Polar Bears and the Arctic Ecosystem

Journey across the Arctic tundra, viewing polar bears in their natural habitat on the shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Street View SpC, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Observe polar bears waiting for the ice to form during migration season as you explore the Arctic ecosystem.

Roaming the Tundra

Near Churchill, Manitoba, along the shores of Hudson Bay, polar bears roam and explore the coastal area, waiting for sea ice to form. Due to climate change, the sea ice is forming later in the fall and melting earlier in the summer, decreasing the time that polar bears have to hunt.

By autumn, the bears have not eaten since the ice on the Hudson Bay melted—about 4 months earlier. While some bears may appear thin this time of year, this bear looks relatively healthy.

Polar Bears

An adult polar bear is about 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder, males weigh between 775–1,300 pounds (about as heavy as a large refrigerator), and females weigh between 330–650 pounds (about as heavy as a vending machine).

Polar Bear Paws

Polar bear paws are very wide—up to 12 inches across (30 cm). They distribute a bear’s weight over snow and ice. Forepaws are slightly webbed, helping them swim, and hind paws are used as rudders in the water. 

Polar Bear Paws

The claws are curved, thick, and strong. They help bears capture their prey and provide better traction on the ice. Polar bear claws can measure over two inches long (5 cm).

Tundra Buggies

Tundra Buggies offer a safe and eco–friendly way to view polar bears. The buggies are built high off the ground to provide safe viewing opportunities for tourists.The tires of a Tundra Buggy are 5.5 feet tall—as tall as many people! Polar bears often walk up to the buggy to look around and view the humans on board—almost like a “backwards zoo!”

Buggies and Bears

Buggies and Bears

Inquisitive bears approach this tundra buggy filled with tourists who are hoping to capture close–up photographs of these polar bears. Tourists quietly observe the bears, making sure not to disturb their natural activities.

Tundra Road Systems

Tundra Buggies must stay on the road system that was built many decades ago by the military when they had a base in this area. 

This practice helps to protect polar bear habitat. Tundra Buggies must go very slowly as they travel the roads because of the rocky, rough terrain of the tundra ecosystem.

Tundra Roads—Protecting the Environment

Tundra Roads—Protecting the Environment

Tundra buggies travel the existing road system, being careful not to disturb the natural environment. The buggy on the left carries tourists.On the right is “Buggy One,” the research and broadcasting buggy. Buggy One’s tall tower provides Internet connectivity— necessary for global broadcasts as part of “Tundra Connections,” Polar Bears International’s education program.

The Polar Bears of Western Hudson Bay

During Hudson Bay’s ice-free season (from about July to November) polar bears from the western Hudson Bay population are forced onto shore where they do not have access to their main prey: bearded and ringed seals. 

While on shore, these bears mostly fast and are fairly inactive, conserving their energy. During the summer months, polar bears stay near the coast while some retreat farther inland, then travel back to the coast as colder weather approaches again in the fall. 

At that time, polar bears are anxious to return to the ice to hunt seals. This bear is walking along the shore, waiting for the sea ice to freeze.

Polar Bear

This polar bear searches the shoreline for interesting smells and tastes. Polar bears have acute senses of smell, being able to locate seals and smell prey from more than a mile away when the wind is blowing in the right direction.

Senses and Adaptations

Sense and Adaptations

Polar bears’ strong senses of smell, sight, and hearing help them survive in the Arctic. A polar bear’s silhouette looks much different from that of other bears. Polar bears’ bodies are long and tapering. Their long necks help them swim and push their head into holes when searching for prey. Polar bears have a rounded posterior and pointed nose. 

Tidal Area

The tidal area is vast and wide on the shores of the Hudson Bay near Churchill, and it has many interesting nooks and crannies for polar bears to explore while they are waiting for sea ice to form. 

Rocks and boulders are common in these tidal flats, as are many varieties of birds and waterfowl. Visitors might see snowy owls, ptarmigan, Arctic hare, or Arctic foxes on this part of the tundra.

