With each day that passes, the situation becomes more desperate. When will the sea ice form?
The bears are starving. How much longer can they wait? For the females, time is running out. They have to put on enough weight before denning to ensure a viable pregnancy. Already impregnated during the mating season, the implantation of the foetus in the womb is delayed in polar bears until they den for the winter. If the female has put on enough weight to sustain her and provide milk for her cubs through her hibernation, a pregnancy will progress. Global warming means that the sea ice forms later and later each year. The bears have to wait for the ice to form so they can hunt seals. It's just too hard to catch a seal in open water and it expends too much precious energy when you haven't eaten for months. Waiting on the sea ice by a breathing hole is a bear's best chance. With the feeding season shrinking as quickly as the ice caps, there is simply less time for eating and putting on weight. This means less pregnancies and the prospect that polar bears could be extinct in the wild by 2050.
That is unthinkable.
The mood in Churchill is palpably tense. When will the sea ice begin to form? The ocean has an oily consistency. Waves lap thickly onto the bay under an invisible layer of almost-ice. The signs are there. The bears began arriving weeks ago. They scan the bay, sniff the air...... waiting, waiting. It's already late November and we start to wonder if the ice will actually form this year. To even consider this as a possibility is surreal. The sea ice has formed in Hudson Bay between mid - October and mid - November every year in living memory.
My final day in Churchill and we all awake to the news that overnight the ice has started to form! I get dressed and literally run to the helicopter pad and find a pilot. Ok, the weather is bad, visibility is poor, but it's good enough. Let's go.
We take off and I slide open the window and get ready. Experience has taught me that this is high-wind photography. On my first trip, my camera was almost sucked out the window! This gives a whole new meaning to the concept of camera shake. When I stick my head out the window my heavy 100-400 zoom lens is literally blown about like a brick feather, bashing back and forth against the window frame. I have to use all my body weight to counteract the forces.
We fly over the tundra and see a small herd of moose between a stand of trees, almost obscured by the falling snow. When we reach the shore of the bay, we see it.
Ice as far as the eye can see.
Yesterday, this was a beach. Today, bears are lying on their backs sunbaking on invisible beach towels and sun lounges, on ice. The point where the water meets the shore is now a white outline of waves frozen in the act of rolling onto the beach. The sea is gone and there are three bears venturing out onto the newly-formed icy platform of white and grey. I see a bear lying with his tummy flat on the ice, his front and back legs sprawled out so that he looks like a polar bear skin rug on a white marble floor. A bird alights next to him and walks in a circle around the bear, as if staking out his territory. Perhaps the bird is anticipating a free meal, compliments of the bear. I watched as the bear kept perfectly still, following the bird with only his eyes, like the Mona Lisa. This bird was in serious peril of becoming an appetizer before the main course. Though tempting for a desperately hungry bear, lowering himself to settle for such scraps was perhaps too demeaning for such a mighty hunter and the bear closed his eyes as fluffy snow flakes gently fell on him, beckoning him back to sleep.
There are more bears out here. One steps out onto a thin bridge of ice perched across two large sheets of ice. As the bear's front paws land, the ice bridge snaps like a thin piece of toffee and the bear leaps out across the abyss. Are these bears the bravest or the most desperate? In most places the ice is still too thin to support their weight. I see them slipping and sliding across the watery surface that provides no grip. It reminds me of the slushy, melting ice rinks of my youth where I would gingerly skate through the obstacle course of falling teenagers. I start to laugh but then I see a bear really struggling and I realize this is serious. He keeps falling through the thin ice, hauling himself out and falling through again and again. It is such hard work and I find myself falling with him each time. I am almost breathless with anxiety and exhaustion, just watching him. Silently in my mind I am willing him on. "Get up, you can do it". He's on his knees, waiting for the energy to try again. He pulls himself up, slips, gets up, places a giant paw on the ice. It cracks and he falls in again. Now, realising he is just too heavy for the thin ice, he lies flat out on his tummy and pulls himself along, looking up at the big noisy thing hovering, observing above him, with an expression of determination and humiliation. Then I see an even more astonishing sight.
A bear has caught a seal! He's pulling it up out of a hole in the ice and dragging it away so that the seal can't escape and disappear down the hole. There is a grotesque bright red smear of blood on white ice, tracing the bear's steps. The scene is so extraordinary, I forget to take a photo. I just watch, transfixed. I have never seen something like this before and my reaction surprises me. I am jubilant, euphoric. I feel like laughing and crying. I am shocked that seeing a brutal bloody kill could fill me with such elation. Suddenly, I care nothing for the seal. I am cheering for the bear. So is Phil, the pilot. We are as happy as parents seeing their children graduate or getting married. In this moment, they are our bears and they have triumphed and we are relieved and grateful and moved. They will be OK now. For another year.