WATCH: Polar bears swim overhead at Winnipeg zoo
WINNIPEG – Spontaneous cheers broke out during the first tour of the Journey to Churchill exhibit as two polar bears swam over staff and media, who stood in a tunnel that runs under one of the bear enclosures.
The $94.4-million expansion, which was five years in the making, will open to the public at noon Thursday.
It includes a sea ice exhibit, with large window views of the bear enclosure, the tunnel and a replica of Churchill’s Hudson Bay coast, the area where Hudson and Storm currently live. Most of the zoo’s bears came from Churchill, Man., 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg; Hudson is from the Toronto Zoo, where he was born.
Arctic wolves and seals are also part of the exhibit. The polar bears and seals actually have access to the same water enclosure — but a transparent barrier separates them.
“Their instincts are pretty good. They know to stay away from one another,” said Assiniboine Park Zoo COO Don Peterkin.
“These animals would not be visible without a facility like this. The whole intent is to create a better understanding.”
The Journey to Churchill — which has been under wraps for 10 days while the zoo closed to add finishing touches — currently has fresh water in its pools but that will be changed to sea water in the weeks ahead.
A 360-degree theatre allows visitors to view videos of what life is like in Churchill, for both the wildlife and the people.
The expansion was originally estimated to cost around $35 million, but Peterkin said it’s evolved since then. Seals, wolves, a new building at the front entrance and the Tundra Grill — a restaurant with views of the polar bear enclosure — were added, which significantly increased the cost.
The zoo took the idea for a polar bear exhibit and made it an “experience that is a first of its kind, anywhere in the world,” Peterkin said.
Admission to the zoo is $18.50 for adults and $10 for children. Visitors are encouraged to buy tickets online at the Assiniboine Zoo website to avoid lineups.
The exhibit’s opening weekend will include activities such as facepainting, aboriginal storytelling and entertainment by Fawn Wood, Fred Penner, the Northlands Denesuline Drummers, Aaron Burnett and Al Simmons.
The zoo is open from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday and then 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily after that.
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