When Carol Majewski plunks down $16,000 on a Natural Habitat Adventures journey to photograph polar bears, she expects to come home with an abundance of pictures of these rare animals. So now that she has returned from this excursion, why is her photo album of “The King of the Arctic” virtually empty?
I recently traveled for a promoted “photo” trip with Natural Habitat (NatHab) to Churchill, Canada, to photograph polar bears. Their promotional materials strongly suggest ready access and close encounters with polar bears. They also require travel insurance.
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Prior to our trip’s departure, we met some of the travelers and guides from the previous week’s journey, and they told us that the “ice was in and the bears were out.” Our guide stated that we were in for a “very challenging week.”
Weather predictions were for a cold front, which meant more ice formations. Natural Habitat Adventures conducted the trip, despite guest access to travel insurance, and the likely dearth of bears that week for photos. Their “value guarantee” assures satisfied customers.
I came home from this trip incredibly disappointed and beyond heartbroken. We envisioned capturing facial and full body eye level photos to enlarge, mat and frame. But I have no frameable photos from this trip. I am struggling to reconcile our experience with the superb reputation NatHab has for adventure travelers.
Multiple people from our trip strongly complained. A very nominal credit was offered. I have written two letters expressing my dissatisfaction.
So I proposed a resolution to the company. I hoped to travel back to Churchill, for three days of polar bear photography. Lastly, I asked for airfare to and from Winnipeg and Churchill (they have private flights), hotel and food. This would all be at Natural Habitat Adventures expense.
Do you think my request is reasonable? — Carol Majewski, Canaan, N.H.
Your disappointment is reasonable. And your desire for a “do-over” of this once-in-a-lifetime experience is understandable.
But the question is: Who should foot the bill?
You had planned this photography adventure for months and contemplated it for years. You pored over literature to prepare for this journey.
A Natural Habitat Adventures polar bear photography excursion
After considering several companies, you decided that Natural Habitat Adventures, which is in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, fit your criteria the best. And you and your husband decided that this was finally the year to see the polar bears.
If only Mother Nature had cooperated with your plans!
Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. But there is a season to view the polar bears. Generally, late fall, when the bears are emerging from hibernation, is considered a good time to for viewing these animals. Once the winter ice is established, the polar bears leave terra firma and head out to sea.
You knew that you were arriving at the end of the season, but you trusted the expertise of NatHab. Its website is filled with information about the polar bears, the ecosystem of the area and other wildlife that can be seen at various times of the year.
Natural Habitat Adventures also provides an ebb and flow chart to help travelers understand the migration patterns and the sometimes unpredictable behavior of the polar bears.
An unusual cold front arrived with you
Unfortunately, when you arrived in Churchill, an unusual cold front arrived as well. This caused ice to form in the sea. As a result, the polar bears started to migrate three weeks earlier than is typical.
The ice formation was good news for the polar bears, but bad news for your photography plans.
Your guides recognized that there weren’t many polar bears in the immediate area. So the company responded by chartering helicopters to transport your group of adventurers to see where the polar bears had gone.
Although you were pleased with the effort, you were unable to capture any usable photos from the helicopter.
In your requests for a new trip from Natural Habitat Adventures, you praised the company, the accommodations, the staff, the food and almost every other part of the trip.
Your only complaint was the unfortunate weather change that caused the unusual behavior of the polar bears. Instead of waiting to be photographed by you, they followed their natural instincts and headed out to the newly formed ice.
The unpredictable nature of the polar bears
In your complaint letter to the owner of Natural Habitat Adventures, you said that you fully understood the unpredictability of animal behavior and weather. But it seemed that you were overlooking one important thing: The disappointment you experienced resulted entirely from those two uncontrollable factors. Everything else on this tour you praised.
Sometimes, when consumers contact us they just need to be able to vent and get the perspective of a third party. You fit into that category. As we discussed your case, you wanted an opinion of what would be fair in this situation.
And you had some confusion about your trip insurance policy. Natural Habitat Adventures does not require that participants purchase trip insurance. It’s unclear how you came to believe that you could have filed an insurance claim because of the sudden cold front. Your trip insurance policy has a list of named perils. Polar bears heading out to the icebergs earlier than expected is not a covered reason for cancellation or trip interruption.
Natural Habitat Adventures responds
In his response, the owner of Natural Habitat Adventures explained:
I would like to sincerely apologize for the dearth of bears in the area during the time of your adventure. Through the experience we’ve gained from over 25 years of running polar bear tours, we’ve refined our trip dates to take guests to Churchill only during the best times to see the bears.
Historically speaking, scientific studies generally tell us that there is only a 5 percent chance from year to year that the ice will freeze before November 20 (and similarly, a 5 percent chance that it will freeze after December 10). While experiences vary for this exact week in previous years in terms of the number of bears seen and the weather conditions, we have largely had very successful sightings towards the end of our season which is why we continue to offer tours during this week. Of course, nature is often fickle, and despite our best efforts, we can never fully predict or control the patterns and behavior of the wildlife we seek out.
At Nat Hab, we take great pride in doing whatever we can to ensure that our guests have the best chance for the best wildlife viewing and for a wonderful experience, regardless of the cost. In this instance, we chartered complimentary helicopter tours, which I hope was a highlight of the trip for you. Still, I am genuinely sorry that we failed to meet your expectations. It is always our intention to provide our guests with remarkable nature journeys.
The owner then offered a $2,500 per person goodwill credit to come back to Churchill and retry this adventure.
You told me that offer felt right. And you plan to study the Ebb and Flow chart a little more carefully, pack up your photography equipment and try again next year. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)