Arctic Hare—Camouflage on the Tundra

Arctic Hare—Camouflage on the Tundra

Arctic hare are easily camouflaged—turning white in the winter, then changing color in the summer. Their eyes are on the side of their head, providing a wide view of the environment without moving. Arctic hare have an acute sense of smell, are herbivores, and do not hibernate. They can jump high (2.5 yds/2 m) and run very fast (37 mph/60 km).

Tourists and Polar Bears

Tourists ride in Tundra Buggies in specific, designated areas of the tundra around this part of the Hudson Bay coastline. 

As long as tourists are quiet and remain safely on the Tundra Buggies, polar bears are undisturbed by this attention. The Tundra Buggies are warm and cozy inside, and there is a back deck from which tourists can safely view the polar bears.

Who’s Watching Who?

Who’s Watching Who?

Tourists observe the polar bears from the safety of the back deck of the tundra buggy. In many ways, the polar bears also seem to be observing the tourists, sometimes standing on their hind legs to get a better view.

Polar Bear in Kelp

Kelp, also known as seaweed, is abundant along the coast in this region. Piles of it wash up on shore, and polar bears may use it in different ways and occasionally snack on it.

Kelp does not provide substantial nutrition for polar bears, especially the fat they need to consume for sustenance. However, polar bears seem to enjoy its salty taste and the other nutrients the kelp may provide.

Polar Bear at Rest

Polar bears often make a daybed out of a pile of kelp, also known as seaweed. The bears also like to lie down in the Arctic willows, tiny shrubs that grow in the tundra. Polar bears rest to conserve their energy at this time of year.

Playful Rest—A Tale of Two Bears

Playful Rest—A Tale of Two Bears

These two bears are playfully resting in front of a bank of willows, which grow in many areas of the Arctic tundra.

Open Water on Hudson Bay

Though snow is on the ground, temperatures must drop very low several days in a row before ice will form on the bay. Polar bears wait patiently along the coast for ice to take over the bay, when they will then journey out on the ice to search for bearded and ringed seals.

Ice Floes

Ice Floes

As the Hudson Bay freezes, ice “floes” or large, flat packs of floating seawater (saltwater) ice form outward from the land. Unlike pack ice, ice floes are free–moving sheets of ice that range in size from 65 feet (20 m) to 6 miles (10 km) across.

Arctic Willows

There are over a dozen varieties of Arctic willows in this area. Arctic willows can live for many years. One was found in Greenland that was 236 years old! These low-growing shrubs provide camouflage and shelter as well as food for several animals, including the Arctic hare.

A Mother and Her Cub

A Mother and Her Cub

This mother and cub are sheltered and protected while they rest in the Arctic willows. Cubs stay with their mothers until they are about 30 months old. Mothers provide protection for their young during this period.

Sparring Polar Bears

In the fall, male polar bears sometimes spar (also known as play fighting). Through sparring, polar bears practice their fighting skills, developing and enforcing their muscle movements. This helps establish a hierarchy among the bears as they determine which is stronger.

Scientists believe that the bears may be sizing each other up for the real competition for mates that occurs in the spring. Sparring usually occurs when the weather turns cold so the polar bears don’t become overheated.

Sparring of "play fighting"

Sparring or “play fighting”

These two male bears wrestle playfully, sparring and play fighting while standing on their hind legs, then tumble in the snow. Sparring or “play fighting” provides an opportunity for male bears to “size each other up” and practice for real competition during mating season. These two young, male bears are practicing sparring on a cold, winter day.

Snow Indicator

This image shows a calm day on the snow-covered tundra, but the weather can quickly change to windy, blizzard–like conditions.

Along the Shore: Mother Bear and Two Cubs

COY

Often female polar bears and cubs are seen along the shore of the Hudson Bay. This small cub is a “COY,” meaning “cub of the year” which indicates it was born earlier that year. Cubs between one and two years of age are “yearlings.”

Tundra Tourists

Tourists travel from all over the world to Churchill every fall so they can photograph polar bears from the Tundra Buggies. 

Churchill is one of the few places in the world where photos of sparring bears are taken, so when you see a photo of sparring polar bears, it is likely from Churchill, Manitoba.

