Churchill in northen Manitoba is the best tourist place in the world to see polar bears in the wild.
The ice forms first on the nearby Hudson Bay shoreline because of its unique topographic conditions, and the bears gather in the vicinity waiting for the sea to freeze so that they can hunt their favourite food – ringed seals.
October and early November are the key times – beforehand the bears are inland and afterwards they’re out on the ice.
Churchill polar bears are huge, apex predators with no natural enemies so they assume that anything they encounter is potential prey.
They have an acute sense of smell, make little noise and will outrun and outswim you (as their Latin name ursus maritimus implies). The first piece of guidance on the ‘bear aware’ leaflets given to visitors is ‘DO NOT RUN’.
Males can grow to more than 600 kg (1, 320 pounds) and up to 3 metres (10 feet) tall – for good reason they are known as ‘The Lords of the Arctic’.
Churchill’s residents are used to bear-faced intruders hunting for left-over burgers in rubbish bins and use ear-splitting ‘cracker shells’ to scare them off.
Recidivists, often adolescents, are caught in humane bear traps and carted off to the Polar Bear Jail which can hold up to 30 inmates where they are given water but no food, and then released onto the ice once it has formed.
No tourists are allowed inside the jail, but you can hear the growls and rattling of the cages from the outside.