Every autumn, hundreds of polar bears return to Churchill, Manitoba—Canada’s northernmost seaport, a.k.a. the “polar bear capital of the world.” There, they wait for sea ice to form on Hudson Bay. The hungry bears have been fasting for months, so they’re eager for the opportunity to once again hunt their favorite food: ringed seals.
But to watch these majestic marine mammals, wildlife lovers don’t have to venture all the way to chilly Canada. Several live video streams—run by Polar Bears International (PBI), Explore.org (which also hosts Fat Bear Week) and other organizations—offer people around the world a chance to see the bears in action.
Some of the polar bear cams are stationary, while others roam Manitoba’s Wapusk National Park aboard so-called “tundra buggy” vehicles, which serve as mobile broadcast studios.
The video streams show the vast ruggedness of the Canadian tundra, as well as various bears lumbering around, snoozing, rolling in the snow, foraging for snacks and, occasionally, wrestling playfully with each other. Other animals sometimes make appearances on the video streams too, including ptarmigans, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes and owls.
Through November 5, it’s also Polar Bear Week, an annual celebration of all things related to the furry Arctic animals. PBI, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, created the annual event to raise awareness and funds for polar bears, which face myriad threats from climate change and other human activities.
“We love sharing the Arctic with everyone during Polar Bear Week, talking with people around the world about polar bears and this unique ecosystem,” says Alysa McCall, PBI’s staff scientist and director of conservation outreach, in a statement. “Even from afar, we can protect polar bears and, in turn, the greater Arctic and Earth, by supporting community carbon-reduction projects and voting with the climate in mind.”
Polar bears, the largest bear species in the world, are true marine specialists—even their Latin name, Ursus maritimus, reflects their prowess in and around water. They can swim at speeds up to six miles per hour and their oily coats naturally repel water droplets. A polar bear’s thick layer of body fat makes it uniquely suited for life in the world’s cold, blustery Arctic and subarctic regions.
Scientists have identified 19 distinct subpopulations of polar bears—and a new 20th group—living in places like Canada, Alaska, Russia, Greenland and Norway. All told, there are roughly 26,000 bears remaining in the wild, though it’s very difficult for researchers to get accurate head counts for those living in remote areas, per PBI.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies polar bears as “vulnerable” on its Red List of threatened species because of risks from oil and gas drilling, tourism, commercial development, shipping, habitat changes and pollution.
Human-caused climate change is especially troublesome for polar bears, which rely on sea ice to hunt seals and other prey. As global temperatures rise, sea ice is melting sooner in the spring and forming later in the fall, forcing the bears to remain longer on land without easy access to calorie-dense food. Because of this, Churchill’s polar bears have declined by 30 percent since the 1980s.
Not only is it becoming harder for the bears to hunt on land, but this trend also makes them more likely to interact with humans, which can be bad news for both species. For instance, a recent study found that polar bears are spending more time scavenging through garbage dumps in northern communities. Eating trash is bad for the bears’ health, and their proximity to areas inhabited by people can cause public safety issues. Polar bears have attacked humans, and wildlife managers have had to euthanize bears to keep communities safe.
The loss of sea ice also makes it more challenging for members of different subpopulations to meet and breed. This reduces the bears’ genetic diversity, which can contribute to health issues. In one predicted scenario, if humans fail to halt the progression of climate change, polar bears could disappear entirely by the year 2100.
“The trajectory we're on now is not a good one, but if society gets its act together, we have time to save polar bears,” Steven Amstrup, PBI’s chief scientist, told BBC News’ Helen Briggs and Victoria Gill in July 2020. “And if we do, we will benefit the rest of life on Earth, including ourselves.”