Svalbard 2013 : Polar mates

In the same way as the ownership of a sport’s car is said to increase mating chances for male homo sapiens (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-13803579), the catch of a seal is a valuable trading asset for a male polar bear in search of a mate. We could witness that on a “warm” (at NE Svalbard standard) July afternoon as our ship was sailing along the edge of the North-pole ice sheet, a few miles away from the Seven islands archipelago, just North of Svalbard’s Nordaustlandet. The male Polar bear was feeding on a freshly caught seal and it allowed the female to approach and share the meal, a generous and unusual gesture as bears are rather protective of their kills and more likely to chase and fight any intruder. We decided to board the zodiacs to have a closer look with a cautious approach, keeping a safe distance in accordance with the thoughtful Norwegian regulations that aim at preventing disturbance to wildlife throughout the archipelago. But the bears were mostly unbothered by our presence, and after the male came pretty close to the edge of an ice floe to check us out, they just got back to their feeding and, at our great surprise, mating business.

Polar bear’s mating season is supposed to be earlier, in April, but both mates were happily ignoring this piece of human scientific knowledge. The sight was just awesome : tender moments were alternating with dazzling play fights, on the ice as well as in the water. To add to the spectacular, it was a beautiful day and a fantastic light, with rapidly and wildly shifting hues as clouds were passing against the sun, something you only get when close to the pole.

As a wildlife photographer, this was an awesome as much as a challenging experience. Shooting from a zodiac allows beautiful low angles, but the choppy sea always made framing and focusing difficult. However, Roy and Martin, at the helm of both zodiacs, did a fantastic job to position ourselves at best for shooting, despite currents and wind. And of course there was the constant decision to be made on focal lens and exposure : how to best render the present situation, close-up or wide angle, high-key or low-key, etc.. ? Exhilarating !

At one point, the female walked away, climbed an ice mound and nodded toward the male in a way that even me would have acknowledged  (if i was a male polar bear that is). They both disappeared behind for a good 10 minutes, but moaning sounds and glimpses of backs and limbs left little doubt about what was happening. Coming back into view, they had another play fight, the most spectacular so far with both bears on its hind legs biting and shoving its mate, leaving us wondering how much of a play it actually was…

Back on the main ship, Captain Ingmar managed to bring us closer to the bears and what was left of the kill, for a last opportunity of great landscape shots. We then decided to leave them alone and continue our route.

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