-changing.

  10. I loved this account! But the notion that these bears are threatened by global warming is just nonsense. They’ve been around for a million years. They’ve adapted to the medieval warm period and the little ice age. We are presently going through a sunspot minimum, so the next twenty years are likely to be cold, but they’ll survive that just fine, as well.

    That said, they do have one predator: man. So measures to protect them from over hunting and habitat loss certainly make sense.

  11. What experiences you are having ! Just heard our Midwest Rep from Indianapolis Zoo speak to our AZAD conference and everything she was enthusiastic about seems to come through in your blog. Enjoy your education travel and may this all help us take better care of our world. Your experiences make me want to make an effort to travel to Churchill and experioence the polar bears on this personal basis

  12. Brought tears to my eyes just reading it. What a wonderful experience!! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  13. Is it just me or does Chinook not look as chubby today.

  14. Eye to eye with a polar bear – now that is truly something special Hali. Enjoy the rest of your time at camp.

  15. Truly a wonderful experience! Do polars bears attack unprovoked? Do they kill humans (to eat them, I mean?)

    Hali responds: Polar Bears International has a lot of information on polar bears, including the answer to your question. Click here to learn all about polar bear attacks.

  16. has Chinook been separated from tatqiq and kullack.. for a while there it looked like there was a fence bewteen them and Tatqiq was trying to get near Chinook.

  17. What a wonderful experience for you. The Polar bears have been a favorite of mine since I was small. Incredibly beautiful. I cried just reading your post – so I would be beside myself to see one so close in the wild. BUT I will say watching the polar bear cam is just as great to me. Everything they do ( when awake lol ) is a wonderful site to see. Thanks for the updates on your adventure and yes lots of pictures please.

  18. To echo Cindy in KC: “WOW!” I’m afraid I would be blubbering a lot, and wanting to touch. I would be a dream come true to make a trip like this. Would that Mr. Watkins could come to Wash., D. C., and talk some sense to Congress and the President, regarding protecting species, thus protecting the ecosystem.

    Thank you Hali, for writing about your experiences. It’s a very good read.

  19. Ive been pondering something … but Polar bears are endangered because the habitat is vanishing right ?
    So would it be possible to establish polar bear colonies in the Antarctic ?? Or are the environs too different ? I realise penguins might not like bears for neighbours … but seriously would polar bears not be able to live in the wild at the South Pole ??

  20. Hali thanks for the link. I did some reading and was happy to see that they do not attack unprovoked. I’ve always heard that they were the most dangerous bear to encounter in the wild, however I think that would be the grizzly.

  21. Marie, grizzly bears aren’t as dangerous as is made out. If you haven’t already heard or read about Lily and Hope the black bears, try putting them in your search engine. Unfortunately a lot of hype is put out by non-animal lovers in the world about the behaviour of various animals. I’ve met our three polars and I’d love to meet some black bears in the wild too! Somehow I doubt I’ll get to see Polar Bears in their natural habitat. But hey, the cams are the next best thing.

  22. Watching Kalluck and Tatqui playing question do they ever get too rough and hurt one another accidently?

  23. sorry on the spelling Kalluk and Tatqiq!