A wolverine attacking a polar bear is a rare sight, so it’s an encounter that Krista Wright recalls vividly.
For the past three years, the non-profit conservation group Polar Bear International and its two partners, Frontier North Adventures and explore.org, have been offering a window into the lives of some of the 900 polar bears that congregate at Cape Churchill on the Western Hudson Bay every October and November via four webcams that stream live on the explore.org website.
Wright, executive director of Polar Bears International, was on a tundra buggy near Churchill, Man., watching for polar bears when the border-collie-sized wolverine first scampered by.
The wolverine wasn’t intimidated by the fact that the burly polar bear towered over it, or that the bear’s powerful, clawed forelimbs were nearly as big as the wolverine itself, she said.
“It scampered right up to the polar bear and started charging it and giving it a hard time,” Wright recalled.
The polar bear made clear that it wasn’t going to put up with that.
“It got up and kind of stood its ground and kind of false-charged the wolverine back,” said Wright, who described the scene as “pretty amazing.”
Also amazing was that Wright wasn’t alone in watching the rare encounter unfold — it was streamed live on the internet via the buggy’s webcam and could be seen by anyone lucky enough to be watching at the right time.
Connecting the world to polar bears
“Not very many people will have opportunity to ever go see a polar bear in wild,” Wright said, so the polar bear cam is a way to connect the world to these charismatic animals “and hopefully intrigue people to want to learn more.”
It’s also a way for the public to participate in some citizen science and help Polar Bears International monitor the health of the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears — one of the southernmost in the world.
The four cameras follow the bears as they play-fight with one another, dig beds in the snow and sprawl out for a nap, care for their cubs, or simply lope through the snow, exploring. Occasionally, viewers may even see a bear killing a seal near the shore, and protecting its kill from other bears.
As they watch, viewers can operate a camera tool that allows them to take screenshots of whatever they see that is interesting that day and post these on the site for others to comment on. Polar Bears International then uses its copies of these screenshots to help gather information about such things as:
The proportion of bears travelling alone versus in family groups consisting of a mother and cubs up to three years old.
The size and physical health of the bears, based on how fat they look.
Unique gathering of bears
Capturing polar bears on live video isn’t easy, as they can wander more than 1,500 kilometres in a season.
The polar bear cam is made possible in part by the unique geography of Cape Churchill, which causes the normally solitary bears to gather in the region by the hundreds every October and November.
Local geographical features make the ice freeze earlier in this area than in other parts of the Hudson Bay. Polar bears can only hunt for the staple of their diet, ringed seals, once the ice has frozen, so they come from as far away as Arviat, Nunavut, to get a crucial head start on their seal-hunting season.
“Polar bears are big animals and they need lots of calories,” Wright said.
The polar bear cam typically only operates until the bears go out on the ice at the start of their hunting season at the end of November. They hunt until the ice melts in July, when they are forced back onto land, where “they’re fasting … essentially,” Wright added.
As the climate gets warmer, though, the ice freezes later and melts sooner. This is shortening the bears’ hunting season and lengthening their fasting season.
That’s one reason why Polar Bears International is monitoring the bears’ size, stature and reproduction, with the help of both the citizen scientists and professional researchers who conduct a variety of studies on the bears funded by the non-profit group.
Tourism infrastructure key
Aside from the bears’ fall gathering at Cape Churchill, the other key that makes the polar bear cam possible is the nearby town of Churchill, Man., and the additional infrastructure set up by one of the other partners in the project, Frontiers North Adventures.
The family tourism business run by John Gunter takes tourists out to see the polar bears using vehicles called tundra buggies, which travel on an existing network of trails created when Churchill was home to a military base.
Frontiers North set up a high-speed internet connection for its own use, and originally started its own polar bear cam in 2000 with two cameras attached to a lodge where tourists stay, said Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North.
After a few years, it began partnering with Polar Bears International, giving the organization the use of one of its tundra buggies. Known as Buggy 1, it was set up with TV studio equipment so Polar Bears International can connect with groups such as schools in other parts of Canada. (The fourth camera is further north still at Wapusk National Park on Cape Churchill.)
But the polar bear cam on the tundra buggy was tricky to run in the harsh tundra environment and was shelved for a time.
Then, a few years ago Polar Bears International was approached by Charlie Annenberg, founder of explore.org, a site funded by the Annenberg family’s private foundation that streams a wide variety of wildlife cameras, and the buggy-cam was resurrected.
“The cameras are a wonderful opportunity to re-connect and fall in love with the world again,” Annenberg said in an interview.
He added he had long had a vision of broadcasting from the tundra landscape of Cape Churchill, which he called “one of the great natural cathedrals on the planet.”
Being able to watch polar bears is particularly special, Annenberg added.
“It’s almost like you’re looking at a modern-day saint. They’re really mystical, magical creatures.”
Gunter said the Annenberg Foundation has “completely beefed up” the wireless network from the town of Churchill to the tundra buggy lodge, which can bounce its internet to and from Buggy 1 if it is within one to eight kilometres of the lodge. The foundation also covers other costs associated with the 20 megabit per second connection.
The polar bear cam launched three years ago, and explore.org has made a multiyear commitment to the project that is worth millions of dollars, according to the organization.
Anneberg said the price is worth it.
“It’s bringing a tremendous awareness and joy,” he said. “And you can’t really put a value on that.”