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Polar bear missing his friend at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Jad Davenport.

Longing for a friend at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Jad Davenport photo.

by George Williams

Like all wild animals, polar bears have an instinct to survive that dominates their lives, but like humans, once their basic needs have been satisfied, they find time for more enjoyable pursuits, such as spending time with friends. Polar bears have feelings too.

During the summer, polar bears will sometimes engage in pair bonding. They’ll explore together, engage in friendly sparring matches, they’ll even sleep back to back on the tundra. They’ll become best friends for the summer, and sometimes for years.

National Geographic photographer and Churchill Wild photo leader Jad Davenport witnessed this behaviour at Seal Heritage Lodge a few summers ago, as well as the emotional ups and downs that come with it. Two bears had been hanging out together for a few days and sparring in front of the lodge, when the bigger bear accidentally hurt the smaller bear with a rather heavy swat.

Polar bears sparring at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Jad Davenport photo.

When sparring, the bigger bear will normally let the smaller bear win. Jad Davenport photo.

“One of the rules with polar bears is that the bigger bear always lets the little bear win,” said Jad during an interview on the Faunographic WILD LIVES podcast. “So this little bear went off to find a new friend.”

The larger bear forlornly watched his friend walk away and hung out in front of the lodge for a few more days. Jad wandered out to see him, and the big bear seemed overjoyed.

“He started doing all this playful behaviour, this interaction, where it was very clear that he was just excited to have some kind of company,” said Jad. “He ripped up a little willow bush and threw it in the air, he rolled over on his back, he looked at us upside down…

Polar bear playing with willow branch at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Jad Davenport photo.

“He was just excited to have some kind of company.” ~ Jad Davenport photo.

“When it was time for us to go, he just looked crushed. He sat there for a long time and watched us as we walked away. It’s encounters like that, that make you realize that these are intelligent, sentient creatures, just like us.”

Polar bears are often portrayed as solitary creatures, but Churchill Wild Head Guide Andy MacPherson has also witnessed friendships among polar bears, including a trio at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

“We’ve probably watched them for eight years now,” said MacPherson in Old Warrior takes Final Walk at Seal River. “We call them the Three Amigos. In the beginning, they were probably five or six years old, but now they’re in their prime. They must come back to the same area every year and look for each other. There’s one huge bear and two big bears. They hang out together during the summer and spar in the water.”

Polar bear trio in conversation. Ian Johnson photo.

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.” ~ Unknown. Photo by Ian Johnson.

The friends seem to split up for the winter hunting season and renew acquaintances after the breeding season in the spring. They avoid stressful times together.

“They have a certain respect for each other,” said MacPherson. “And they just seem to bond. They find solace in each other’s company. You’ll see one get up and leave and the other will get up and leave and follow, and then the other will get up and leave and follow.”

Just imagine the stories these bears have to share when they reconnect every summer. From dark, frigid seal hunts in haunting snowstorms, to mighty conquests and tender courtships…

Yes, polar bears can be romantic, too.

Polar bears conversing at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Daniel D'Auria photo.

“The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” ~ Henry David Thoreau. Photo by Daniel D’Auria.

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