So you're tasked with the job of figuring out where you're all going to go on you next vacation. Disneyland? Been there. Done that. Caribbean cruise? Fattening. Mexican beach? Boring.
Think outside the box. There's a huge world out there that most people never see in person, but millions vicariously watch on TV: the natural world. And probably the one favorite animal that people want to see is the polar bear. Not in the zoo, but in the wild. Right there in front of you and no walls or cages!
But in case you need convincing to break away from the mundane on your next vacation, here are 17 reasons that are bound to convince you to break from the crowd and venture to the realm of the Lord of the Arctic.
But polar bears are dangerous, you say. Right? You bet, though maybe not quite in the way you may think. As a matter of fact, after you spend time with them, close up, it becomes apparent that, like us, they have real personalities. For one, they can be really funny.
The only enemy that bears have is humans, but approached cautiously and with respect, they have no real fear of people. And prior to the development of polar bear tours about 30 years ago in Churchill, Manitoba, bears were usually describe as solitary - coming together and interacting only during mating season on the Arctic spring ice. Nothing is further from the truth.
Bears come off the ice in June and July after spending the winter and early spring hunting for their favorite prey, seals. Summer is spent ashore lounging about and laying low, conserving energy. But when they encounter other bears, often they spend their days playing, sparring, wrestling like puppies and just hanging out with their buddies whom they've not seen for perhaps up to eight months of hunting on the ice.
Like dogs, they will grab anything that strikes their fancy, like a tree branch, and play tug-of-war or play 'tag' with the cherished object (oftentimes with a hat or other object that has blown off the head of a visiting tourist.
Perhaps because they are off-white in color, unlike black bears or grizzly bears, their features are easier to see and seem to be more expressive than their close cousins. While black bear and grizzly cubs can be awfully cute, nothing beats polar bear cubs in the cute category. A polar bear mother with her cubs is the pinnacle of motherly affection.
And the cubs themselves, well, there's not much need to explain that one. Suffice to say that almost any zoo in the world where a new cub is born sees their visitation skyrocket.
On a polar bear tour, you have a good chance of seeing these cute little units in their natural habitat.
Everyone knows bears are big and strong, but you've seen nothing until you see a mature male up close! Imagine a 1200 pound bear standing on his hind legs reaching almost 10 feet in height and whose paws are as big as large dinner plates. It's impressive. Those massive paws can kill a seal weighing several hundred pounds with one blow.
OK, unless you already live in the Arctic, you'll have to fly a bit to get to one of the prime viewing areas, but you don't have to learn to mush a dogsled across the sea ice like early polar explorers.
The most accessible place for North Americans to see polar bears is near the little Canadian town of Churchill, on the west shore of Hudson Bay. To get there you fly into Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has connections from several major air carriers. From there, it's a 2.5 hour flight north to Churchill. Typically the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill is included in most Churchill polar bear tour packages.
For those who prefer a cruise, another prime spot for viewing polar bears is the little archipelago of Spitsbergen, high above the Arctic Circle and a protectorate of Norway. Spitsbergen, or Svalbard as it is also known, involves a bit more flying at least for North Americans. Connections are made through Oslo, Norway where one typically overnights before flying on the next day to Spitsbergen. A polar bear cruise is typically a week to 10 days in length and explores islands, inlets and pack ice for bears and other wildlife such as walrus and whales. These trips are summertime cruises and bears, like in Churchill, have come off the sea ice after their winter/spring hunting season.
Yes, once again, the bears can be dangerous, so you can't wander off on your own to pet them, much as many folks would like to. Most visitors choose to ride in Tundra Buggies, specially-designed vehicles on enormous tires that enable travel through deep snow and unpaved paths.
Participants who choose to stay at one of the remote lodges near Churchill can walk on the tundra with guides who are knowledgeable about the bears (and who carry several scare devices to repel the bears should they get too close), often getting within only 10 meters from bears. Polar bears don't tend to tangle with groups of people, so going as a group is key to safety.
