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Polar Bear International brings the arctic to your home.

Get to Know Polar Bears International

The tundra seems empty as the sun rises. Low vegetation clings to the ground and the wind gusts through every opening it can find; it seems impossible that any animal could call this place home. However, if you are patient and still, you will soon see movement: a large shape emerges from nowhere—and a curious polar bear yawns and stretches, ready to face another day on land.

Each year, polar bears on the coast of Hudson Bay are forced onto land when the sea ice melts in the summer. Hundreds of polar bears wait on shore for months until the ice freezes again in the late fall. Throughout the summer months, polar bears are scattered along the coast of Hudson Bay, living off their body fat and occasionally snacking on eggs, carcasses, berries, and kelp. Land- based foods don’t quite cut it for this white bear, though. By the fall, these polar bears are hungrily anticipating the upcoming winter.

“Polar bears evolved to live off fat. They need sea ice to find and hunt the seals that provide that high-calorie fat,” said Alysa McCall, Polar Bears International’s (PBI) field programs manager. Polar bears spend their time on land basically waiting for the return of the sea ice and access to seals. In fact, polar bears are so dependent on sea ice that they are considered a marine mammal in most countries, not a terrestrial one.

As the air finally starts gets colder and the days shorter, polar bears know that hunting season is drawing nearer. Many begin their migration to the coast near Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World. “While there are several place in the Arctic where you could encounter polar bears, Churchill is the best place to view them in the wild, up close, and for extended periods,” explains PBI’s Director of Conservation, Geoff York. “In Churchill, it is all about the bears. They reliably congregate along these shores of Western Hudson Bay because this is where winter sea ice forms first, giving them the earliest access to their primary prey after months of fasting on shore.”

Due to this incredible access to polar bears near Churchill, tourists, television, and media groups from all over the world have traveled to see the annual migration of the western Hudson Bay polar bears for decades. However, much of the bears’ fame is due to the tour operators and groups that have championed the polar bear over time.

Beginning in the early 1980s, a group of enthusiasts travelled to Churchill to witness the migration, using an early version of a Tundra Buggy®. They traveled to Cape Churchill, ~30 km east of the town, where the adult males congregate.

Barbara Nielsen, PBI’s director of communications, was one of those early travelers. She says those early bear-watchers were among the first to notice changes in the Western Hudson Bay polar bears, wondering, “Where have all the big bears gone?” Nielsen says, “The link between climate change and polar bears had not yet been established, but people were noticing differences in the bears and wanted to do something to preserve their future.” Out of that concern, Polar Bears Alive was formed, a small, loose-knit group dedicated to polar bear conservation. In 2002, it was renamed Polar Bears International.

PBI emerged at the forefront of polar bear conservation, with a solid reputation for fact-based, data-driven, scientifically sound research and information. Today, it remains the only organization focusing solely on polar bears and their arctic habitat. PBI’s Executive Director Krista Wright explains, “Polar bear conservation is the at the heart of what we do. We are a global resource for information regarding polar bears and their habitat and are actively addressing the threats facing polar bears through collaborative, science-centered initiatives.”

Now that the link between global warming and polar bear health has been confirmed, stopping or reversing climate change has become PBI’s main focus. “The polar bear’s survival is linked to the arctic sea ice, a habitat that literally melts as we warm the world,” said Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, Polar Bears International’s chief scientist and vice president of conservation science. “Research shows, however, that it’s not too late to take action to save sea ice and polar bears by greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Once the sea ice is gone, there is no way for us to get it back; we must be proactive. However, people only become motivated to act if they feel connected to an issue. Unfortunately, it can be difficult and expensive for people to see the polar bears in the wild. PBI decided to do the next best thing.

PBI partnered with explore.org and Frontiers North Adventures to bring polar bears to people throughout the world using live-streaming cameras. These high- tech cams connect educators and scientists with classrooms and homes to tell the story of the polar bear. “This is no small feat,” said BJ Kirschhoffer, PBI’s director of field operations. “Getting a reliable and fast Internet connection in an isolated town in the sub-Arctic brings a massive set of challenges.” You won’t find any electronic shops up here. PBI staff head to Churchill four weeks ahead of bear season each year to secure the Internet and cameras and make sure nothing freezes, otherwise all their effort will be wasted.

The hard work is worth it, though. These cams allow anyone to see the most amazing, live polar bear behaviors from the comfort and warmth of their own home. The polar bears will sleep, check out the visitors on Tundra Buggies®, snack on kelp, and spar with each other in mock battles while they wait for the sea ice. This year we will keep our fingers crossed that the ice isn’t late coming in, even if that means the bears leave earlier.

“Unfortunately, Hudson Bay sea ice is taking longer to freeze-up and is melting earlier than it did just 30 years ago,” says McCall. “This forces the bears on land longer. The consequences of reduced hunting and longer fasting are already apparent in this population through decreased size and reproduction.”

While many in the nearby town brace themselves for another long, dark winter with temperatures of -50°C, for polar bears the cold signals the end of hunger. They will soon depart happily but will return next year, and so will we. Until then, please tune in to the cams and join PBI, explore.org, and Frontiers North Adventures as they bring you live chats with experts and educators to answer all your polar bear questions!

EXPLORE the Complete – Polar Bear Live Camera Experience