How to spot a polar bear

Follow the Arctic Live team to a town in Canada that's famous for being the polar bear capital of the world

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There are very few places where humans and polar bears cohabit. Kate Humble, Simon Reeve and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan recently broadcast live from one of them: Churchill, Manitoba.

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For two months a year, the residents of this tiny town in northern Canada share their streets with the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore. After spending the summer months hibernating on the Arctic tundra, hundreds of polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay, waiting for sea ice to form so they can begin their annual seal hunt.

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Polar bear waiting for the sea ice to freeze

Churchill is famous for being the polar bear capital of the world and it didn’t disappoint. By the end of her first day, Humble had seen four and hadn’t even left the town. She and Buchanan – whose follow-up documentary, Life in Polar Bear Town, airs on BBC2 on Saturday 31st – broadcast live from the snow-covered tundra in temperatures of minus 13°C and 50mph winds.

Here’s how to follow in their footsteps.

When should I go?
October to mid-November. You’ll need to book your trip six months to a year in advance.

How do I get there?
There are no roads to Churchill, so fly to Winnipeg, which is 750 miles south, and take a connecting flight or a two-day train.

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The tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba. Number of residents: between 7 and 800. Number of polar bears in the region: around 800.

Where do I stay?
There are a dozen lodges in town and a couple on the tundra, if you really want to experience the Arctic wilds. Accommodation isn’t luxurious, but it’s warm, comfortable and very friendly.

So how do I see polar bears?
Plan to spend two days on the tundra in a buggy, much like the one Kate Humble rode in.

What should I do if I meet a bear in town?
Take refuge in a car – nobody locks their vehicle in Churchill – and call the Polar Bear Cops. Yes, that’s really what the locals call the alert team tasked with keeping the town safe.

How dangerous is it?
Bear attacks are actually very rare in Churchill and the last fatality was back in 1983.

What should I pack?
It’s very cold so take well-insulated, snow-proof thermal clothes – and a camera.

What else can I do there?
If you’re lucky, you’ll see the Northern Lights. You can also do helicopter tours, dog-sledding and guided hikes to see Arctic hares and foxes and Hudson Bay’s abundant birds.

If you don’t fancy the cold and decide to visit in summer instead, between late June and August you can spot beluga whales by boat – 57,000 migrate to Churchill’s warmer waters to calf. 

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Gordon Buchanan with a polar bear

Life in Polar Bear Town is on 31 December on BBC2 6.15pm


 Read more: Gordon Buchanan on getting up close and personal with polar bears


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