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Archive for May, 2013

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast to lead late fall Polar Bear Photo Safaris at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Seal River Heritage Lodge

Polar bear approaches at Nanuk.

Polar bear approaches at Nanuk.

Dennis Fast has been Churchill Wild’s chief photographer for the past 20 years, starting out as a guide in 1993 and progressing to lead numerous photo safaris. This year he will lead the Polar Bear Photo Safaris that take place at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from September 23-30, 2013 and two that take place at Seal River Heritage Lodge from November 10-16 and November 14-20.

One of Manitoba’s best known photographers, Dennis’s images have appeared in many calendars and books, including the award-winning best seller Pelicans to Polar Bears, a Manitoba wildlife viewing guide. His calendar credit list is impressive and includes National Geographic, National Wildlife Federation, Inner Reflections, Manitoba Autopac (including an exclusive polar bear calendar in 2010), Parks & Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and many more. Most recently, 35 of Dennis’s best polar bear photos were placed in the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) in Winnipeg.

PolarMomandCubNanuk540

Polar bear Mom and Cub at Nanuk.

Dennis was a school principal for many years before retiring in 1998 to devote more time to his dual passions of birding and photography. He first met Churchill Wild’s Mike and Jeanne Reimer in the early ‘90s through Mike’s sister, who gave a presentation at his school. That led to doing photography workshops for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and eventually to flying over what is now Seal River Heritage Lodge when it was an abandoned whale research centre ravaged by wolves and polar bears in 1993.

“I thought Mike was crazy at the time,” said Dennis. “But I started out guiding for him and look at it now. It’s the most gorgeous showplace on the tundra.”

Hmm... how come all the other bears are white?

Hmm… how come all the other bears are white?

Dennis has made major contributions to a number of books since then, including Wapusk: White Bear of the North, the first book to feature his work exclusively. Wapusk: White Bear of the North showcases stunning images of polar bears in their Hudson Bay environs, but also addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.

Over the past 10 years Dennis has photographed polar bears every season, and has had some amazing encounters with the world’s largest land carnivore. He has also observed firsthand the changing climate of the North and its effect on the polar bear. Ever-shortening winters have left many bears still hungry when summer approaches, and it has made them leaner and more aggressive, and driven them to increasing contact with man and his refuse.

Batten down the hatches! Storm at Nanuk.

Batten down the hatches! Storm at Nanuk.

Most recently, Dennis’s images appeared in The Land Where the Sky Begins, which was commissioned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to document the last remnants of Manitoba’s tall grass prairie and aspen parkland. Written by Barbara Huck, one of Canada’s premier natural history writers, The Land Where the Sky Begins is lavishly illustrated with photographs of the landscapes and wildlife that constitute this vanishing wilderness.

Dennis has traveled extensively across Canada, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Greenland, Iceland, and the United States in pursuit of photographs, most recently to Iceland and Greenland to photograph landscapes. The latter, along with the polar bears, are what attracts him to all three of Churchill Wild’s polar bear lodges.

What's going on over there? Polar bear Mom and Cub at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

What’s going on over there?

“They’re all different,” said Dennis. “Seal River has the lunar landscapes when the tide goes out, Dymond Lake is a little more inland with trees and Nanuk is flat with smooth beaches, lagoons and grasslands on the coast, and tons of birds. Each have their own unique qualities. And they all attract polar bears.”

And the light conditions should be ideal.

Polar bear approaching fast at nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Polar bear approaching fast!

“There’s no warm water mixing with cold air to produce fog as it does when you’re near Churchill,” said Dennis. “The clear skies should result in some excellent opportunities to photograph the northern lights. I’m expecting the same at Seal River with the Solar Max. At Nanuk we’ll take the ATVs out to the coast every day to see the mothers and cubs, but we’re also going to get some exceptional landscape shots and photographs of other wildlife in the area.”

That wildlife includes thousands of different birds, wolves, moose, caribou and more. And Dennis will be helping his fellow photographers not just with the technical aspects of taking pictures, but also the processing of the images.

“I’m really looking forward to helping everyone get the best photos possible,” said Dennis. As are we!

