Churchill Polar Bears
In November last year I was in Churchill which is a small town on the southern shore of the Hudson Bay, Canada. Churchill is famous for the large concentration of Polar Bears that gather there each autumn and then wait for the Ice to reform on the Hudson Bay. The Churchill River is one of the first places to freeze over and then it spreads along the coast of the Hudson Bay. The Bears have been trapped on land since the break-up of the Ice in the spring and so it is vital that they can get out on the Ice and hunt they favourite prey, the ringed seal. In some years the number of Bears along the coast and the joining tundra is just amazing, which makes Churchill one of the best places to see this iconic predator of the north.
I have been running a trip to Churchill now for a number of years and it is one I am always eager and look forward to going back. Each trip I have done has always been different and so Churchill always has this element of surprise. The trick with this trip is down to timing. You can go in October and there will be a lot of bears just patiently waiting on the tundra for winter to set in but going this early you run the risk of there being no snow cover, which is not great for photographing the bears. If you go too late in November then you run the risk that the Ice has already formed on the Hudson Bay and all the Bears have left. So it is difficult to get it right. I always run our trip in the second week of November just to try and eliminate that risk.
Winter was late last November and so when we first got there we were facing the prospect of having no snow cover. There were lots of Bears around but it just made it much harder to take nice pictures. We had snow flurries coming in but nothing serious to cover the whole ground. It was getting warmer too as the week went on and even these snow flurries turned to rain which melted the little bit of snow which was around.
Sometimes these bad conditions can bring a downer on a trip but I like to find the best alternative if there is one. As the temperatures were getting a bit warmer the Bears then started to rest on the frozen ponds which were still frozen as it was a way of cooling themselves down a little.
On this trip we use two kinds of transport throughout. The first one we use is a tundra buggy which is huge vehicle that can go anywhere. We have this vehicle to ourselves and so have the flexibility of just waiting in certain spots to see if anything happens. The Bears do wander over large areas so it is not long before one shows up. Sometimes they come for a closer look and this can be a great way a getting close-up portraits.
On day three the temperature hit +10 degrees which is so warm for mid-November. This is a really worrying trend for the Bears as they are so desperate for the Ice to form. It is a pattern that is occurring right across the Arctic and as a result the Polar Bear is in grave danger. It is amazing how quickly it can change in the Arctic though and during the night the cold conditions returned with a bang and within 12 hours the temperature had dropped to -30 degrees. The following morning was looking more like the conditions that you get in Churchill which makes a great difference to your images.
Half way between the trip we use 4×4 trucks which is another great way to see and photograph the Bears. You don’t see as many Bears as you do on the Tundra Buggies because you are restricted on where you can go but it is still a great way and perspective on seeing them. On the last couple of days the conditions were now perfect and we were eager to get out on the Tundra Buggies. One of the main attractions for me to come to Churchill initially was the possibility of photographing the large males sparring. I have seen it briefly before but never really had a great opportunity on previous trips.Biologists say the males do this behaviour as they can test each other’s strength and so when they get into the serious side of the business of fighting over females in the breeding season they know who not to mess with. Personally I think they just do it for a bit of fun and it is an amazing experience to witness this powerful predator has such a gentle, playful side.
The fresh dusting of snow had transformed the tundra and the conditions were just perfect. You do need a good slice of luck in wildlife photography and we certainly had it on the last few days of this trip. We came across three males that were hanging around each other and so decided to stay with them all day and see what they would do. It was a good call as throughout the day they would come together for bouts of sparring. It was so nice to photograph them with this clean white background.
Well that was my trip back in November; it was a great trip to a great place. That last day with the three large males just rolling around and having a good time was one of the best things I have done in my career and something I will remember for a long time. It just doesn’t get better than photographing these iconic predators. The Ice by the way formed about a week later and the bears headed out. I am already looking forward to next year’s trip and I hope the guys that are booked on the trip are as excited about is as me, you are in for a real treat. Here are just three more to finish off with. Danny