We recently received a request to help book a polar bear trip to Canada. Always when people ask me about nature-based trips, my first thought is ... how likely is the encounter and how far away will it be? I've been doing wildlife trips my whole life and nothing about animals can be guaranteed. But a few decisions can make all the difference between a great experience and disappointment.
For polar bears in Churchill, time of year is really important. Around November time, polar bears start to move with the ice. On average, the earlier in the season you go, the fewer bears there are, and the less chance of snow. Though, ice can be absent right up until December and sometimes falls much earlier than expected. It's very hard to predict. For 1-2 weeks each year, the bears congregate in high numbers as the ice forms, before moving off across the ice. But sightings at this time can also be more distant.
The only rule of thumb is go in October / November. Other than that, be prepared for what the environment might be like and adapt your trip to suit. Here are some top tips.
If you really want to see polar bears, don't rely on a day trip. The most popular trips run for several nights simply because it maximises encounter likelihood.
There are places you can stay (safely) at the ice edge. This way you're close to the bears and maximise your chance of heading out each day to see them where they are most abundant.
Around the end of October / early November is the most popular time to visit. But these trips also fill up a year or more in advance.
This is perhaps the most important advice of all. These are expensive trips – all trips to the Arctic are. Why spend thousands and then scrimp on poor optics? Your phone camera is possibly going to be useless and you'll be surrounded by people with telescopes and cameras with long lenses.
We realise not everyone can afford to buy top-of-the-range or indeed, to carry the weight. Our recent enquiry was an older lady travelling alone.
If you're a photpgrapher, you'll already know what to buy. But if you want something powerful and lightweight that takes good photos as a record of your trip, I'd recommended a Panasonic Lumix https://www.teds.com.au/panasonic-lumix-fz300. They are lightweight and have an incredible optical zoom function.
For binoculars, here I recently reviewed my pair https://simonmustoe.blog/about-leica-noctivid-binoculars/. These are possibly the top pair of binoculars on the market today but they retail at just under $5,000. The Leica Triovid 8x32 are also really really good https://www.bintel.com.au/product/leica-trinovid-8x32-hd.
But if you want to go low-end, then the Vortex Diamondbacks come recommended https://www.ozscopes.com.au/vortex-diamondback-hd-8x42-binocular.html. They are Nitrogen filled (which means no problems in the cold with internal condensation) ... but light-weight enough to be easily used.
I would not recommending going beyond 8x binculars as it becomes hard to hold them without hand shake. But you also want something optically good and quite hard-wearing.
Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries
Simon has been studying and observing wildlife for over 40 years and for about 30 of that, writing stories, taking photographs and making short films. His observations and experience extend to travelling extensively through Australia and eastern Indonesia discovering new and exciting travel opportunities, as well as contributing to science and conservation. Simon is passionate about conservation and the impact travel can have on the lives of people in remote places.