On the beach. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

On the beach. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge receives glowing reviews

“Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!” ~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James

Polar bear saunters in for breakfast at Dymond Lake.

Polar bear saunters in for breakfast at Dymond Lake.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure is one of the most diverse and holistic fall wildlife viewing packages offered anywhere in the world. It combines four days at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge, where many of the Arctic’s most famous residents are seen and photographed on foot or from the Lodge, with one day in Churchill on a buggy tour. And this year, with Solar Max, we’re expecting even more spectacular northern lights viewing!

Your adventure takes place in prime polar bear viewing season in October and November at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge. The Lodge is strategically located approximately 30 kilometers by air from Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, where approximately 1,200 polar bears congregate and socialize while waiting for freeze-up and their annual seal hunt.

GreatIceBearDeb540

Debbie Blunderfield is all smiles as Scarbrow snacks on tundra fare in the background.

Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge is in the heart of the natural habitat of polar bears, caribou, Arctic and red fox, Arctic hare, wolves and moose along with numerous bird species such as snowy owls, ptarmigan and gyrfalcons. And last year last year, Kim Spragg, one of our guests at Dymond Lake Lodge was lucky enough to capture some rare video of a wolverine. Thanks Kim!

So how does a typical day start on the Great Ice Bear Adventure? Well, breakfast is served at 8:00 a.m. and the first walking tour generally leaves at 9:30 a.m. unless there’s a polar bear in camp! In that case the walking tour has to wait, but no one ever seems to mind meeting a polar bear up close. And taking pictures!

“We were treated to the daily antics of “Scarbrow“, a young male polar bear, who frequented our camp and followed us along the hiking trails. Our accomplished guides were full of information and always made the group’s safety the first priority. We were also treated to what the locals referred to as the best northern lights display of the season. In short, it was a spectacular trip and we would go again in a heartbeat!” ~ Mary Giesler

Scarbrow comes in close for a better look.

Scarbrow comes in for a closer look.

If no polar bears are in camp, you’ll bundle up and head out into the snow. The walks are comfortably paced, as they are geared towards plenty of viewing and photo opportunities and are guided by our professional and knowledgeable polar bear guides, so you’ll do a lot of learning along the way as well. Obviously we cannot allow the bears to approach too closely, and your guides are expert in keeping bears at a safe distance without sacrificing exciting viewing.

 “The guides took good care of us out “in the field” when the bear sometimes got almost too close. It was a really breathtaking experience to step off the small aircraft in one moment and to be about 10 meters away from a big polar bear in the next. The team at the lodge was superb and the food was lovely. The Tundra Buggy Tour completed our stay. We saw a lot of bears on that day.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

Polar bears do saunter by the Lodge on a regular basis, so you can often view them from the warmth and comfort of one of our lounges through the massive picture windows. This opportunity is all too welcome when a squall blows in! We have a variety of other activities to take part in as well, should the weather prevent us from exploring the outdoors, though this is rarely the case.

Polar Bear gives us the sneaky eye outside the Lodge.

Polar Bear gives us the sneaky eye outside the Lodge.

Lunches are served at the Lodge and we are generally back at the Lodge by 4:00 p.m. for hot or cold drinks and appetizers. Full course delectable dinners are served at 7:00 p.m. after which, the fireplace is almost always central. Your guide team will give informative lectures and beautiful slide presentations, as well as initiate a discussion about the activities for the following day.

“It was amazing! I had really high expectations and the experience lived up to them. All of the staff were very friendly and the logistics were well coordinated – everything went very smoothly. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and really added to our experience. I’m so glad I opted for Churchill Wild rather than the typical polar buggy tour. Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!” ~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James

Churchill Wild guests photograph polar bear on Great Ice Bear Adventure

Polar bear poses for us at Dymond Lake.

Bedtime is at your leisure. The entire Lodge area is patrolled for polar bears all night by one of our night watchmen, so be prepared to have your sleep cut short by a nocturnal visit from one of the Great Ice Bears or a dazzling display of northern lights! You’ll definitely want to get out of bed for either one of these experiences!

