Travel

The Best Time of Year for a Polar Bear Safari

by Steven Blandin | December 5, 2013

© Steve Blandin“When is the best time of year to go on a polar bear safari?” That was my initial inner question, when my wife showed interest in exploring the possibilities. I knew we did not want to go as far as Northern Europe, and as it turned out Canada was in fact the place with a bigger population anyway. Now set on finding a great spot in Canada, it seemed that the West bank of the Hudson Bay was ideal from summer to mid November. Why? Polar Bears cross the large bay after spending winter north of the Arctic poles. Then they conglomerate again west of the bay waiting for it to freeze anew, so that they may cross and head to their winter turf. That left us with choosing between three periods: summer, early fall with yellow colors in the background or late fall with some snow on the ground.

Polar bear in grass © Steve Blandin

Not wanting to go on this adventure when temperatures are too low, we opted for summer. It might seem counter-intuitive as most of us imagine photographs of polar bears with a polar background. We decided that the fireweed blooming season, which lasts about three weeks, would be ideal. The plants flower with purple colors and in big numbers. This gives a very unique green and purple backdrop, which we thought would be a bit different than the typical snowy environment. So there it was, we targeted a week with likely fireweed blooming days and booked our adventure.

Polar bear with flowers blooming © Steve Blandin

Flying on a small plane from Churchill to our remote lodge offered a fantastic view over the grassy coastal landscape of the Hudson Bay banks. The green high grass contrasted superbly with the rice in the waters. Wait… the rice… yes! Large pods of belugas can be spotted from up above and give the impression of bowl of soup filled with rice. What a nice introduction to this remote land. This is going to be a very nice photographic experience!

Polar bear backlight © Steve Blandin

We saw polar bears every single day! Whether during walks, or just staying at the lodge and peeking through the fence we had memorable encounters. All of them happened in a safe environment for both us and the bears. I was very happy with the fact that we had not missed the blooming season for fireweed as we arrived in the last week or so of blooming. Even though we had missed the most intense blooming days, we could still be amazed by the very unique purple and green colors mix. Also, I was not disappointed to have found situations where the blooming flowers nicely contrasted with the majestic bears.

Polar bear and flowers © Steve Blandin

Bears are curious creatures, and more than a few encounters where the bear is actually walking towards us occurred while being at the lodge. Another key characteristic that struck me is that they do sleep quite a bit, maybe they should be renamed ‘polar lions’! We had a specific male polar bear sleeping not so far away from the lodge on a small peninsula giving to the bay for a few days, with occasional walks and swims. We really felt like there was another guest, who just preferred to spend the night under a starry sky.

Polar bear in grassy area © Steve Blandin

The area is not only known for polar bears but also for migrating belugas and Aurora Borealis. The latter occurs when particles in our atmosphere are swept by the solar wind, which can be visible during clear nights for a few minutes to an hour. Though there are more clear nights during wintertime, we were still able to have a couple of nights with spectacular Northern Lights—and we did not have to freeze to death to capture good shots! While being around the Hudson Bay, we took the opportunity to hop on a couple of boat rides to experience a swim with the belugas. Geared up with wet suits and tied to the boat from our ankles, we surprisingly did not get cold while having lots of belugas coming to swim at arms length to us. Having been raised in the warm Caribbean waters, it was of prime importance to me not to get too cold.

Aurora Borealis © Steve Blandin

In the end, I believe every season brings unique opportunities for a polar bear safari. Fall is accompanied with beautiful yellow and red colors, along with potentially more diversity in wildlife viewings. Late fall and early winter bring the expected and still magical white coat of snow. So really, one might want to experience every single season!

About the Author

Steven Blandin is an award-winning photographer leading bird photography workshops in Florida and Alaska. He was born in the French Caribbean and now lives in Florida with his family. Though he started his career in corporate finance, his wife made him discover the beauty of wildlife photography through an epic African safari in Botswana. Since then, his appetite for nature photography has grown exponentially! Now an accomplished bird photographer, Steven strives to share his passion through the photographic education of other nature enthusiasts. To see more of Steven’s work or to learn more about his bird photography tours, visit www.stevenbirdphotography.com. Follow his blog for more tips and top-notch photography or his work on Instagram @stevenbirdphotography.

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