Returning to the Polar Bears

Flying to Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, always fills me with excitement and anticipation. And as the flight into town began its descent, I felt like I was going home. I love it up here. I love the smell of the cold and the enormous sky. I first came to Churchill in 1993 as a graduate student, and I am happy to return to the Polar Bear Capital of North America as a panelist for Polar Bears International’s Tundra Connections program.

After a good night’s sleep on the Tundra Buggy Lodge®, we are ready to begin our first day out on Buggy 1 in search of polar bears. It is a beautiful morning, and the tundra and Hudson Bay coast are awash in muted colors. Small accumulations of drifting snow highlight the leafless reddish brown willow shrubs. A cloud-streaked sky that still has the pinkish hints of sunrise behind crisp blue dominates our view. The Hudson Bay is a smooth and glassy blue-gray before us, and the water is lapping gently at the rocks and snow on the shore. Snow buntings dot the kelp beds, flying from here to there. And then, of course, there are the polar bears. We set off on Buggy One about 10 minutes ago, and already we’ve counted six bears.

We are a team of six this morning, and each of us brings a slightly different perspective to polar bear conservation work: a high school teacher, a polar bear keeper, a professor of environmental studies, a filmmaker, a MacGyver-like techno-jack-of-all-trades, and me, a behavioral ecologist. We are all here for the same reasons: get the word out about climate change and its impact on polar bears; share our experiences and help spread the word that each and every one of us has the power to change our habits and reverse the trend toward a warmer Earth. This varied team perfectly exemplifies how effective conservation requires input and active participation from people with different skills, educational backgrounds, and perspectives.

We have driven Buggy 1 about 100 yards from the Lodge, and as we count the bears in our view, we need to make a choice on where to focus. We decide to spend some time observing the large male walking along the rocks and snow along the Bay. Each of us observes in a different way, and while the filmmaker films, we need to stay still and keep our expressions of excitement muted.

After about 20 minutes, we are ready to move on to another bear: this one casually lying in a bed of dried kelp, chewing on bits and pieces of it. Around him are hummocks of elymus grass, green during the summer but now faintly glowing a golden brown. As we watch, snow begins to fall, prompting the bear to point his nose to the sky. It is hard not to imagine what this bear is thinking, what his experience was like out on the sea ice this last spring, and how that has impacted his time ashore.

Half a day into my stay out at theTundra Lodge, I am already thinking about what I can do differently at home to reduce my carbon footprint. I know there is room for improvement in my household, and seeing the bears like this you can’t help but be inspired to do more. This is an amazing place, and I feel so lucky to see these bears up close. More importantly I feel lucky to have the opportunity to share my experience with others.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her last post, A Child’s Experience in Wolong.

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