“One night they woke us up because the aurora borealis was showing. It was in the middle of the night and all of us would have slept right through it if one of the staff wouldn’t have been “on guard”. That was really the “cherry on the pie”. Even though it was the middle of the night and the guides have probably seen the aurora borealis a million times they accompanied us, gave explanation and helped us take pictures of this magnificent display.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

The Great Ice Bear Adventure maximizes viewing potential by giving guests the opportunities to see polar bears from a variety of locations, whether it be on the nature trails, from the lodge’s viewing tower, or right from the lodge windows.

Early "riser" outside the window at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

Early “riser” outside the window at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

“We had polar bears posing for us in all kinds of situations. We brought a big lens but the bears were so close we could easily have taken many pictures with our mobile phone and they still would have been awesome. The big advantage of the lodge is that the polar bears (and many other animals) come really close and even if you are not very much into hiking you can still see them right from the comfort of the lodge.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

A trip to Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge Lodge means guests will see polar bears like no one on a Churchill town-only package can.

“It was an absolutely awesome experience. We chose this tour operator because we liked the hiking aspect of the trip. The trip includes one tundra buggy day where you do see a lot of polar bears from the vehicle. But walking with polar bears brings your arctic safari adventure to a whole new level.” ~ Werner, Zurich, Switzerland

Oceans North to continue beluga whale research at Seal River Heritage Lodge, What we’ve learned so far

Beluga Whales near Seal River Lodge - Photo Credit: Michael Poliza

Beluga Whales near Seal River Lodge – Photo Credit: Michael Poliza

Oceans North Canada, in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, will be back at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge for a two-week period beginning July 3, 2013 for the second year of their three-year research study on the Hudson Bay population of beluga whales. They have 14 tags in total to deploy in both the Churchill and Seal rivers.

In our last update we mentioned that three tagged beluga whales had been successfully transmitting data back to the research team. Although full data analysis on habitat use by the beluga whales won’t start until the tagging project is complete, Oceans North Canada has learned a few things about beluga whale behavior so far:

  • Belugas stayed close to the Seal river as expected throughout the months of July and August, with the highest density area near the mouth of the estuary
  • Migration stated at the end of August/early September and all belugas still transmitting at the time of migration followed the western Hudson Bay coast closely and traveled around the north side of Southampton island
  • Belugas arrived in what now appears to be their winter ground for this season in late November, which is similar timing to that of whales tagged in the Nelson estuary
  • The winter range of the belugas is considerably further west than expected in the Hudson Strait
  • Tagged bowhead whales from the Foxe Basin area are wintering in the same general area this year.
  • Although they lost a few tags early on (could be many factors: battery, attachment, demise of whale), this is not unusual and two tags transmitting nine months after attachment is considered good (7.6 months was the longest tag from five years of beluga tagging work in the Nelson estuary)

 
Every summer, one of the largest concentrations of beluga whales in the world converges on southwest Hudson Bay as the sea ice recedes. This is one of the main reasons Churchill Wild began the offering the popular Birds, Bears & Belugas safari many years ago.

Click Image for Interactive Beluga Whale Tracking Map

Click Image for Interactive Beluga Whale Tracking Map

Thanks to you, our valued readers and guests, Birds, Bears & Belugas has now become one of the most popular wildlife adventure vacations in Canada, if not the world, and it is now part of the Canadian Tourism Commission’s Signature Experience Collection.

Birds, Bears & Belugas takes place during July and August and combines the thrill of swimming with beluga whales (as weather permits) with the Churchill Wild signature “on the ground” safari of summer polar bear viewing on a backdrop of tundra alive with flora and fauna!

Watch the Beluga Tagging Videos at Discovery Channel Canada!

 
An estimated 57,000 belugas migrate to estuaries formed by the Seal, Nelson, and Churchill rivers every year. More scientific studies are needed to understand why belugas are drawn to these estuaries and how they interact with this environment so that key habitat can be protected. This research is also important to the hundreds of Inuit families in the area.

To learn more about this exciting and worthwhile study, please visit the Hudson Bay Beluga Project online, where you’ll find beluga whale facts, videos of the beluga whale tagging from Discovery Channel Canada, an interactive beluga tracking map and more!