— photos and text by Ivan Mazzon

Each year Churchill is invaded by white bears

Churchill is a small town situated miles away from any other town or village along the Hudson Bay coast in northern Manitoba, Canada. It is also the only Canadian sea port in the Arctic Ocean connected to a railway line. You can’t get to the town any other way on land except by train as Churchill isn’t linked to the rest of Canada by road. However, this remote corner can be reached by air with daily flights from Winnipeg.

Due to its geographical position there was a US military base in Churchill in the past. In the 80s there were around 1300 residents, whereas today the population has dwindled to 800. Life here is a challenge even for the toughest of men. In spite of everything the one thing that makes Churchill’s inhabitants continue living in this place is the tourist interest in the area. In fact, the reason for my visit was exactly the same as the one that draws thousands of tourists during polar bear migration. Each year Churchill is invaded by around a thousand white bears that arrive from different parts of Canada and wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over before continuing north to hunt seals.

Living with polar bears

About a year ago, my friend Alessandro contacted me to tell me there was an opportunity to go to Churchill. We left at the beginning of November and I realised straight away that I had come to a pretty tough place and confirmation arrived as soon as we entered town. Houses ravaged by the wind and the bitter cold, the way the locals lived, all bore witness to how hard life in Churchill really is. Yet I still hadn’t understood what it meant to live alongside polar bears.

The white bear (Ursus maritimus) is the biggest predator on land and its current population is being severely threatened by the abrupt warming that is badly affecting our planet. As a result, it has been put on the red list of species most at risk of extinction by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). Canada alone counts for a good 60% of the world’s bear population and a considerable number of them come to Churchill between October and November. During these six weeks Churchill is on full alert. Polar Bear Alert, a surveillance team, works around the clock keeping hungry bears away from the town. Nevertheless, one occasionally slips through the controls and gets dangerously near the houses. Every evening a siren sounds the curfew reminding people not to leave home after dark. However, if a bear is seen to be too troublesome, it is captured and kept in a sort of bear prison before being marked and airlifted away from town by helicopter.

This journey showed me just how important the white bear is, not just for the equilibrium of the ecosystem in which we live, but also for the lives of Churchill residents. In fact, thanks to this majestic predator, they have found a vital source of income which allows them to carry on living in their town with high living costs. In exchange, the residents work hard to guarantee not only the bears’ safety, but their own and that of the tourists arriving from all over the world to admire the King of the Arctic. 

Ivan Mazzon, I am a great lover of nature and the animal world and in 2010 I took up nature photography. Since then I’m constantly on the look out for stories to tell with pictures. In these past few years I have travelled with the sole purpose of photographing wildlife and its habitat. In 2012 I visited the African continent (Malawi and Gambia), in 2013 Switzerland and Finland and in 2014 the Pantanal region in Mato Grosso State, Brasil. Even though the world is full of wonders I am still closely tied to the places where I was born and grew up. The Val Belluna valley and the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park are the places where I began my photographic work. A passion that I see as being similar to a means of communication, capable of making people think and helping them to understand more about nature that surrounds us.

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