Sparring

Sparring

These adult male polar bears are sparring as they practice for real fighting that takes place during mating season. Often polar bears are seen with scars from previous wounds they incurred during sparring.

Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point

The Tundra Buggy Lodge is a group of connected Tundra Buggies where tourists can spend the night on the tundra on the Hudson Bay shore. The lodge is complete with sleeping quarters, bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining hall, and a lounge. Every year, it is parked in the same location at “Polar Bear Point” to minimize any disturbance to the ecosystem. 

There are also individual Tundra Buggies that transport the tourists to view polar bears during the daytime, always being careful to protect the habitat and the bears. Guests come from all over the world to sleep on the tundra in the Tundra Buggy Lodge.

The Comforts of Home

This system of connected Tundra Buggies is equipped with all of the services guests would find in a regular hotel—electricity, dining services, bathrooms with showers, and comfortable sleeping quarters.

Peek–a–Boo Cub

Peek–a–Boo Cub

Curious bears often approach the buggy, giving tourists great photographic opportunities. This female bear is protecting her young cub, which is cautiously peering around her to view the tourists.

Kitchen, Dining and Lounge Buggies

Gourmet meals are prepared in the buggy on the right, and guests eat both breakfast and dinner on the tundra, often watching polar bears through the windows. Each evening, polar bear experts and guest speakers give presentations to the guests in the lounge car on the left.

Looking into the Eyes of a Polar Bear

Looking into the Eyes of a Polar Bear

From the lodge, guests get very close views of the bears. This bear looked back at the tourists as intently as they looked at it, showing a calm curiosity about the human observers. Looking into the eyes of a polar bear is a moving experience.

Sleeping on the Tundra

The two buggies at the end of the lodge are the guest quarters. Private berths are in these buggies as well as guest bathrooms with showers.

Tundra Buggies: Decks with a View

Tundra Buggies: Decks with a View

Guests board tundra buggies each morning, then travel out on the tundra to get near the bears, photographing them safely from the rear decks of the buggies. 

Bear in the Willows

This polar bear is hunkered down in the Arctic willows for a bit of shelter from the wind and snow—and maybe for a bit of privacy. The Arctic willow is a shrub that grows flat in areas of the tundra. Willows help block the cold, blowing winds on the tundra.

Though these Arctic willows are very short and flat, they can be very old. An Arctic willow in Greenland was estimated to be 236 years old! This vegetation also provides shelter and camouflage for other Arctic species such as ptarmigan and Arctic foxes.

Polar Bear Waiting

Polar Bear Waiting

This polar bear is resting patiently in the willows, waiting for winter to freeze the Hudson Bay so it can once again resume hunting its prey. Polar bears survive on the blubber of their prey (mainly seals), and they go months without eating anything significant during the summer.

Arctic Willows

The growing season in this region is short, and conditions are harsh, so although these plants can be decades old, they grow very close to the ground. Animals that eat the willow leaves include muskox, ptarmigan, Arctic hare, and caribou.

Walking in the Willows

Walking in the Willows

Polar bears often wander through the willows and other Arctic vegetation such as the black spruce, looking for food and a place to rest while they wait for the sea ice to form. Bears are often spotted along the shoreline, waiting to travel on the sea ice and hunt for food.

Western Hudson Bay Ecology

The region near Churchill, Manitoba in Canada, is ecologically unique as three ecosystems meet: marine, boreal forest, and tundra. Thousands of years ago, the land that is the tundra was crushed under glaciers. Since the retreat of the glaciers, the land is now rising about 3 feet per century in a process called “isostatic rebound”.

Hudson Bay is a relatively shallow bay, averaging 400–feet deep. Because of this, the tidal flats along the shore are very wide in this region—many are over a half–mile wide.

During the summer, thousands of beluga whales migrate through this area, spending the summer in Hudson Bay estuaries (where water from rivers and the sea meet).

Tundra Ecosystem

Tundra ecosystems are found mainly in the Arctic, where the climate is windy and cold (as low as –50° F). The tundra is a treeless area with very little rainfall. It is home to Arctic foxes, snowy owls, caribou (reindeer), Arctic hare, and polar bears.

