S5, E1: I’ve Made Polar Bears My Life’s Work. Here’s Why Everyone Should Travel to See Them.

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, a polar bear biologist shares her first encounter with the world’s largest land predator.

On the first episode of Travel Tales by Afar, season five, we meet Alysa McCall, a polar bear biologist who works in Canada’s polar bear capital: Churchill, Manitoba.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Travel Tales by Afar. And I’m so happy to be back with the first episode of season five—we’ll be sharing new episodes each week all summer.

And we’re starting this season off with a roar. Although, to be fair, the subject of today’s episode—polar bears—aren’t actually that noisy.

We’re going to be hearing from Alysa McCall, a polar bear biologist with Polar Bears International. I first learned about her work at a TED Talk event in partnership with Destination Canada, where Alysa shared a story about polar bear conservation. She’s a wonderful storyteller, and her passion for polar bears and their extremely sensitive and endangered habitat was impossible to miss.

As you might imagine, Alysa lives in a cold place: Whitehorse, a city in Yukon Territory, where winter temps can drop as low as minus 35. And she spends much of her time in another chilly place: Churchill, Manitoba, known as the polar bear capital of the world. But you’ll soon discover, it wasn’t a given that she’d end up a polar bear biologist. And then a very special polar bear encounter in Churchill changed, well, everything.

Alysa McCall: When I was a child, if you’d told me that I would end up being a polar bear biologist, I probably would have been a mix of happy–confused. I loved animals, but polar bears were never even close to being on my radar. I even remember (and I’m aging myself here) when the toonie was released. That’s a Canadian two-dollar coin for those who don’t know. It had polar bears on one side, and I thought, “Oh cute, yeah I guess they are pretty Canadian.” But the white bears were rarely on my mind outside of TV commercials. It was black bears that were more of a presence, or nuisance.

But looking back, that’s where everything started. I grew up on a mountain in Kamloops, British Columbia. We had forests surrounding us, but just nearby was a semi-arid desert with rattlesnakes and cacti. As a kid, I loved to go hiking with my dad and just really kind of get surrounded by nature. We’d walk up behind our house, past a rock quarry, and follow the trails all over the mountain. Compared to other hikes I’ve done since, there was really nothing remarkable about the area or paths, but as a kid, every squirrel or flower or scat pile was new and interesting.

Nature also visited us. Outside of our big living room window, there were fruit trees. Every spring and summer, black bears would come and hang out under these trees, right in front of our window. And I could sit and watch them for ages. If we needed to get outside to get in the car, we’d just go out and bang some pots, and they’d usually wander away. I look back now, like, “Wow, my relationship with bears really has changed.” I still love them, but I am way less chill now.

It wasn’t until about high school that I realized that being a wildlife biologist was a real job. And it just so happened that my local university had an amazing animal biology program. I had waffled for years about whether I should go into medicine or wildlife, but I had a moment on a walk one day where it was just clear I had to follow my passion: animals. So it was a choice that ultimately led me to where I am now.

As an undergrad, I got to do a good amount of field work. For years, I worked with small animals. And I loved it. For one project, I put little tracking collars on deer mice to find where they spent their days, and for another project I captured and released them in their desert grasslands habitat, after seeing how giving them extra water might impact them. Another year, I helped put trackers on toads by attaching mini radio backpacks.

As I was getting ready to graduate with my bachelor’s, I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. My supervisor suggested reaching out to Andy Derocher. He’s a world-renowned polar bear biologist out of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

And I thought, “Yeah, right. There’s no way. Only special people must get to do that sort of cool work. I’m a mouse biologist.” It was some serious imposter syndrome, and a bit of just thinking my luck wasn’t that good, even though my grades were. But eventually I said, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And I shot off a quick email to Andy. And later that day he emailed me back and said, “Sure. Come over. See you in September.”

So, I moved to Edmonton for school that September and the first time I saw a polar bear in person was only weeks later. I had only read about the bears at that time, but Polar Bears International needed some outreach support in Churchill, Manitoba, that fall of 2010.

Polar bears are marine mammals, so land is not where they want to be—they’d rather be on the frozen ocean hunting seals. But near Churchill, the bears are forced onto land each summer when the ice on Hudson Bay melts. People flock to Churchill each fall to watch the bears before the ice refreezes and to talk about them—not to do field work—so it was a good soft intro for me to the species, and to Polar Bears International.

I landed in Churchill in the evening and headed out onto the tundra in the dark, not seeing anything beyond our headlights. I slept that night on a tundra buggy, which is like a luxury glamping school bus on monster truck wheels, wind rocking us to sleep. The next morning I woke up in my top bunk with a view of the nearby coast, and was instructed to keep my eye on what I thought was a rock just in front of us. Soon enough, that rock woke up to stretch and I got my first peek at the world’s largest land predator. Awestruck barely describes it.

I spent a wonderful week in Churchill, learning about polar bears and watching them, and getting to know my future colleagues. As I boarded the plane home, I knew I’d be back as soon as possible.

