Lovers or Fighters?

Each year in mid October, polar bears begin to arrive in Churchill, Manitoba, on the north east Coast of Canada to await the formation of sea ice in Hudson Bay. This is one of the natural world’s great events.

They journey here because this is the first place in the world where the sea ice forms, thanks to the Hudson River which surges huge amounts of fresh water into the bay. Fresh water freezes at a higher temperature than sea water, beckoning bears to head south to this sub-polar tundra at the edge of the arboreal forest.

They arrive exhausted and starving, having not eaten for months. Polar bears only eat seals and they can only hunt seals out on the pack ice. They wait on the shores, sheltering by the willow bushes, periodically sniffing the breeze to detect that auspicious moment when the ice begins to form. The larger stronger bears take up their positions at the head of the bay. They will be the first bears to catch a seal as it comes up to breathe through a hole in the newly- formed ice.

In the purple dawn light we see large bear tracks meandering out onto a frozen lake. An adult male will often sleep stationed right in the middle of a lake, conserving energy, but displaying his presence for all to see. Now the light turns orange and we see a bear coming out of the willow stands, following the tracks of the earlier bear. He walks slowly, his nose pressed against the ground, following the trail, sniffing for ID. The low pale sun angles across his body to create what looks like a dark reflection in the snow. It looks as if he is sniffing his own shadow. He raises his head, a comical tuft of snow perched on top of his black snout. This is a sight we will see repeatedly throughout the day.

Normally solitary animals, tensions rise as the hungry bears wait in close proximity. The males spar but this is only play; an aggressive game as a preamble to the hunt and later, competing for females. We come across a bear dozing next to a small stand of willow on the edge of a small lake. Polar bears can look like sleepy teddies. I dare not avert my eyes for even a moment and risk missing a spectacular yawn or roll or even a stare….right at me. An occasional sleepy sniff reveals the presence of humans. Not a seal? Then it’s back to sleep. A sleeping bear now, might be a sparring bear in one, two or three hours if another male happens to pass this way. Patience is the order of the day.

We spot a large male in the distance who has spied the sleeping male we have been watching. Now it’s a waiting game. The other photographers head inside the Polar Rover, figuring it could be ages before the two bears meet. Time to warm up and have lunch. I stay where I am, on the outdoor viewing platform at the back of the rover. I’m freezing and I’m hungry. My eyes, protected by wrap around polarised sunglasses, are still smarting from the icy wind. But I’m not moving. I can be warm and eat lunch any day. Today, incredibly, I’m here in Hudson Bay, and I want to witness this slow motion drama unfold. The distant bear edges closer and closer, nose to the snow, sniffing the tracks of the sleeping bear. I lose sight of him now and then as he moves into a depression in the landscape. My heart beats faster as I anxiously scan the area for him.

There he is.

I watch him for one hour as he cautiously, slowly but inexorably draws near. He arrives and brushes gently past the sleeping bear, as an eager suitor might brush against a lady to arouse her interest. The sleeping bear awakes. As their mouths touch, lips wide apart, they could almost be lovers excited at the prospect of a rapt kiss. The wrestling begins and it is all too apparent that this “kiss” was a way of comparing the size of their mouths….. and teeth. They spar and then fall back, spent, nuzzling each other, cheek to cheek. The camera catches the moment and each frame looks like a lover’s caress, a seductive whisper in the ear. Then they’re on their feet again sparring with the ferocity we expect from the polar bear.

The day is spent watching bears sparring , sleeping, rolling ,stretching and sniffing. Hours of waiting punctuated by moments of frenzy. Breathtaking! Exhilarating!

A mother and two cubs stay in the background, hiding on a small rise of willow bushes. I watch as the mum spies a  male in the distance sleeping in the middle of a frozen lake. The cubs, nearly a year old are almost as big as mum. They are curious and keen to move on but their mother reprimands them as they try to venture off. She needs time to assess whether this male is a threat. Male polar bears will sometimes kill cubs for food. After two hours of reconnaissance, the mother ventures forward onto the lake and then beckons for the cubs to follow. They pass very close to the sleeping male who senses their approach. He  opens one eye lid, then casually turns his head to look. Even though they are only big cubs, together with their mum, they could form a formidable trio. It’s not worth the effort or the risk. The male acquiesces and leaves the lake, thereby granting the family safe passage across. As they pass the spot where the male slept, they spend time sniffing the ground to memorize the scent of this peaceable male; important information for future encounters. Their snouts adorned with a fresh tuft of snow, they continue on.

An hour later, by the time they reach the edge of the lake and enter the shelter of another stand of bushes, it is dusk and the sky takes on a pink glow, back-lighting the bears to form a white silhouette against the dark willow. The whole landscape turns pink for one stunning moment and the sun disappears. Another day on the tundra comes to an end.

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