One of the highlights of polar bear season is watching male bears meet in epic and exhausting battles called ‘sparring.' This play fighting is one of Churchill's signature polar bear experiences.
Each October and November, polar bears congregate along the coast of Hudson Bay anticipating the return of the sea ice. Approximately 300 bears, almost one-third of the western Hudson Bay population, pass through the Churchill area in northern Manitoba. The region is widely known as the polar bear capital of the world.
At first, the bears were considered a nuisance. But now with the advent of raised, all-terrain, all-season vehicles, polar bear watching in the area has become a must-do for adventure travellers from around the globe.
A number of companies have set up shop in the area and offer a variety of polar bear experiences, including a chance to witness the battle of the bears.
A good percentage of these sparring bears are sub-adult males, three to six years old, and who are past the juvenile stage but not quite adults yet. A few of the big old bruiser bears also get mixed up in the action too. These bears pair up for a few days or even a week or two and spend the days alternately resting and beating the tar out of each other. These matches typically last between five to 20 minutes, occurring two or three times a day.
No one really knows why the bears spar. Perhaps they are testing their strength or trying to move up the hierarchy. Maybe the bears are related or possibly long-time acquaintances just killing time and boredom with a little horsing around. What we do know is that it's unbelievably entertaining.
From the comfort of a four-wheel-drive, all-terrain vehicle, travellers have a front-row seat to bear wrestling. These giants work hard-standing, walking on their hind legs, pawing, clawing at each other, pushing, twisting and slapping. They box, grapple and go for submission holds. It's ultimate fighting without the cage.
The competition is so intense that the fighters ignore the ‘click-clicks' of varied cameras and the ‘oohs' and ‘ahs' from the myriad polar bear tourists watching the spectacle.
Up at one of Churchill Wild's remote lodges along the coast of Hudson Bay, play fighting can now also be viewed from ground level! Lodge visitors, primarily professional photographers, get a truly unique experience as qualified polar bear guides-cum-security guards take visitors out each day to walk with polar bears. If visitors are lucky enough to stay while two sparring partners are camped out, the action is spectacular. Indeed, just walking near polar bears is a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Churchill has always been known for its bear interaction. Aside from the classic sparring matches each fall, bears are also increasingly encountered during the summer whale-watching season.
By late July, the bears come ashore and several spend the summer in the Churchill area. A few times each summer, especially in the intense sun of an arctic July, the bears will head into the bay to cool off.
If you're lucky, you might spot young bears passing the time frolicking in the waters of Hudson Bay. They typically make a game of splashing and tumbling around in the shallow tidal zone, then wrestle and swim in the bay. The giant white behemoth bears, violet purple fireweed and the cool blue waters of Hudson Bay make for a perfect picture and elated photographers. Throw in a few pods of beluga whale swimming in the distance, and well, let's just say Churchill summers are unforgettable.
For a complete list of polar-bear watching outfitters visit EverythingChurchill.com.