Seeing polar bears in that environment helped me wrap my head around the uniqueness of their conservation needs. When I was doing the mouse and frog research, I was able to manipulate their environment directly—for example, by giving them water. Doing really concrete things, then measuring the impact right away.

But then, there are polar bears. Polar bears take a long time to reproduce. They don’t have a lot of cubs. And they rely on this insane habitat, the sea ice, a home that is melting due to extra heat in the atmosphere. We can’t just grow more of it when we want. There are no fences to put around it to protect it. We can’t hire anyone to patrol it. To protect it, the manipulation has to happen in our global atmosphere. This task requires a different conservation approach, one with so much communication and so many world leaders. Though the issue seemed gargantuan, I couldn’t look back. I needed to learn more about this ice bear and how they were living on these ephemeral floating platforms—[and] how we were going to make sure they had a stable future.

My first chance to do real fieldwork was in February, 2011, back in Churchill, Manitoba. It was going to be a lot colder this time around, so I tried to shove my giant Canada Goose down jacket into my suitcase—and it took up almost all the space. At the tim,e Churchill seemed way way north, though I live even farther north now.

I remember flying in and looking out the airplane window and just seeing white. All white. There were frozen ponds and scraggly trees, and it was flat, flat, flat as far as the eye could see. When I walked off my plane, dressed in my warmest gear, I was hit in the face with the coldest air I’ve ever experienced (though I’ve since experienced colder!). It was in the minus 30s. Cold, right? Actually, it was even colder than it usually is, so the first week, we were grounded. All of our fieldwork is done via helicopters. And helicopters are amazing machines, but they have limitations, especially when it comes to extreme cold. So that meant each morning, the lead biologist, Nick, would call the pilot and say, “How’s it looking?” And he’d say, “Not so good, Nick.” So we just hung out at the old Churchill Northern Studies Centre and played cribbage. There’s a new building there now, but the old one kind of looked like something out of the movie The Thing.

We had dorms that were separated from the main area by a freezing cold corridor we called the Arctic Hallway. In the morning if you wanted to go get coffee, you had to sprint-shuffle down this hall to get into the cafeteria. I remember shuffling around the whole research station in, like, slippers and wool socks. At night, we’d watch the most spectacular northern lights.

Finally, a week later, the weather cleared. I was a mix of very excited and extremely terrified. The helicopter was set to pick us up just after legal light. I woke up wired, dressed in lots of layers, and packed my backpack with even more layers. Extra socks, as well as a notepad and pencil (pens don’t work in the cold— ink freezes). I packed lunches for everyone, too. Lots of peanut butter sandwiches, plus thermoses of hot water and coffee.

When the helicopter landed, we loaded our heavy backpacks, firearms and tranquilizer darts, and emergency gear in case we got stuck out there. When we finally lifted off the ground, Nick asked if I had my big parka. Turns out, I only had my smaller one. So we had to fly back. And I was so embarrassed as I ran back into the center past people drinking their coffee to whom I had just said goodbye. OK, now we were off. For real.

Flying out over the ice was like being on a different planet. It was somewhat disorienting, like the world’s largest puzzle with massive irregular, striking white pieces of ice fitting together, shifting away from each other on top of the dark blue ocean. A bear being reliant on the frozen, shifting, moving habitat that only exists if the right weather conditions are met is wild.

Nick told me to take notice of the pressure ridges, where large platforms of sea ice had pushed together, causing chunky ridges to form that looked almost like stitches. Seals can make homes and have their pups at the bottom of the ridges, using the space under the peaks as little refuges. Polar bears often use the pressure ridges almost like a shifting road map, following alongside the zigzagging hills until they smell something interesting, then breaking inside to find out if they’d win a warm squishy prize.

I was also training my “bear eyes.” It really does take some time to get used to what a polar bear looks like against the sea ice, both for color and size. They’re not quite as white as you might think. But I finally got used to spotting the beautiful creamy yellow little fuzzy blobs against the harsh white ice.

We flew for a while but it didn’t take too long until we finally saw the first family group. To study these families, we have to tranquilize the mom very safely—only when there’s no males nearby. The cubs stay by her side and we can walk up to them and give them a very small dose of Telazol, a tranquilizer, so they sleep for about 30 minutes. But to even get to that point, the pilot has to maneuver the helicopter at the right angle so the biologist can aim at the mom. The chopper needs to be light—meaning they needed to kick me out first.

I grabbed my backpack, radio, and gun and got out by myself. Alone, on the moving sea ice in the freezing cold, surrounded by ridges. It was a surreal feeling, but I was never really scared since I trusted the crew so much. I was in pure silence, hearing just wind and water under the ice. My eyelashes were frozen and I shuffled in place to keep warm even though I was wearing more layers than I ever had worn in my life. Despite the best efforts of my expensive winter boots and two layers of warm socks, my toes were going numb.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I could hear the whomp-whomp-whomp of a helicopter approaching in the distance. They were coming to pick me back up to bring me back to the bear and the biologist. I could feel the waves of air hit my body as my ears got overwhelmed by the screams of the engine. I crouched down with my gear, making sure nothing could fly off, and the helicopter landed in a storm of whipped-up snow. I hid my face from the rotor wash as the machine settled, and when I got the thumbs up from the pilot, I was able to approach, blades still spinning.

