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VIDEO: Polar bears swim at new Winnipeg zoo exhibit

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.

polar bear Assiniboine Park Zoo Journey to Churchill
A polar bear peers down at the media during a preview of the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo. Mike Koncan / Global News
Polar bears swim over media in the tunnel below their pool at the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo.
Polar bears swim over media in the tunnel below their pool at the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo. Lauren McNabb / Global News
An Inukshuk greets visitors at the entrance to the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo.
An Inukshuk greets visitors at the entrance to the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo. Mike Koncan / Global News
Polar bears swim at the Journey to Churchill exhibit as media walk through an underwater tunnel during a preview of the Assiniboine Park Zoo exhibit.
Polar bears swim at the Journey to Churchill exhibit as media walk through an underwater tunnel during a preview of the Assiniboine Park Zoo exhibit. Mike Koncan / Global News
Seals swim at the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo before its opening at noon Thursday.
Seals swim at the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo before its opening at noon Thursday. Lauren McNabb / Global News
A polar bear climbs the fabricated rocks in the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo. It opens at noon Thursday but media got a preview in the morning.
A polar bear climbs the fabricated rocks in the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo. It opens at noon Thursday but media got a preview in the morning. Mike Koncan / Global News
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Moose graze in the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.
Moose graze in the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. Mike Koncan / Global News
Media enter a tunnel below the polar bears' new swimming pool in the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.
Media enter a tunnel below the polar bears' new swimming pool in the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. Lauren McNabb / Global News
Members of the media get a sneak peek at the Journey to Churchill exhibit before it opens at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo on Thursday.
Members of the media get a sneak peek at the Journey to Churchill exhibit before it opens at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo on Thursday. Lauren McNabb / Global News
A polar bear swims at the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo.
A polar bear swims at the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo. Mike Koncan / Global News

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.

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“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.

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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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