Come on an amazing adventure with Andy to Arctic Svalbard and hear the story of one over friendly polar bear that yielded one of his best polar bear images ever...
By Andy Rouse
I have said it before and I will say it again, Svalbard is one of the most incredible places for me on this planet and it consistently inspires me to produce my best and most innovative photography. It’s an incredible wilderness that brings out the landscape, ecosystem and wildlife photographer within me. I think it’s the pack ice that really inspires me, it’s a moving, breathing, living ecosystem that constantly inspires a real passion that reflects in my work. It’s on this pack ice that I have had many special encounters with the great Arctic wanderer, the polar bear. One particular encounter is very special to me though and so I’d like to take you with me onto my icebreaker, the M/S Stockholm, as we approach the silent ice shelf ahead.......
It was early September and the pack ice was slightly north of Svalbard. Excitement mounted on board as we made our way carefully into the ice, tempered by the bangs and crashes reverberating throughout the ship. History has not been that kind to ships and icebergs that come into contact, and I have to say that although my trust in the captain is 150%, I’m always slightly nervous. You do get used to the noise, except at night when I just give up trying to sleep and spend my time "on watch” on the bridge. As we entered the ice this was the scene that greeted me...
It was beautiful weather and I was in a good mood. I knew it would not last however and after a couple of hours the famously changeable Arctic weather drew a blanket of grey featureless cloud across us. In some ways it made the ice more mysterious, more beautiful. It felt like a true wilderness. Slowly we edged our way through the ice, all eyes were scanning through binoculars and Adam (my friend and expedition leader) was being frozen 100ft up in the crow's nest trying to get a view a long way ahead. Polar bears love the edges of the pack ice as this is where seals abound, but so far we were drawing a blank.
Then, after another fruitless hour of bangs and crashes, Adam saw our first polar bear of the day. The Captain immediately slowed the ship right down and we waited to see if the bear was interested in us. There are strict rules on Svalbard about interacting with polar bears, no incitement of any kind is permitted and we rely on the fact that polar bears are naturally inquisitive. As we were to find out, this particular polar bear had an extra dose of curiosity. He watched us carefully for a while then turned towards the ship; the captain immediately switched off the engines, a precaution to ensure that the polar bear was not frightened by the noise. The ship lurched a little but the density of the ice damped down the motion of the waves and we settled silently against the side of a large ice floe. We knew from experience that the uber-inquisitive nature of the polar bear would mean that it would have to come and take a look at us. It would not be able to resist and sure enough it started to walk straight towards us......
I love this picture, with his nose in the air sniffing us! Typical behaviour for a bear, who's lives depend on their ability to sniff out something interesting a long way away. Once we followed a mother and a cub for 10 nautical miles. They didn't stop once, just continually headed in a dead straight line north, never veering off track once. Clearly the female had smelt something very interesting and they were on a mission to get there! The bear continued to approach the ship, jumping gaps in the ice to find the easiest way to us. It was clearly determined and on some kind of mission.....
It was constantly thwarted by the ice conditions, close to the ship there was a lot of broken ice and it could not get close to us. Of course it may have been frustrating for the bear but it gave us some great opportunities for pictures! I used both the wide angle that you see here....
and the longer lens that you see here to record a variety of shots. It's amazing how you can see it stepping across the ice as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Of course this is it's habitat so it's well adapted to do it, for the rest of us it would be a very wet and cold experience...
I love the way in this picture it's daintily crossing the gap with one of the back feet planted on a very small piece of ice, but it just took it in it's stride!!!! Sorry, my attempt at a joke, it's been a long week.....It's amazing too how the light changed depending which side of the boat the bear was on. We felt like the proverbial wagon train as the bear was definitely circling us! The bear continued it's path towards us and I made sure
every one of my clients were well briefed on the safety side of a close bear encounter. Polar bears are incredibly dangerous and unpredictable, they will make the most of any opportunity they can and we never ever ever underestimate them. I did some last checks to ensure that everyone was away from the edges of the ship, removed anything that could trip someone up and watched as Adam and the Captain loaded their rifles. When in polar bear country you need to be prepared for anything, this bear was intent on a close encounter and usually it is just their natural inquisitive nature, but you never know. A gunshot in the air, if deemed necessary, will cause any polar bear to think twice and since we had a very low ship all precautions had to be taken. Everyone swopped to their zoom lenses, the atmosphere was electric and I knew it had the potential to be a very special encounter with a very special bear.
All the time the ship was moving with the ice, and as the bear circled us we came to rest against some pretty thick sheets. They were right against the bow and we saw it just at the same time the polar bear did. He didn't react straight away, as we were a lot bigger and still quite daunting for it. He stood there on the ice and watched us, head not moving apart from to follow anyone that walked along the deck. Then, with a sidewards glance, he started to walk forwards and made his way towards the ship. I checked with Adam, all safety precautions were at the ready and everyone knew the routine with a bear coming this close. I quickly ditched all the big lenses, putting them out of harms way (as I didn't want someone to trip over them and fall overboard - gulp!!), picked up my wide angles and slowly followed the bear. I could feel the blood pumping through my veins, a mixture of excitement and nervoustension, as the bear continued to close on the ship with his unknown mission. It was exciting yes but I knew that this was one of the most dangerous and unpredictable predators on earth was coming close and we had to be fully alert.
The bear continued right up to the ship and disappeared from view, hidden by the angle of the bow (the pointy bit for you land lubbers!). Slowly I looked over the edge (we were some 20 ft above him at that point so safe) and he (it was a he) stared right back at me.
