‘Hello bear, here we are. How ya doin?’
Our lead guide was talking to an enormous white bear which had appeared 20 metres in front of us. It stood straight up on its hind legs, a dazzling tower of power. It blinked. It focused. It tried to make sense of this huddle of hyperventilating polar bear spotters fumbling with our cameras.
But I was not afraid – and not because there were eight other tasty morsels, including my children, between the bear and me.
Nope, we had prepared for this in our safety training at Seal River Heritage Lodge north of Canada’s polar bear capital, Churchill.
Up here, encounters this close with bears are strictly avoided unless you, the humans, are safely locked up in your enclosure and the bears come sniffing – and then they can get really close. But out in the wild, you never know when a bear is going to show up, as our guides, who I came to think of as Cool, Calm and Collected, had drilled into us.
So while I was gawping at that magnificent creature with all its clear-as-day responses to the human trespassers in its world – surprise, curiosity, alarm – the guides went into action.
Calm and Collected hustled our tour group of 17 into a tight, protective huddle (which looks big and scary to a bear) while Cool was eye-browing that bear, asking after its health in a mildly threatening tone and clacking two small rocks together.
If you think that sounds like a dubious kind of protection, you should be an underwriter for Southern Cross. They thought the trip sounded cool and wanted see photos if we survived – I’m not making this up – but would not be providing travel insurance. (I found it elsewhere).
Your loss, Southern Cross.
The old chitty-chat/clickety-clack deterrents work.
That bear recoiled from us the way humans recoil from a toilet someone has forgotten to flush, with a couple of backward glances, as if to reassure himself that we were, indeed, as repulsive as he first thought.
If they had needed to step it up, the guides also carry the equivalent of starter pistols and other devices that make bangs of various intensities. These are almost never used – the last thing they want in this region is polar bears getting used to humans, let alone the strategies that they use to scare off bears. The shotguns over their backs are there as an absolute last resort. In 25 years of polar bear safaris at Churchill Wild not a single shot has been fired as a warning, let alone anyone actually shooting at a bear.
Polar bears live in a silent world and by nature they are a lot like toddlers: curious but skittish. A loud human voice, the crack of two rocks together – these are unnatural, piercing and frightening to a bear. I’ve seen polar bears turn and run from a flag flapping in the breeze. I’ve seen polar bears running from a distant boat engine.
I’ve seen polar bears. Still can’t believe it really. Churchill, Manitoba, on Canada’s huge Hudson Bay (twice as big as Texas) is home to the world’s southernmost polar bear population. Instead of following the pack ice as it retreats north in summer, Churchill bears stay on the coast and live off body fat stored in winter and spring, rejoining the ice when it returns in late autumn. Seal River Heritage Lodge sits just above the high-tide mark where bears roam the coast all summer long.
We had just returned to New Zealand last week, still on a high from this trip, when a polar bear shot was shot dead by a cruise ship guard on a remote island near Svalbard in Norway. My heart sank when I realised that in the wrong hands, polar bear safaris can indeed be life-threatening for bears.
As Ricky Gervais tweeted (I’m not a fan but it was a good point).”Let’s get too close to a polar bear in its natural environment and then kill it if it gets too close”.
The exact circumstances of what happened in Norway have not yet been made public but having just been out bear-spotting with some of the world’s most experienced polar bear safari guides, I can’t help thinking that lack of training and experience were to blame.
Every minute we were out in the wild looking for polar bears in those flat, wide open, rocky tidal flats or spongey tundra, our three guides were alert, always looking outward, scanning the proximity and also the horizon with naked eyes and binoculars. They never let up about the possibility of being surprised by a bear.
The most dangerous place, they kept reminding us, was right beside the lodge because of all the potential hiding palaces like outbuildings, water tanks, piles of firewood. Each time we left or returned to the lodge we got into that threatening huddle, made plenty of noise and were all expected to keep a look-out.
When we did find bears in the open, the closest we were allowed – walking in silence, single file – was around 100 metres. With a long lens you can get a good shot.
Here’s how it looks with the naked eye.
When we arrived, the mother bear and cubs in these images were basking in the sun. We left half an hour later with a thousand photos of them stretching and yawning, snuggling and licking and they were still basking in the sun.
We were able to observe the bears in the wild without screwing up their day – let alone damaging a strand of silky fur on their magnificent heads. Why? Because we were kept at a safe distance every time.
So, how come we were surprised by a bear? Well, it wasn’t a complete surprise. When we were on the way on foot toward that sleeping mother and cubs, aware of a fourth bear, probably male, sleeping a few hundred metres off to our right, the lodge had radioed in to say that they had spotted a fifth bear, a big one, probably also male, heading south, and straight for us.
Our lead guide made the call to backtrack. We were starting to be ever so slightly surrounded (four out of five bears around us were asleep but that’s how cautious these guys are) and, if we moved now, we might be able to get to a low ridge a few hundred metres away which would allow us to a) find out where that big bear was headed and b) be in a safer, elevated position if we needed to get into that intimidating huddle. Or maybe it was b) then a).
Either way, the bear got to the ridge first. First-line deterrents were employed, the bear moved off. No fast moves, no shouting, no panic. We waited for a while, observing the five bears spread out over several hundred metres all around us, and after a time, Cool made the call that it was safe to head back a little closer to the mother and cubs.
On the way back, we saw that sleeping bear still nestled into the ridge.
Later, another bear turned up at the lodge, pausing for photographs in the purple fireweed and rocks just outside where we spread out in silence in the fenced verandah and outdoor platforms. It stared, it sniffed, it got bored and wandered off.
Like I said, humans in the zoo, bears in the wild.
Coming up: more polar bears and Churchill: a town with a justice system for bad bears…