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In Churchill, Canada, polar bear cam offers ‘amazing’ live footage

Emily Chung, CBC News
Loren Holmes photo

Capturing polar bears on live video isn’t easy, as they can wander more than 930 miles in a season. The polar bear cam is made possible in part by the unique geography of Cape Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, 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 hunt for the staple of their diet, ringed seals, only 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, 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.”

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.