With erect ears and twitching noses inquisitively probing the air, the locals were curious.
On their annual migration to the ice-filled northern reaches of the Arctic in search of food, ‘polar bear alley’ passes through Churchill on the windswept shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay.
About a two-hour flight north of Manitoba’s capital city of Winnipeg, this remote town is one of the best places in Canada to observe these amazing creatures along with enchanting beluga whales.
The only way into Churchill is by air or rail – no country roads leading to town here. It’s isolated and quiet with just a few streets in each direction, with no flashy hotels or ritzy lodgings to speak of.
But we’re not here to be spoilt by the man-made attractions found in the big cities of Canada, the appeal here is all natural.
During the summer months of August and September, the vast tundra will see 17-hours of sunlight, with cool but mild temperatures.
Although the earth never completely defrosts here, there is enough of a summer for the tundra to come alive with vibrant wildflowers and grasses tall enough to sway in the breeze – a striking contrast to the cold and austere boulder-filled landscape.
Overhead, the skies fill with eagles and Canadian Geese, all competing with the polar bears for food.
Male bears practice a walking hibernation and rarely feed, while females give birth in dens or wander the land with their young.
Weighing up to 1,200 kilograms, the bears need to sustain themselves during the summer months until the ice returns, bringing with it their prey of choice – the prized seal.
Losing up to one kilo of fat per day as they roam the tundra, they survive on small berries, goose eggs and the occasional bird as they wait the summer months out.
A tundra buggy tour is the best way to observe this incredible spectacle. The large oversized vehicles are basic but comfortable, with padded bench seats, a bathroom, windows that fold down and a small viewing deck on the back.
The huge buggies are designed to make light work of the rugged and barren landscape, providing just enough height for the bears not be a threat to the caged human inhabitants inside.
It’s a unique experience to be in a cage looking through enclosed glass windows in search of wildlife and emphasises that we’re very much on their turf.
But the question on our minds? How will we react when the animal we are searching for, stares back at our curious gaze?
On this day trip, we were fortunate enough to see a mother with two babies by her side wander past our vehicle, barely five metres from our gaze.
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Close by, a large male explored the low tide offerings as we watched in silence. From the confines of our Tundra Buggy, these wild creatures seemed both cute and cuddly, before we reminded ourselves of just how violent and unpredictable they really can be.
It’s for these reasons that walking around the town centre, especially at night, should be done with great care and never alone.
As our group was still excitedly reminiscing about the day’s encounter, we found ourselves with the fifth bear sighting of the trip on the drive to the nearby Hudson Bay boat launch, preparing for the beluga whale adventure.
Foraging through the rocky outcrop was a larger male, which led to yet another wildlife paparazzi frenzy from our bus as we frantically snapped away.
In the calm waters of Hudson Bay, beluga whales give birth to their young while feeding in the shallow waters.
Travelling in small family pods, you don’t have to be on the water long before the ghostly white silhouettes of the beluga are next to you. These incredibly inquisitive creatures seem to lurch out of the water to curiously study us, as we study them.
Calves are grey at birth, staying with their mothers for around 18 months as they mature into the albino white colour.
The beluga, which is Russian for ‘white’, is modest in size at slightly larger than a dolphin and incredibly beautiful and graceful to watch.
Options to see beluga include boat or zodiac tours or for the more adventurous, snorkelling or kayaking.
For some on the tour, it was their wildlife bucket list experience of a lifetime. For me, it was a bucket list trip I never realised I had.
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