Before the trip I researched the other photographers whom I was joining and felt totally intimidated once I saw the amount of publications they shared among them! Time magazine, National Geographic, Sierra, Adubon Magazine to name a few! So there I found myself on the first of August of the year 2009 in a place called Svalbard, with four other very accomplished photographers, three of whom I’ve never met before, ready to board a very small yacht with a skipper of Viking descent, for three weeks to shoot the shit out of anything that moves! OK…….
Svalbard, in the Northern Arctic, hosts one of the last expanding polar bear populations on the planet. The archipelago consist of two big islands, Spitsbergen and Northeast-land and numerous smaller ones scattered around between the 70º and 82º northern parallel, roughly due north of Norway of which it forms part, albeit with a Russian connection, thrown in to make things interesting. It’s a coal mining community with some tourism because of it’s location and accessibility.
Longyearbyen (Longyear city) the capital (it’s the only town, so it the “capital by default), is named after Munroe Longyear, an american entrepreneur who established the first mine after the turn of the previous century. It boasts an airport, hotel, supermarket and the usual infrastructure that accompany mining and port facilities. So it’s “easily” accessible, quite modern and as a South African I found the fact that every local commuted with a rifle quite amusing, especially the fact they had to “defend” themselves against big white hairy creatures with those guns. Which brings me to Polar Bears…..
Polar bears eat meat. Any meat. Including humans…. They actively hunt anything that moves, including humans…. As food come at a premium at these latitudes, they waste no time in pursuing anything that moves like an animal, including humans! Outside the boundaries of our “quaint” little mining town, you can expect to come across them anywhere. It was the end of summer, the ice floes on which they prefer to hunt their favourite food- seals- were breaking up, so they had to make do with terra firma for the time being. Come winter they would be out on the fast ice, but for the time being they needed to adapt or die!
The effect of global warming on the size of the ice cap has been covered extensively and goes beyond the scope of this article, but it’s alarming to peruse statistics mapping the decline of polar bear populations around the arctic, a decline directly attributable to the shrinking ice cap on which they hunt.
The first bear sighting we had was on a very misty day. We decided to anchor onto the fast ice as the visibility was too bad to continue searching for them. Having time on our hands we prepared a “cooked” dinner instead of the usual “out of the tin” stuff we survived on for the past couple of days. The food seemed to lift or spirits which were not particularly high at that point. It probably attracted the bear as well! Staring into the mist out of the cockpit windows at nothing in particular, the shape of a bear seemed to appear out of nothing! It was humungous! Probably three times the size of an adult male lion! It was a moment to savour as we sneaked onto deck to erect our tripods and started shooting! The silence was deafening and I’m sure the bear could hear my heart beating! The first click of the shutter sounded deafening and unleashed a cacophony of high speed shooting out of 4 Nikons and one Canon! The bear did not spend much time before wandering of into the mist, just as unpretentious as it appeared! It was awesome! This is what we came to do!
During our trip we came across polar bear on 9 occasions. That should probably read that they came across us on nine occasions, as it seems that they choose to honour you with their presence, at their discretion. As food is not in abundance, they roam large areas to fill their requirements, rather like lion in the Kalahari. They are very well camouflaged, therefore spotting them equates to searching for a pin in a haystack with the pin a similar colour as the hay.
The Northern summer supplied daylight 24/7 and we normally had at least two hands on deck every hour of the day in shifts of four hours to spot our quarry but in the end it seemed that our best photographing opportunities came about when we had to rest and anchored for a while. It happened on three occasions that bears visited us during such times and we certainly got the best shots during those encounters. They seem to be inquisitive and investigated our boat even when they appear not to be hungry. By shear size nothing poses a threat except of course other bears (which they seemed to tolerate when there was enough food around) and starvation.
We came upon two cubs that were left to die earlier in the season, preserved by the cold conditions. There was no sign of the mother from which we can deduce that she left them to ensure her own survival. As humans , it seems heartless for a mother to think about her own survival when food is in short supply, but such is way of the wild.
On another occasion we found a whale carcass grounded in a bay. Numerous bears frequented the carcass for a snack but seemed to tolerate each other with all the food around although giving each other a wide berth! The most we saw together at one point in time was seven, but I’m sure if we were able to identify them individually there was more than double that quantity that visited the carcass at some point. That would mean that bears from tens of kilometers around had smelled that there was food available! But then again we humans could also smell the dead whale from far away!
Our biggest problem proved to be the quality of the light! We virtually never had sunlight although we had 24 hrs of light each day! It was heavily overcast most of the time and the majority of shooting was done round 800 ISO with 1600 and even 3200 ISO used at times. The Nikon D3 I used handled the noise very well and proved to be the best choice for the situation. With the 200-400mm Nikon f4 Zoom I could handle 90% of the situations that we had. Sometimes I wanted longer glass but quickly remembered what it would have cost me if I had brought along my 600 f4! As it is, I paid the equivalent of an extra ticket for my excess baggage!
My favourite shots however was shot with wide angle when I hanged over the side of our yacht when the bear came to investigate! It was scary as hell at the time but proved to be a chance taken that paid off handsomely!
The archipelago also host huge colonies of birds and other mammals like walrus and bearded seals, but like predators tend to do, the polar bears steal the limelight every time they enter the stage! Its an awesome animal, surviving in the most testing of environments! We can only hope they will still be there when our grandchildren want to go and shoot them!
By Fanus Weldhagen
All images © Fanus Weldhagen