When it comes to Wildlife, Polar Bear is the ultimate goal of any photography trip in Svalbard, and the success of the trip will be defined by how many bears were met and how many allowed “good” photographs.
But before taking pictures of a Polar Bear, one needs to find it and it’s not such an easy task. Polar Bears are mostly associated with drifting ice where their main preys, seals, are the most abundant, and the first place to look for them is at the edge of the arctic ice sheet. But this is a constantly drifting affair, and in recent years, most likely a consequence of global warming, the boundaries during the summer months have receded further and further north-east, to the point where last year and the year before (2012 and 2013), it was possible to circumnavigate the Svalbard archipelago during the whole summer without meeting any drifting ice.
This year was different, and the North-eastern coasts of Nordaustlandet were constantly locked by thick ice during the time of our visit.
So our first destination when we sailed off Longyearbyen on July 25th was to reach this area, North of Lagoya island, it took us over 24 hours to get there, and then the search began. A Polar bear moving over the ice may be visible kilometers away, but they often swim too and when resting they usually hide themselves behind a block of ice or inside a small hole. Also when the ice is too compact our ship the Origo, a sturdy vessel built for arctic seas but not an icebreaker, won’t be able to go toward a bear which is too far inside. And finally we don’t chase bears, so a shy bear who behaves to avoid our approach will be left immediately.
In 3 days spent along and inside the drifting ice we managed to see and photograph 4 different bears, 2 of them feeding on a recent kill who gave us fantastic views.
During the return trip along the North and Western coasts we explored a number of fjords where polar bears can also be found in summer, as the ice floes spat by fast melting glaciers also provide a suitable habitat for bears and their preys. There we found another 4 bears, including the “snowy bear” of the previous post, a female with one young cub, another female who hunted a seal in front of us, but failed, and a last animal that was feeding on a reindeer carcass.
Here are a few pictures of those bears, on which i’ve made some more editing than usual. Hope you like them, and your comments are welcome !
It is of course natural to associate Polar Bears with ice or snow as this is part of their natural habitat. However, until this trip, i had never had the chance to photograph a polar bear under falling snow. Svalbard is in fact a rather dry place, and in summer, when something falls from the sky, it’s usually a light, cold drizzle.
That day we struggled to find anything at first. We were exploring an area along the North coast of Svalbard where we had been tipped that a few bears were feeding on a pod of dead dolphins that had been trapped by ice a couple of weeks ago, drowned and ran aground. After a couple of hours we had indeed found a number of dead carcasses but it seemed the bears had already finished their meal. But finally we spotted that yellowish patch (polar bears on ice or snow look yellow colored) on a snowy slope, and it turned out to be the bear we were looking for, feeding on yet another dead dolphin. It was an enormous bear, by far the fattest i had ever seen, no wonder after a feast of several dolphins, it seemed to be well over 500 kg.
As preposterous as it may sound for those of you who have never seen a Polar Bear in the wild, watching a bear feeding on a carcass, and thereafter taking a rest, is not, after several hours, such a breathtaking sight, and when you mix in the cold and the poor weather, mist and light rain, it is no surprise that at around 3am half of our group called it a day, leaving only the most “hardcore” of us waiting for something to happen… And sure enough it did, the light rain/wet snow turned into a true snow storm with beautiful flakes, and that’s when the bear finally woke up and came closer to us, giving us great photograph opportunities against a backdrop of snow and black rocks.
I chose to edit those pictures in black and white, don’t hesitate to leave a comment to let me know what you think !