With baited breath you wait, warm beneath your many layers and sipping on steaming hot coffee, surrounded by the white and snowy landscape that comes with being so far north. A scout has travelled ahead of you in search of a den, and now, as you sit outside after the sun has barely risen, it is down to you and your patience to reap the rewards. Staring at the dark hole in the bright snow, you wait.
There is movement in the den, a dark round circle is working its way to the surface just 100 metres away from where you now sit, completely still. The polar bear nose becomes clear as you watch this magnificent mammal, cautiously but wearily exit the den after months of nursing her cubs inside.
Shakily they make their clumsily exit, trudging through fresh powdery snow after their mother, excited at their brand new surroundings. This is what you have been waiting for, a moment that for years to come you will struggle to find just the right words to emphasise its beauty.
The cubs will play and learn to properly make use of their limbs whilst their mother watches on, stretching her legs with a recognisable motherly expression mixing joy with exhaustion. It is now time for the cubs to get ready for their hard trek to the floe edge ready for the summer hunting season.
Just south of Churchill is a lodge perfectly located amongst the polar bear dens, allowing you a unique opportunity to witness this beautiful event. You may not have heard of Wat’chee Lodge before, but you will have seen work recorded there as many images of polar bear cubs are captured there, and we can guarantee you will never forget it.
Where and when
40 Miles south of Churchill on the Hudson Bay, accessible only via private plane, is an area renowned around the globe for this extraordinary niche. Polar bear mothers have chosen to reuse this spot each year to raise their cubs under the snow, and then leave their dens in March to prepare for the summer.
Polar bears do not hibernate like grizzly bears, but pregnant polar bears will enter dens in the autumn, after gorging heavily at the end of the summer and prior to giving birth. Dens usually consist of a snow tunnel, or earth if it is not yet snowing, with one to three chambers and inside she will live alone, her heart beat slowed to a similar state of hibernation, yet with a high enough temperature to care for her cubs.
Polar bears give birth in November and December time to one to three blind cubs weighing just two pounds and covered in downy fur. She will nurse them, living off her fat reserves, until it is time to leave the den in February or March when her little ones are capable of trekking with her. At this time, they head out to hunt on the coast together.
By denning, the mother is avoiding predators such as wolves or male polar bears, allowing her cubs to grow to a reasonable size before facing the harsh realities of the natural world. In March she will break open the front of the den, allowing her cubs outside for the first time. They’ll spend up to two weeks around the den, grazing and giving the cubs some time to practice using their legs and play fighting whilst she grazes on the vegetation, the first thing she will have eaten in months. After this, they head out to hunt on the coast.
This area of the Hudson Bay provides excellent, reliable snow and good access back to the floe edge for hunting in the summer. The polar bears return here year after year and in March each year, they leave their dens, cubs in tow.
How can I see the polar bear cubs?
A stay at Wat’chee Lodge is an excellent way to see the cubs take their first steps in the great outdoors. Each day scouts will check out the local area for new dens, or old ones, and you wait for them to appear. As they stay in the vicinity for a few weeks, it is highly likely you will see a mother with her cubs, even if it is not the first time they leave the den. During your stay you can also explore the tundra on foot, discover the local culture and maybe even witness the dazzling Northern Lights.
Best time to go