Magnificent and awe-inspiring, polar bears are legendary creatures, often featuring in tales of exploration in the frozen north. For many, seeing a polar bear in the wild is bucket-list experience. Because of the remoteness of their habitats, they are seldom seen in their natural habitats except by locals in remote Northern communities — and visitors to Churchill, Manitoba on a polar-bear safari

Here are 8 facts about polar bears that you may not know. 

1. Polar bears like it cold — very cold!

A polar bear mother sits with two cubs hiding between her legs
© Richard Wear / Design Pics

This fact about polar bears in Canada may be obvious, but it's impossible to overstate how much polar bears thrive in the cold. In fact, they sleep and breed on Arctic ice, and they rely on the ice to catch the seals that are their primary food source. While there are 19 subpopulations in the Arctic, 60 per cent of polar bears are in Canada, with the greatest concentration in Churchill, Manitoba — aka “the polar bear capital of the world.” Every October and November, large numbers of polar bears gather just outside town while they wait for the ice to form on Hudson Bay. The best polar bear viewing is the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a protected area outside Wapusk National Park boundaries. While the number of visitors is highly restricted, it also means your chances are very high of seeing polar bears while on an authorized tour in a purpose-built vehicle called a Tundra Buggy.

2. Polar bears are the largest carnivores on earth and at the top of the Arctic food chain

To survive in the cold, polar bears need to eat a lot of fat. Their digestive systems absorb 97 per cent of the fat and about 84 per cent of the protein they consume mainly from seals. Their stomachs store the food equivalent of 15 to 20 per cent of their own bodyweight. And polar bears are big! A male can weigh as much as 1,764 pounds — twice the size of females — and measure up to three metres long. Their heavily furred feet can be as wide as 12 inches — as big as a dinner plate —  to help spread their weight over the ice, and their claws are thick, sharp, and curved for a good grip on slippery ice and seals.

3. Polar bears may look white, but their fur isn't actually white at all

Three polar bears walking over the tundra
© Simon Gee / Frontiers North Adventures

A fun detail in our 8 facts about polar bears in Canada is that these majestic aninimal aren't actually white. A polar bear’s skin is black and their fur is transparent, with hollow hair shafts, which allow it to reflect the light of the sun, similar to the way ice reflects light. Depending on the light, sometimes polar bears look yellow. They have two coats of fur — one protective outer layer and one dense undercoat — as well as approximately two to four inches of fat under their skin. Remarkably, polar bears stay so warm, that they often overheat when they are hunting and playing even on the coldest days.

4. Polar bears are excellent swimmers

Another fun fact about polar bears is that they are record-breaking swimmers. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest recorded swimming distance for a polar bear is 427 miles, accomplished in 2008 by an adult female during 232 continuous hours (9.67 days) of swimming in the Beaufort Sea. The average polar bear can sustain a pace of 9.6 kilometres per hour by paddling with their front paws, which are slightly webbed, and using their back legs like a rudder. How do we know this? Because researchers have been using GPS tracking collars. Sadly, these long swims are because they need food, and they need ice to capture that food and rest.

5. Polar bears have super-sensitive noses.

You can't have a list of 8 facts about polar bears in Canada without talking about their incredible sense of smell. This trait is crucial for when polar bears are searching for food in a land of barren rock and ice. They can detect a seal in the water beneath a metre of compacted snow or as far away as 30 kilometres — that's almost 20 miles! 

6. Polar bears don’t hibernate during the winter months

Polar mother and two cubs snuggle together
© Frontiers North Adventures / Robert Taylor

While it is a fact that polar bears do not hibernate, pregnant females dig dens in the snow to rest and give birth to cubs — usually two cubs at a time and usually in December. When they are first born, cubs are about the size of a guinea pig and are completely reliant on their mothers and her very rich milk with up to 48.4 per cent fat. By March or April, mom and cubs come out of their dens. The mother bear, who can fast for as long as 180 days, will then look for food to replenish the weight she lost. Sometimes you can see mothers and cubs in the summer, foraging for food. 

7. Cubs stay with their moms for two to two and a half years

Mothers teach their cubs how to hunt for seals and survive. She protects her cubs by maintaining a large space with access to food and also to avoid contact with other bears, especially males which are a threat to young cubs when food is in short supply. Polar bears can live as long as 30 years, but it is rare. Most adults live 20 to 25 years provided they can remain healthy.

8. Polar bear populations are declining due to climate change

A polar bear in the tundra
© Canadian Tourism Commission

Why do people want to learn 8 facts about polar bears in Canada? In recent years, polar bears have captured the world’s attention because of their declining population due to climate change. Currently, there are 22,000-31,000 polar bears in the wild. Of the 19 subpopulations, only one is showing an increase in population, while five are stable, four are in decline, and nine are unknown. The biggest threat is the habitat loss — thinning and melting ice and early break up of sea ice and subsequent starvation due to an inability to access an inadequate food supply. Other threats include polar bear-human conflict, especially as the bears spend more time off the ice, as well as hunting and industrial-related issues, such as oil spills. Most experts agree the polar bear population has declined significantly, and some worry they may be extinct by the end of this century.

Polar bear excursions arranged through Canadian Train Vacations include tours with scientists from Polar Bears International, a group of conservationists working in Churchill and other places to secure a future for polar bears across the Arctic.