Eye to Eye with Wild Polar Bears

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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.