With no less enthusiasm than Elvis fanatics making pilgrimages to Graceland, I clutched my KLM airline ticket to Norway’s polar region with years of anticipatory buildup. Close photo buddies knew my why, but more naturalized friends were beyond puzzled that as winter was ending in early 2023, Kelli and I would choose to head to the arctic. Trust me when I say that we were both were simply captivated by the allure of this remote region. And, it didn’t disappoint. So much so that it sits again on our 2024 calendar – just as this winter in North America will come to an end.
Hitting 80* North
The list of travel options to reach arctic wildlife, specifically polar bears, is not long. We chose to head to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago which harbors the most northern non-science based residential community on our planet. (Including a small Russian village that is currently off limits due to the Ukrainian war.) We boarded a small expedition ship, Kinfish, that was operated by a Swedish crew and included a brilliant Icelandic/Aussie landscape photographer, Ben Hardman, arctic naturalist and ten other travelers. Our shipmates were delightfully diverse, including a Czech musician/rapper, Google engineer from NYC to a former ad agency creative from New Zealand. We chose Norway over other polar regions as it is has more navigable ice fields early in the year, in contrast to Canada’s Hudson Bay. Arctic Norway also provides expansive vistas of virgin white snow, glacial ice, and heavy, dark cliffs. A perfect palate for creating compelling visual art.
While majestic, ivory-colored bears were central to our anticipatory objectives, a virtual plethora of new creatures emerged from arctic snow, oceans, and ice. To evolve over millennia in this harsh landscape requires unique behavior and morphology to thrive. The following is a brief snippet of images that were our introduction to the amazing, new critters of the north.
Not on my radar as we approached the arctic was photographing ice. Frozen water. That change was a special discovery of my own creative process. Here full credit goes to my shipmate Ben Hardman. Check out his delicious arctic photography by clicking on the beautiful example below:
It’s invigorating to expand my own visual creativity. This ancillary work also has a direct impact on the quality of my art in the wilderness wildlife space. Seeing environs and habitat in new ways. The new graphic style and its geometric insights were a kick-in-the-pants. Hope you enjoy a sampling of my atmospheric arctic art.
The list of animals that will actively seek out humans as a food source in the wild numbers four, and arguably five. There is no argument, however, that polar bears are on every short list and extreme caution is mandatory working in their realm. They are the royalty of the icy northern European arctic and their frozen world wraps around the globe from Russia to northern Alaska and Canada’s eastern coastline and after that the north pole itself. The vast majority of polar bears, however, live within Canada’s arctic region. To see the distribution and population trends visit the WWF Polar Bear Site.
Our quest for the great white bears of the north was a whipping buzz saw of emotions. It began within hours after leaving the village of Longyearbyen on Svalbard Island. Our ship captain, Peter, spotted a male bear striding parallel to our ship atop the ice cliffs of the fjord. My first wild polar bear was captivating. He seemed to effortlessly stride the icy coastline with episodic periods of futile reindeer chases. The crew rated him a 2 out of 5 in terms of health/appearance. This bear was gaunt. That said, he was majestic in his stride and the pending summer of more abundant food was sure to fatten him up.
Following that near immediate high, our polar bear quest proved to be long days and serious work. In over a week at sea, we found a total of only four bears. With only one bear within meaningful range to photograph. The ship’s bridge had manned surveillance with binoculars available for most of our waking hours. I spent anywhere from 6-10 hours a day with binoculars glued to my face searching endless ice and snow fields for bears. My years of wilderness photography and archery hunting proved valuable working the binoculars. Day three I spotted a lone bear several miles away bounding through broken ice formations. We watched the ant sized image until it disappeared. Unfortunately, that bear was never seen again.
The highlight of our journey arrived on day 6. We came upon a young female feasting on a reindeer. She was known to be uniquely skilled at hunting reindeer. She was feeding within 50 meters of the fjord’s coastline. The only way to safely photograph this bear was to approach her in zodiacs dropped off the back of the expedition ship. These small, motorized rafts allowed us to maneuver over kelp and rock to within photographic range. How close? Close. Not ‘she can sprint to raft close’…but close. Most of my work was done with Nikon Z9 camera bodies and 400mm/800mm lenses allowing me to get the intimate images below.
Over a day and a half, I slept a total of 1 ½ hours in order to follow her, find her, and then find her again glassing the hillside. I simply couldn’t risk the possibility of not creating polar bear images if a chance emerged. Norway is just too far from home and north of Svalbard is not easily reached. After she had eaten most of her meal she wandered off, dragging the deer’s remains, amid snow drifts and vertical valleys of the neighboring mountain. She disappeared for hours wondering the vast terrain. Occasionally I would spot her curled up and partially covered with windswept snow. In this game of cat and mouse, I found myself at 2am perched with binoculars amidst the eerily quiet of our ship’s melodic ocean roll and the lone accompaniment of a Swedish night watchman. Around 3am she emerged, over a mile away strolling the frozen shoreline with all the confidence of an apex predator in our direction. Alone on the deck I was giddy, pounding the shutter button and praying the Nikon camera’s buffer could handle the capacity.
Approaching our position, it became obvious see she had reindeer remains in her jaws. After a few hundred yards she only retained a reindeer leg. Tossing it to herself in the air and playfully throwing the leg out to sea. Providing herself multiple opportunities to play fetch. This was playful in every aspect and proved that she was satiated and in good spirits. Clearly a 5/5 on the polar bear health index.
Parting Notes – Questions and Questioning
Despite polar bears’ global warming, poster child status, polar bear populations are at worst case stable and respectable data suggests meaningful increases in the overall population of polar bears has occurred worldwide over the past 20 years. That does not mean warming of the globe isn’t an issue for bears or people for that matter. It does, however, mean you must do your own homework to get at the facts. Wildlife is easily used to politicize personal agendas. There are numerous global warming concerns. But using polar bear populations and melting ice fields eliminating their food source isn’t a great example. Particularly when much better examples with supportive facts exists.
Human impact on wildlife is regularly vilified, justifiably in many cases (e.g. ocean fisheries). Reality, supported by real scientific data, is that the list of species that have made massive recoveries, turnarounds in fact, directly due to the conservation and restoration efforts of humans is impressive.
For example, the American bison was decimated from 30 million animals pre European arrival to roughly 325 bison in 1884 (15 wild bison in Yellowstone). Today there are over 500,000 bison with ground bison meat offered in your neighborhood grocery. Bison aren’t alone. Whitetail deer pre colonization are estimated at 30 million deer and were also decimated in the early 1900s to ~1 million animals. Today the total U.S. deer population is more than 33 million. Yes, above pre
colonization levels. Similar turnarounds also hold true for grizzly bears, wolves and even turkeys which were only found in 14 states in 1941 and now are in 49 states today (Hawaii, not Alaska). But don’t think this is only a sign of western culture’s elite conservation successes.
Internationally the tigers of Nepal, Mongolian snow leopards, Africa’s Mountain gorillas, black rhinos and even humpback whales are all making serious comebacks. This is to be celebrated. Humans are to be celebrated. We are capable of a lot of good.
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