The Tundra Buggies are heated and have bathrooms on board, so no need to hike across the tundra for rest stops. The interiors are spacious enough that participants can walk around when the buggy is not moving. And, lunches, hot drinks and snacks are served aboard so that you won't envy that bear you're watching eating a seal!
For the inner child, one of the top experiences on the Tundra Buggy option besides watching bears is that you can ride in vehicles the size of a large garage, making the largest monster truck look tiny. The buggies hold from 22 to 46 passengers and have openable windows for easy photography when bears are about. There's also an open-air back deck for even more unrestricted viewing.
These monsters are all-wheel drive and can take on most any conditions that the Arctic can throw at it.
Most tours return to Churchill in the evening and to a good hotel room and restaurant, but many people choose to spend their entire stay out on the tundra.
One option is the Tundra Camp, a series of modular units hitched together not unlike a huge, rubber-tired train, which is parked during the fall season on the shore of Hudson Bay, right in the prime bear-viewing area. Bears typically hang out around the camp, drawn in by the smells of food, so viewing and photography from the camp is a favorite activity. But one of the greatest advantages of staying at the Tundra Camp is that you make day trips from the camp on board a buggy, returning to the camp at the end of the day. No need to spend several hours out of your day for the roundtrip journey back into town. Thus, more time with the bears.
The camp offers sleeping accommodations (similar to a dorm car on a train), a dining section and a lounge for sundowners, socializing and lectures by staff naturalists.
A similar situation exists at one of the remote lodge options, but bear and other wildlife watching are conducted by foot on short to medium walks on the tundra and along the bay shore. The remote lodge is your warm and comfortable hub for all of your activities. And, like the Tundra Camp, good bear viewing can also often be had from the lodge.
These lodges are permanent facilities that are warm and comfortable with full bathrooms, bar and excellent food prepared on site. In the evening, guides and naturalists give talks about bears and life in the Far North.
At the remote lodges, walking on the tundra offers exciting and up-close encounters with bears and other wildlife, including migrating birds, Arctic foxes, wolves and caribou. Bears generally have very little fear of humans and after a short period of curiosity, they usually return to their top agenda: napping, playing and sparring with their buddies. Being able to watch these kinds of activities on ground-level is an experience of a lifetime.
Prefer your vacations to be ship-based? No problem. Choose a voyage around Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic on an expedition-grade, ice-strengthened vessel. Small ships (100 meters or less) offer comfortable accomodations, great food, a stable, mobile platform for viewing, and lectures in the evening by top naturalists and scientists about the human and natural history of the area you are cruising through.
Spitsbergen is a prolific polar bear denning ground during the winter and spring, and so is a focus of good bear populations during the summertime. The island group, or archipelago, lies far above the Arctic Circle and its massive cliffs host staggering numbers of nesting seabirds in July and August. Even the most obsessive bear watcher can't help but be impressed by this annual spectacle.
Polar bears can be seen not only on the melting sea ice flows, but swimming and walking on land. Cruises offer Zodiac (small inflatable landing boats) and shore excursions each day to explore the islands and inlets, looking for bears and other wildife, such as whales and walrus.
Spitsbergen's glaciers are impressive. Massive tidewater glaciers whose snouts are hundreds of feet tall, split and calve with thunderous road into the sea. It's a great way to glimpse the dying remnants of the Pleistocene Ice Age as they retreat in the face of a warming planet. These are the ypes of glaciers that used to cover more than half of North America some 10,000 years ago.
The Arctic tundra, far from barren, is colorful and alive during the summer months. This is a land where trees are only a foot or two tall, and in many cases only a few inches high, despite being more that 100 - 200 years old. Wildflowers cover the ground - more in areas like Churchill on Hudson Bay because it's further south than Spitsbergen. In late August through early September, fall comes to the tundra and the leaves of willows and birch turn bright shades of red and yellow.
Wildflowers are part of the landscape in the Spitsbergen summer also. Imagine bright, colorful patches of flowers in front of huge glaciers and tall mountains!
OK, so bears are the big attraction for both Churchill and Spitsbergen, but there's more to the Arctic than just polar bears!