Getting back into the helicopter was a disaster. I was trying to play it cool but I had all this awkward gear and felt like the Michelin man with my layers, backpack, and heavy boots. I finally settled into my seat and now tried to do up the awkward seatbelt over my massive parka. As I’m desperately trying to not look like the biggest dork in the world, the pilot, Jon, calmly pushed his hand over to redirect the barrel of my shotgun that I had absentmindedly been pointing at his face. He said something like, “You probably don’t want to point your gun at your pilot; it’ll be a long time before you find someone to come rescue you.” Mortifying. Side note: I later married him.

When we reached the polar bears, Nick was making sure that mom was resting easily and the cubs stayed with her. I hopped out as the helicopter shut down and grabbed our gear to take it over.

Walking up to the bears for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow, is this actually happening?” I think Jon, the helicopter pilot, could sense I was trying to play it cool. The cubs were sleeping by then so he picked one up and let me hold it for a quick picture.

But the desire to absolutely melt into a puddle of adorableness was overshadowed by the freezing cold and the drive to get our piece over with as fast as possible to leave this family alone as soon as we could. So we got to work.

My first job was to help write down data as the biologist took measurements and handled the bears. Luckily, I had a glove-mitten combo where I could pull the top off and have my fingers free for the moments I scribbled stuff down. I learned to work with numb fingertips pretty quick. Meanwhile everyone was watching each other’s faces for frostbite, for skin turning white, especially on the nose or cheeks. You have to catch it fast to prevent it from becoming serious. We also took turns watching the horizon for approaching bears, just in case. They move fast and ridiculously quietly, so they can appear almost out of nowhere.

The data collected from this long-term study has been critical in our understanding of moms and cubs in this region and even more broadly. Mom with cubs are the most vulnerable and important group in the polar bear world. Cubs are the key to sustaining the polar bear population. And raising cubs is getting increasingly harder in a warmer and less predictable world.

As we were starting to wrap up with this family—making sure they were resting together—we looked up and saw another family. We all stopped in silence to watch this mom with two cubs, only months old, navigating the ice perpendicular to us across the horizon. Even though this was the most harsh habitat I’d ever visited in my life, the moment was so peaceful. Even Nick, who’d been studying polar bears for 30 years, stopped to watch. That quiet moment amongst us, appreciating this new family on the sea ice, was the most impactful moment I’d had yet. I had what my four year old calls big feelings: hopeful, happy, scared, anxious for the future, curious—I had it all.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted and cold but pretty sure I could never turn away from polar bears. I actually felt a bit panicked like, “Is this it? Is this as good as it gets?” From then on I knew I had to help protect this wild habitat if I was going to be content on my life’s path.

It’s a global problem. Losing sea ice is directly tied to burning too many fossil fuels. It’s science, but the solution will come from the art of communicating to people. We can help explain the mechanism, the problem, and the solutions. But what we really need to do is push our leaders to make big changes and provide more affordable and available solutions to protect the future for polar bears, and for people.

In the old days of science communication, we tended to stay away from these emotions. Instead, we’d present graphs and data and PowerPoint presentations. But I think sharing these big feelings is what is going to inspire change. Heart is what’s actually going to help us move the conservation needle.

I can spit facts all day long about bears and ice but what sticks with people and what makes them care are stories, passion, experiences—their own experiences. From connection comes love, and from love comes the desire and drive to protect.

The rest of the field season went smoothly. We handled many families, including one with triplets. There was a little runt that likely didn’t make it, but they were all such incredible animals.

I often do wonder how those cubs I held are, how many are still alive and how they’re navigating their rapidly changing habitat. We know this population has declined from about 1,200 polar bears in the 1980s to just over 600 now.

What will things look like in 10 years? 20? By the time I’m gone? All I know is I can play some sort of role in trying to keep this habitat stable for the polar bears, and for us. And I’ll do it out of love.

Aislyn: That was Alysa McCall, polar bear scientist extraordinaire. As we mentioned at the top of the episode, she lives in Whitehorse with her helicopter pilot husband, Jon, and their four-year-old daughter.

To watch a short interview I did with Alysa, head over to YouTube–I’ll share the link in the show notes. She talks about her favorite recent polar bear encounters, why we should all visit Churchill if we can, and why her daughter isn’t that into polar bears (yet).

To learn more about her work at Polar Bears International, visit polarbearsinternational.org. It’s a fantastic resource, with polar bear cams, symbolic adoption kits, and tons of photos and facts. We’ll link to that in our show notes, as well as to Alysa’s TED Talk.

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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