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When Polar Bears Sleep; a Walk With Polar Bears Adventure

“He’s asleep” – says Hal

All I can see through my tiny binoculars is a big white blob. We’ve been bouncing along in the rhino (a custom-built open-top vehicle used for driving across the tundra during a polar bear walking safari) for about an hour searching for polar bears. The moment has arrived to walk with polar bears. Yes, we have found our polar bear. And he is napping peacefully on a patch of grass next to the beach.

“Are we going over there?” I ask, seeing that some of the people in our group are gathering up their gear.

“I think so!”

A rhino, the open-top vehicle
One of the rhinos, the open-top vehicles that take you on the polar bear walking safari

I can hardly believe we are going to walk straight toward a polar bear. On purpose. Only crazy people do that, right? Well, not here. Churchill Wild has been doing polar bear walking safaris for years and has never had an incident. Their bear guides are highly knowledgeable about bear behavior and safety, and have many years of experience guiding tourists in bear territory (both grizzly and polar bear). They also carry a few different bear deterrents which have only had to be used on a few counted occasions. And although they carry a gun as a last resort, they never have, and probably never will, shoot at a polar bear.

I grab my gear and join the group. Our tour guide Andy, starts instructing us on how we should behave while we approach the bear. We’ll walk slowly forward at angles to the bear, never directly at it. We should all walk in a single file line behind him, but be sure to keep him between us and the bear so it doesn’t see a bunch of people approaching, just one dot. We will stop along the way to assess the bear’s behavior to make sure he is a friendly one and is not disturbed by our presence. Younger male bears can sometimes be a bit unpredictable. This bear seems older and wiser. Let’s go.

Storm approaching
Storm approaching during our walk with polar bears safari

We leave the rhinos behind and start walking in silence toward the bear. The afternoon light is gorgeous and even though some dark menacing clouds are moving this way, I feel like nothing can spoil this moment. In fact, the dark clouds add a little bit of textured drama to the scene. The polar bear is laying on a patch of grass and as we approach I can see that his legs are stretched out all the way in front of his torso, his head resting in between them. Just like my cats do at home.

Related: Our Best Polar Bear Pictures
Polar bear resting on a grassy patch
The bear watched us but wasn’t bothered by us

All of the sudden, we stop. The bear has woken up and noticed something moving in the distance. It’s us. He lifts his head and smells the air trying to get our scent and identify the animal brave enough to walk up to a polar bear. We are downwind so he’s having a hard time picking it up. What if the wind changes? What will he do when he finally realizes a group of humans are headed his way? I’ve been pretty close to grizzly bears before and that experience only reinforced my belief that bears just want to get on with their lives and don’t really want to mess with humans. I hope polar bears live by the same bear laws.

Polar bear sniffing the air
Sniffing the air, trying to figure out what we are

He goes back to doing what he does best on a day like today, chilling. He rests his head on one of his huge paws and starts to doze again. We can almost see the polar bear claws. We begin to move forward again. The excitement of our proximity to the bear has made some people forget the rules and our group starts spreading out to either side of our guide. I’d rather stay right behind him, invisible to the bear. After all, if we all have to run for our lives, I’m pretty sure I am the slowest one.

Sleeping polar bear
He kept on posing for us

We stop approaching. We are less than 200 feet away and It is decided we won’t get any closer so as to not bother him. We set our tripods on the ground and start taking photos. He wakes up again and this time he picks up our scent, but he’s not bothered by us. He simply stares at us and after deciding we are no threat to him he carries on napping. The polar bear’s fur shines as the sun comes out of the clouds.

Polar bear encounter, photographing a polar bear
Photographing polar bears at a ground level

This is just an incredible experience and something I’ll always remember. Being in this wild place, under nature’s own terms, is just incredible. In the distance we can make out another white blob, slowly approaching on the beach. With all this excitement we already forgot that we are standing on a polar bear highway. As we saw during our flight from Churchill to Nanuk lodge (you can see our photos from the plane here), the Hudson Bay shoreline is full of polar bears. It might be because they are constantly patrolling the beach for beluga whale carcasses or perhaps the great visibility allows them to keep an eye on who is around. Sometimes it’s just nice to go for a swim. Either way, this is the place to be to watch polar bears. This is prime polar bear habitat.

Before we embarked our flight we were told there was a polar bear eating a whale carcass on the beach, but we didn’t spot it.

Polar bear selfie
What an incredible moment!

The group is ecstatic. Perfect afternoon light, the rain is holding off, and the bear is totally agreeable and giving us his best poses. We notice that the stormy clouds are closing in so we decide to head to the rhinos and make our way back to the lodge. A delicious dinner is waiting for us.

A polar bear sleeping on the grass
Now that is a cute pose!
Photographing polar bears
It sure seems like we are closer than 200 feet, right?

We walk away feeling more relaxed than our approach. We are smiling and sharing emotions with one another. With all this excitement we don’t even realize that a few people have stayed behind with the bear. They are a film crew guided by a polar bear biologist, on their last days of filming at Nanuk. From the vehicles, the perspective makes it look as if they are right in front of the bear, way closer than 200 feet.

Suddenly, the bear wakes up, stands up and faces the crew. They stand their ground. Turning their back on biggest land predator on Earth would just be plain silly. Unexpectedly the bear takes two steps towards the crew. He is testing the group. There is only one thing the group can do. Take a firm step towards the bear. This, in polar bear language, means  “I am as big as you, don’t mess with me or you’ll regret it”.

We hold our breath as we watch the exchange of visual communication.

The bear and the crew stand their ground.

A close encounter with a polar bear
The bear was so calm that he even closed his eyes during the encounter

Finally, the polar bear decides that picking a fight with these four humans is not worth the trouble and they don’t mean any harm. He slowly leaves the scene, probably to find another sleeping patch.

That was a remarkable scene to witness. It just reinforced what I already knew. Wildlife is wild, but not aggressive by nature. Every individual, even the biggest predator, just wants to get on with its life. Of course occasionally a situation turns nasty, but this is almost always a case of humans behaving badly toward wildlife and not the other way around.

The sleepy bear wandered a few hundred yards down the beach and without looking back he plopped down onto a new grassy patch to resume his nap. All was well in the world of the polar bear.

polar bear and her cub sniffing the air
We encountered this polar bear and her grown cub the following morning

Thank you to Churchill Wild and Travel Manitoba for inviting us and making this one of our most precious wildlife encounters.

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A walking polar bear safari is an incredible wildlife encounter. We encountered many bears during our trip, including a mother and her cub.

Cristina Garcia

Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.

Read her posts at Travel For Wildlife and see more of her work at Truly Wild, & Our Wild Yard.