Arctic Documentary Project: Fat, Dirty, Seemingly Happy Polar Bear

Monday, August 8, 2011 - 11:31
Contributor:

Tanya and I spent the past three days in Lonyearbyen in a small, very European, apartment, catching up on business matters, writing, and a little rest before our next group of guests arrived. The first trip went really well, but every adventure to the field is new, so it’s always in your mind that the next can be even better. Our boat is full again, housing our eight invited photo enthusiasts who all arrived on schedule.

Dan and Tanya Cox

Tanya and Dan Cox in their rented apartment having dinner.

We started in in Longyearbyen, photographing arctic terns on the edge of town. I was excited to see them myself, since I’ve never had any amount of time to photograph this species on a nest site before. Arctic Terns are extremely feisty little creatures that belie their dainty, diminutive stature. If you approach too close to their nests they’ll attack, forcing you into retreat by repeatedly diving in to stab your scalp with their sharp, pointed beaks. However, like many species of the avian ilk, I found that if you sit down and remain completely still, they quickly lose interest and return to the nest. It was this little nugget of wildlife photography strategy I wanted to share with our guests.

Arctic tern on the nest.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) female on nest with her newly hatched chick poking out from beneath her. Svalbard, Norway.

We arrived at the nesting colony and sat down a good distance out from what seemed like the perimeter. From the outside of the colony looking in, we grouped ourselves together and silently waited as the mother tern calmly sat incubating. For the first several minutes the males were quite aggressive, but eventually as predicted, they lost interest. We didn’t stay long but in our thirty-minute shoot we were rewarded with the site of a mother and a single chick beneath her. He came out twice, showing himself for seconds each, but in the time I was able to get stills and even a little video. I’ll talk about video more a bit later, but, in short, video is a such a great new advantage to documenting the full story – whatever story you may be telling. I absolutely love this new option.

Fulmar in flight.

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) Isfjorden, Svalbard, Norway.

On our way out through the long narrow fjord of Isfjorden, we occupy our time with photographing northern fulmars in flight. It was a beautiful evening with shafts of golden sun piercing through the gray-colored, fractured clouds. For whatever reason there were fulmars flying all around us and we took numerous pictures of these beautiful, albatross-like birds riding the air currents of the Arctic Ocean. Birds in flight are always magic.

Our first anchorage of this trip was in Eidembukta, a little bay about seven hours out of Longyearbyen. Last night we heard from another passing vessel that further north, about three hours, a polar bear had been spotted eating a seal, so that’s where we’re headed. Lots of excitement, people laughing, some cleaning camera gear, everybody anticipating their first bear sighting. Time will tell. You never know with wildlife.

Fat, dirty, seemingly happy polar bear

Polar bear feeding on a seal carcass. Dahlbreen Glacier in Hermansenoya Bay, Svalbard, Norway.

We pull close to the spit that juts out from Eidembutka and there, two hundred yards from shore, standing up on a sandy esker, is a very dirty, fat and seemingly happy polar bear. Right beside the bear is a bloody pile of fur and flesh, the food source we were told we might see. We all collect our lenses and cameras and take a few pictures. However, the bear is a long way in and quite honestly not very attractive. For me the lack of beauty is not such a big deal, but he’s still not close enough to get any real pictures. We collect a few images and then make our way north to back Hornbaekbukta Bay. We had great good luck with bearded seals on our first Hornbaekbukta.

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