A curious beluga whale, one of Churchill's "Big Five Bs," swims close to check out the Beluga Cam boat. Biologist Patrick Mislan is helping to man the cam this summer for PBI and explore.org. Photo by Patrick Mislan/Polar Bears International.

7/31/2015 4:34:41 PM

Churchill's Big Five

A lone polar bear walks along the rocky shoreline in summer. In addition to bears and belugas, Churchill's other "Big Five Bs" include birds, blooms, and bugs. Photo by Patrick Mislan/Polar Bears International.

Patrick Mislan

They call it the polar bear capital of the world: a small town nestled at a junction of ecozones on the frontier of great open expanses in all directions—a true gateway to the north for visitors from all over.

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada is a town governed by transitions. In this region, the remnants of the boreal forest meet the tundra lowlands at the tree line. This quickly transforms into the rugged and rocky shoreline of Hudson Bay and then, depending on when you are visiting, becomes ice or open ocean as far as the eye can see.

The cold, prevailing northwestern winds blow so strongly from the bay that the stunted spruce trees speckling the landscape have had all their branches and needles blown off on the windward side, leaving what locals call flag trees. Such a transitional landscape has equally transitional seasons, yielding unique tourism and wildlife viewing opportunities!

The long, dark, bitter cold of winter, although a challenge, provides world-class aurora borealis viewing. When the darkness finally yields, the renewal of spring brings a melting of snow and ice, welcoming migratory birds and the first hints of tundra wildflowers. In summer, the surrounding lowlands become alive with green willows and grasses, while wildflowers bloom and beluga whales migrate to the shallow waters of the Churchill River estuary. In fall, the world-famous Western Hudson Bay polar bears congregate on the coastline, waiting for the ice to reform so they can catch their first seal in many months. 

Bears, Birds, Belugas, Blooms and... Bugs! "The Big 5 Bs" they call it here in Churchill! Depending on when you visit, you may get to see any number of these. Many people have checked off one more item of their bucket list here as ecotourists and photographers flock here by the thousands during bear season in the fall to capture that elusive polar bear snapshot. Up to 25,000 eager bear enthusiasts can pass through this small town during the brief window between early October and late November, swelling the town's population by 25 times and boosting the local economy.

I, of course, have a particular fondness for these bears. For the past three years, I have been studying the Western Hudson Bay polar bears at the University of Alberta as a graduate student. Although I am familiar with the ins and outs of the ecosystem through my studies, it is quite special to be on the ground in the heart of the region I have lived and breathed for some time now.

Studying papers, articles, and journals can teach you a lot ... but having the cold northwestern wind blow against your face while you watch a beautiful mother bear and COY (cub-of-the-year) saunter casually and confidently along the rocky shoreline backlit by the sunset over the bay really brings the whole picture together. Many people come from all around the world looking for this experience. I count myself extremely lucky to be among those who have lived it.

This is my first visit to Churchill and I am here on behalf of Polar Bears International and explore.org, helping to live-stream the beluga whale migration from a boat in the Churchill estuary. Please stay tuned for more blog posts about my experience with this magnificent town and my breathtaking close encounters with the whales.

Strong winds from Hudson Bay strip limbs and needles from the stunted pine trees in the transitional zone where forest gives way to tundra. Such trees are known locally as "flag trees." Photo by Patrick Mislan/Polar Bears International

Thousands of beluga whales gather in the Churchill River in summer. Photo by Patrick Mislan/Polar Bears International.

Another of Churchill's "Five Bs" -- spring and summer blooms! Photo by Patrick Mislan/Polar Bears International.

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