Summer in Churchill offers the chance to snorkel and kayak with beluga whales, the white whale who is the only member of cetaceans that can actually turn their heads. These gentle mammals love to bump your kayak and your dry suit while swimming with them. They bring their young into the fresh and brackish water of the Churchill and Seal River estuaries to rub and renew their skin and to shelter their young in the shallow water.
Churchill is famous among bird watchers for its great birding in the summer. But fall has its pluses too - you'll see snow-white Arctic foxes, red foxes, ptarmigan, snowy owls and good chances for goshawks, caribou and the occasional wolf!
In Spitsbergen, many of the species you can see in the Churchill area are available here also, plus new ones. Reindeer graze the tundra, walrus haul out on icefloes, and seabirds by the millions nest on tall cliffs and near the shore. Because these birds rarely encounter humans, you can often get quite close by Zodiac or even by foot on land.
Both Churchill, in Canada's north, and Spitsbergen were staging grounds for early explorers of the Arctic, from the late 16th to 17th Century onward. Remnants of expeditions such as Jens Munk (Denmark) whose crew overwintered near the present-day town of Churchill in 1619, losing all but three of the 64 members are still visible.
In Spitsbergen, numerous 19th and 20th Century explorers attempted to reach the North Pole. Ruins of the ill-fated S. A. Andree balloon expedition base are still visible (photo, above), as are the pylons of Roald Amundsen's airship that he used to become the first verifiable explorer to pass over the Pole. Graves and campsites of early whalers dating from the 1400s to 1500s can be found on shore. Clearly this is a land with deep human history.
Despite its reputation for ice and snow, the Arctic is technically a desert. A desert is usually defined as an area that gets less than 16 inches of precipitation annually. Areas in the Canadian and Norwegian Arctic often get half that. Much of the blizzards and whiteout conditions so synonymous with the Arctic are just simply snow being blown from one part of the Arctic to another, rather than fresh precipitation from above.
Human activity can affect the delicate landscape for thousands of years: tent rings left by ancestors of the modern Inuit can easily be seen on the tundra more than 1,000 years after the ancient hunters packed up and moved on.
In the Arctic, all life, plant or animal, revolves around the freezing point of water, 0° C (32° F). Above that point, there's no ice. Below it, the land and sea are transformed into a completely different world. This may sound painfully obvious, but while most areas of the world can exist, though perhaps not exactly thrive, when the mean temperatures fluctuate bya few degrees, Arctic animals such as polar bear cannot. A few degrees on either side of freezing make all the difference in the world to their survival. Polar bears depend on traversing the sea ice to hunt and catch seals, their primary food, and that ice has to be there for at least seven to eight months out of the year, or they simply don't get enough to eat.
Already in the Churchill area alone, fall freeze-up happens some 2-3 weeks later in the season than it did 30 years ago, and the spring melt happens earlier by about the same amount. This adds up to more than a month less sea ice which is so critical to the bears and the seals they feed on. The less time to feed translates to less annual calories, less calories mean less body weight. And, in fact the Churchill bear population weighs about 10% less now than three decades ago.
Of course, polar bears are not the only form of life affected by warming. As the Arctic warms, the tundra gives way to the northward march of the boreal forest (boreal means 'northern' and is composed mainly of trees in the spruce family). In fact, recent measurements have shown that the boreal forest is moving north at the rate of about 100 meters per year. Species such as grizzly and black bears, normally creatures of the forested areas are showing up increasingly in areas that used to belong to polar bears. A few instances of interbreeding between grizzlies and polar bears have been recorded around the Arctic.
Polar bears are thought to have evolved from a common ancestor of the grizzly bear around 200,000 years ago. Can it be that the few remnants of the polar bear population will interbreed with grizzlies and become only a footnote in paleontology?
There's good reason polar bears have become the icon of global warming. At current rates of warming, it's not inconceivable that polar bears will vanish from some areas in the next couple of decades. They are a prime 'canary in the coal mine' (albeit a BIG one!) - one of the first casualties of a changing world.