Svalbard: The stars of the show

25 09 2013

Even with all the magnificent beauty, extreme conditions and serious difficulties of living in Svalbard, there is one species that really steals the show.  Most people travel up to the arctic with one real hope – to see a polar bear.  We were no different, and we were very lucky indeed.

We had several sightings of polar bears, which is lucky in itself, but it’s the interactions we witnessed that fired off the cameras at an alarming rate.  Our first sighting was a good appetite setter.  She was a young, nervous bear that wasn’t too keen on being photographed.  I managed a few long-range shots before she moved off over the ridge.  Not long after she disappeared and we celebrated, the second bear appeared out of the mist, and this bear was more obliging.  So obliging in fact, that it led us straight to a third bear, who was also relaxed.  The conditions were difficult; the rain was becoming a combination of hail and sleet and the zodiacs were rocking back and forth, but it was all forgotten when the two bears stood up and started sparring with each other.  Seeing a polar bear is cool.  Seeing two bears interacting is fantastic!  The cameras were working overtime through the rain/sleet/hail capturing interaction seldom seen on Svalbard.  After their sparring session, the two bears parted ways temporarily, leading one of the bears straight to a herd of walruses with a small baby.  Walruses are generally too big for the polar bears to handle (see: Svalbard: 100% character), but the babies, now that is a different story.  Realising the danger, the mother of the young baby and her close affiliates made a mad dash for the water, literally throwing and rolling the baby down the beach and into the safety of the water.  Seeing this, the polar bear walked closer to make sure there were no more baby walrus treats hiding in the herd, and then moved off.

Our next polar bear was brilliantly spotted as it moved over a ridge.  We boarded the zodiacs, and went in for a closer look.  The bear was quickly re-found, but in a different place to where it should have been.  It took us a little while to work it all out, but when a little head popped up from behind the sleeping bear, we knew we had found a different bear from the one that was spotted, and she had a six-month old cub!  The rest of the day was spent photographing these three bears in all sorts of positions and locations.  The bears eventually met up, and a twenty-minute chase began across the small island they were on.  The mother, obviously nervous with such a young cub around, was doing her best to shield the little chap from potential danger, and kept trying to lose the approaching bear. They didn’t get too close to each other (luckily for the little bear) and all ended well.  It was great seeing the change in behaviour in the bears, and getting to photograph it.  We spent many hours in the company of these amazing animals and were privileged to get many great photographs.

 

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Photographing the Northern Lights: Part 1

5 12 2012

It is sometimes difficult to concentrate when you are experiencing a natural phenomenon for the first time, when it is absolutely breathtaking, and of course when it is 30 degrees below zero, but even more so, when it catches you completely by surprise.

I was leading a photographic safari in Canada recently; the main focus of which was to see and photograph polar bears.  I did have secret hopes though, of popping out at night, and trying my luck with the Northern Lights, a fantastic visual display that only occurs at a very high latitude (the Southern Lights only occur at a very low latitude, but are much the same thing).  The first evening we arrived was completely overcast with very low set clouds that didn’t look like they were going anywhere, so that was that.

The second night was clear and I was in with a shout.  I checked the Internet for the forecast on the lights (they can apparently do this), and it gave us a low probability, basically, a one out of five chance.  Not great, but being the eternal optimist, I set the camera up outside the lodge anyway, hoping for the best, and went off to dinner.

With a good steak in the belly, I went outside to check on proceedings. Nothing.  All I had managed to achieve was a really cold camera.  I picked it up to head back inside, and something unusual caught my eye, a big green cloud slowly moving through the night sky.  It was the lights!  I, like a champion, had been looking the wrong way.  In a mad panic, I took a photo with the first foreground I could find – the back of the local general goods store in town.  Not bad I thought, but now for the magic.  It was a split second after that that I realized I had no other plans.

I had seen a potential foreground when we arrived, and enquired hurriedly as to its exact location.  This set me off on a run to the other side of town.  To be fair, it only took me 15 minutes, not because of my incredible (lack of) fitness, but because the town is actually that small.   Finding what I was looking for, an Inukshuk (a contraption used by the Inuit people to navigate across water in misty conditions), I set up as quickly as possible, and started shooting.  The lights can stop at any second, so I was moving things along quickly to try get as many shots as possible. Once the camera was going it occurred to me that I was standing on the bay with the highest concentration of polar bears anywhere, at night, alone…  Not great.  I moved to a nearby building, leaving the camera on the bay to do the hard yards.

It must be said at this point, that I was wearing two layers of thermal underwear, a full ski-suit with a jersey underneath, a balaclava, a face mask, two beanies, two pairs of thermal socks with my trusty Sorrell boots and three pairs of gloves (it was minus thirty to be fair), and I had run the length of town.  The sweat that had been expressed during the run was now starting to freeze.  This nullified all the clothing I had on, and it was time to head back.  I braved the polar bear infested shoreline, picked up my camera/icicle and started the slow jog back to the lodge.  Midway along the main road in town, I looked up and saw a couple of locals (in jeans and a single jacket) having a drink on the balcony of the bar, (you read it right, not a bar, the bar), and they stopped mid conversation to take in the tourist dressed for an arctic blizzard with camera-on-tripod-over-the-shoulder jogging up the main road near midnight.  I laughed at what I must have looked like, but took comfort in the fact that between the balaclava and the face mask, they would not be able to name and shame me in the morning.

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Some cool customers

27 11 2012

I was recently on safari in Canada, and had the amazing opportunity to head out into the tundra, and look for polar bears.  I had three full days to search for, and photograph, the great bears and each day provided new images in different conditions, but one thing remained the same: the mercury hit the minus thirty point on the thermometer without fail!  Chilly to say the least…

 

The first two bears we found were in quick succession of each other, and had slightly different plans.  The first, a large male, moved smoothly across the packed ice, right past us, and went to another tundra buggy to suss it out.  Fantastically exciting, but it was just the start.  The second bear, thought that ours was the buggy that needed the sussing out, and came to see what we were about.  This made my very cold shutter finger come to life, and click away furiously.  The true joy of seeing such a magnificent bear up close was enough to keep me just warm enough to stay out and keep shooting.

 

This pattern of being kept out in the cold by a bear keeping me entertained basically lasted for the next two and a half days.  However, after an hour in the gusty winds and minus thirty-degree temperatures, I did have to take an opportune moment (i.e. the bear took a quick nap) to get back inside the tundra buggy and warm my hands and face.  A rather snazzy (and first for me) fireplace in the actual buggy kept things toasty, and brought the life back to my frozen digits.  As if on cue, the bears would wake up just as I had recovered, and back out I went.  I did take a moment on more than one occasion to wonder how these bears deal with such harsh conditions.  The one bear that was out and about during an actual blizzard just carried on like nothing was happening.  Incredible.

 

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