The Arctic tundra is expansive and beautiful, whether it is covered in snow and ice in the winter or covered with colored lichen and wildflowers in the summer.

Waiting to Hunt

Waiting to Hunt

This bear appears healthy, full–bodied, and alert. Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals, their main prey. After the summer months, some polar bears may appear thin and less healthy while waiting for the winter sea ice to form so they can once again hunt.

Huge Tidal Flats

Lyme-grass and other plants grow in the tidal flats. This is an area with a large number of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, including Arctic tern and peregrine falcons.

Along the Shore: Mother Bear and Two Cubs

Along the Shore: Mother Bear and Two Cubs

Polar bears regularly walk along the tidal flats and shoreline, and female bears are often spotted with one or two cubs following them. Polar bears often have two cubs. Female bears nurse and protect their cubs throughout their early life.

Water of Hudson Bay: Freeze-up/Break-up

The Hudson Bay completely freezes in the fall, and the ice melts in the summer, impacting the different wildlife and plants that call the tundra home.

Swimming in Frigid Water

Swimming in the Hudson Bay—Polar Bear Feet

Polar bears are often seen swimming in the bay. This young cub is following its mother, using its slightly–webbed, front feet to paddle and its back feet to steer, like the rudder of a ship.

Wapusk National Park: Home to Polar Bears

Wapusk National Park is southeast of Churchill, Manitoba on the shores of Hudson Bay. It is home to roughly 900 polar bears outside of the regular tourist area around Churchill. Only a small group of tourists visit Wapusk every year to see polar bears, and a great deal of polar bear research is done in this region. 

Buggy One, the first Tundra Buggy ever built, is parked next to a research tower in the park. Buggy One is a high-tech Tundra Buggy with Internet connectivity and broadcasting ability. During the fall months, it travels the tundra with scientists and polar bear experts on board.

Webcasts and videoconferences conducted live from Buggy One connect them with students in classrooms around the world, sharing information about polar bears and the effects of climate change on the Arctic, the polar bears’ habitat. Through cameras mounted on the top of the tower, scientists and University students can view the polar bears in this area. The cage provides protection from the bears if scientists must stand directly on the tundra.

Through research and education endeavors, individuals and groups are inspired to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change on our planet, protecting the Arctic of the future for polar bears and other species.

Buggy One

Buggy One has a mounted camera on the front of it that is used to stream live polar bear action through the Internet via this “Polar Bear Cam.”

The Trekker Camera System

On top of Buggy One, the Trekker camera system was mounted to capture images for Google’s Street View and Expeditions. Additional outdoor, remote cameras and an antenna for Internet connectivity are also mounted on Buggy One as part of the broadcasting system.

Inside Buggy One—A Broadcast Studio on the Tundra

Buggy One Interior

From inside Buggy One, scientists, educators, and polar bear experts broadcast live to thousands of teachers and students around the world, educating them about polar bears and the tundra ecosystem. This is done as part of Polar Bears International’s Tundra Connections program.

Inside Buggy One—A Broadcast Studio on the Tundra

A highly technical system provides the support for broadcasting from this remote location.

Tundra Buggy One—Technology on Wheels

Buggy One transports scientists and polar bear experts to the remote location of Wapusk National Park during late fall—when most tourists have left the tundra. A large population of bears travels onto the sea ice from Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, the prime polar bear viewing location. 

Hunting for Seals: Waiting by Breathing Holes

Hunting for Seals: Waiting by Breathing Holes

Once on the ice, polar bears wait for seals to surface from their breathing holes. Seals are the main prey of polar bears.

Cape Churchill Research Tower

Dr. Ian Stirling, a renowned polar bear scientist, helped build this tower decades ago, using it as a base to research polar bear behavior. 

Swimming in Frigid Water

Swimming in Frigid Water

Polar bears are often spotted swimming in the cold water of the Hudson Bay. Their bodies are well–adapted for the frigid, Arctic water with a thick layer of fat to insulate them. Polar bear can swim long distances continuously—over 62 miles (100 km).

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