The polar bears of Churchill actually need very little ice to resume hunting. By mid-November, one or two kilometres of ice will have built up along the Churchill coast. Even before this ice is truly ‘locked’ into shore, many bears will have ventured out to test their hunting grounds.
This early season hunting can actually be quite important for some bears, especially mothers with nursing cubs and lone juveniles. As temperatures drop and the ice thickens, access to seals becomes more difficult. Seals are really only accessible at their breathing holes and difficult to catch. Polar bears will continue to lose weight through the winter, hitting their lowest weights by March.
Occasionally, seal kills are witnessed before the ice forms. Seals sleep in the water and may become stranded in the vast tidal zone along Cape Churchill. In places, difference between high and low tide is around three or four kilometres. Along the eastern edge of Wapusk National Park, this tidal zone may extend eight kilometres or more. Once locked in a tidal pool or trapped on a boulder, they have to wait up to twelve hours for the water to return. This is a might stressful and probably fatal.
After a kill has been made, other bears will approach, nose in the air, jogging in a zig zag pattern to hone in on the scent. Successful hunters usually try to devour as much seal as quickly as possible but once more bears have arrived, they may even share their meal, assuming the proper etiquette has been shown.
In the following days, the successful hunter, most often a female with cubs, will continue to venture out to the tidal zone or patrol the coast on a regular basis. Trying to repeat their feat, they display another example of their incredible learning capacity.
Active seal hunting during ‘bear season first became apparent around 1999. That year, two family units spent much of the season working the coast near Gordon Point.
In 2009 (?), seals kills were occurring almost daily for much of the season; so much so, that it led many to wonder if it was actual hunting or if the seals were simply washing up on shore. Regardless of the cause, this bounty of seals gave several of Churchill’s bears a real headstart on the season; one bear was even spotted ‘stockpiling’ seals along Button Bay.
Seal kills have become fairly common during Churchill’s tourist season. Whether this is an indication of an exploding seal population or simply a new skill developed by these bears, it is a very positive sign.