Friday, 17 June 2011

Photographing Polar Bears

             I have always loved all forms of wildlife and over the past 30 years have traveled to the seven continents to observe and photograph many different species. As you would expect, polar bear photography involves dealing with some of the harshest weather anywhere. Most of my polar bear images were shot during late fall trips to Churchill, Manitoba on the western shore of Hudson Bay, a region known as ‘the polar bear capital of the world’. Hundreds of bears congregate along the shoreline, waiting for the ice to freeze so they can head out to hunt seals.
            On my first polar bear trip a friend and I simply rented a pickup truck and drove around the frozen tundra looking for bears. This was not the most efficient way to get photographs but it was certainly exciting. One polar bear came around the passenger side of the pickup and pounded on the window with his paws forcing us to drive off rapidly. Another climbed into the back of the truck as we watched from a safe distance. Temperatures fell below -50F with wind chill. Warm clothing was as important as good camera gear. I never could keep my fingers warm and they often became so numb that I couldn’t feel the shutter release button.
            On a subsequent visit I went the traditional route and utilized the safe and comfortable ‘tundra buggy’ from which to take pictures. These vehicles are half again as tall as a standing bear and move around the tundra on huge oversize tires. Not as exciting as a pickup truck, but much more practical for quality photography.
            There were certain pictures I could not obtain in the wild so I turned to various zoos for help. Some zoos have modern polar bear exhibits with large pools allowing for underwater observation. The bears don’t play in the water all day, but after repeated visits to multiple zoos I was able to obtain some excellent underwater imagery.
            And then there was Ahpun, an orphaned female polar bear cub who was rescued and brought for care to the zoo in my home town of Anchorage, Alaska. She was barely four months old and weighed only 31 pounds when she arrived in Springtime.  She needed ‘round the clock attention and the small zoo didn’t have enough professional staff for this at the time. So volunteers were utilized to watch the little bear during the daytime. I spent several memorable days volunteering to be keeper, playing with the cub and at the same time taking advantage of the photo ops. 
            I hope you enjoy seeing these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Mark Newman

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