For a few minutes he stayed there, everyone took some great shots. Yes we were above him and looking down but the ice colour was very blue so it forgave any considerations of the angle. It's so easy, from the comfort of an armchair, to say that we would have been better getting down lower but this was impossible. I have been trying for years to get my levitation to work with success and I didn't feel like testing out my new jet backpack as failure would be a one way ticket to hell baby! Besides there is no way I would consider being down on the ice in any case with this bear without being inside my floating, invisible, odourless tank! So I concentrated on getting the shot as I wanted it and ensured that the elements I could control were perfect. The main thing to get right was the timing of the bear's stride, for perfect "leading" composition I wanted to get the left front paw extended which would show forward motion and bring the head around too facing me. It may seem like a small thing to do, but it made the most of the opportunity and that is the key to great photography.
After watching us for a while he made his way slowly along the back of the ship. We followed him towards the stern, keeping on the far side of the deck to avoid startling him, and after a few minutes had gathered on the back deck. What he did next was simply awe inspiring...
..... Amazing, look at the size of those paws.
It’s an incredible thrill to look into the eyes of a wild animal like this, a rare eye to eye shot. For those who are wondering this bear is not floating on air but standing on its hind legs, that proves what a huge bear this one is as it must have been over 3 metres from the ice to where his head is.....and my feet had been right there earlier!
Time for a rest...and some soup!
Everyone was silent, holding their breath in sheer amazement at being able to watch a polar bear this close. Safety of course is always key and I had everyone on the far side of the deck, but to be able to hear the polar bear breathing and see it actually connect and look at you was a very special experience. After a few minutes the bear walked a few feet back onto the ice, sat down then after a few minutes laid down!!!
The bear just sat and watched us, I changed position every few minutes but eventually just put the camera down and watched him watching me. It was a great experience for all concerned, we still moved very quietly and spoke in whispers as we didn’t want to cause the bear any stress. In my opinion it’s always an exchange, it’s an encounter for both parties and since he had been so cool with us it was only fair that we were fair to him. If at any point it became a bad encounter for either one of us then I would end it immediately and move the ship away, that is my responsibility as the expedition leader and safety is always well ahead of any photographic considerations. Gradually his eyes began to droooop and he fell asleep, right next to the ship! Iknew better than to trust the most dangerous land predator on Earth and soon I was proved right. He may have LOOKED like he was asleep but he clocked every movement that we made. Anytime anyone tiptoed along the deck, yes we were that concerned about waking him up, he opened a drowsy eye and followed the person until they were out of sight. The message was clear, I may be resting but I'm waiting too....
Since he seemed so relaxed I decided to tell the kitchen to get a quick lunch for everyone as they had been on deck for hours and it was pretty cold. All windows in the ship were immediately closed as we didn't to entice him with food smells. After a few minutes the kitchen shouted up that lunch was ready and people gradually drifted from the deck as tales of the warming soup reached up the stairs! Taking my turn on watch I stayed until someone came up to relieve me, they were licking their lips with the soup so I knew it would be good and my stomach growled in agreement. Quickly I headed down the stairs and was on my second mouthful when the call came down that the bear was sitting up! Arggghhhhhhhhh. I had to make a simple choice - Hot, freshly made tomato soup with yum, yum bread or the bear? Now I do know that many of you would have immediately rushed upstairs but I am sorry to say
that I didn't. Adam was there keeping the clients safe, I had enough pictures of sitting bears to last a lifetime and I was damn hungry. So I am sorry to say that the soup won as working with the army always taught me to eat when you can as you never know when you will get the chance again! I wolfed it down and headed to the deck to see that the bear had moved towards the front of the ship. After an hour or so he stood up and moved to the front of the ship, once again sitting down on the ice close by and relaxing. It was developing into a very special encounter, bears just don’t do this normally!
One thing I wanted to do was to tell a good story from this encounter with all the essential elements. I had cute polar bears, I had pack ice, what I did not have was the human element. So I climbed up to the top deck and took this shot, which shows how close we are but also how relaxed the bear is as well. It's really important to take shots like this to show those at home who cannot share the adventure with you. It's worth a 100 polar bear head shots as it puts the whole encounter into context. Any editor who wants to publish this story of mine will expect to see images like this, they show the value of responsible ecotourism and also that everyone involved (including the bear) was calm and relaxed. There was no danger to us or the bear and I think that this image shows this very well. Usually I carry a compact camera (a G15 lately) for taking just this kind of shot, but on this day it was in the cabin and I regret not having it to this day as I would have loved to have shown you some video! A combination of video and stills can really help you tell your story and I urge you all to always have a compact with you. As we drifted slowly forwards on the current we came level with the bear again and from the heightened position at the bow I began to see the potential to use the fisheye lens I had been itching to use all trip. Yes it gave a bendy feel to the shot, but it really accentuated the lovely ice patterns all around the sleeping bear. Had the bear been standing the image would not have been so peaceful; there is no implied threat with this bear. It's just an beautiful animal sleeping in it's environment.
Wanting to show this more I switched to the 200-400mm lens to get some more intimate shots...
Just so simply beautiful and such a special experience to have a wild animal so totally relaxed in our presence that it will do this. For most the day the bear stayed right there sleeping next to the ship then, obviously a little restless, he moved towards the back of the ship again. I followed him slowly, halfway back he stopped and looked at me out of the corner of his eye, he was clearly watching my every move as I was the closest to the lowest part of the ship... As we drifted with the ice he just stood and watched as everyone made their way to the back of the ship again, as the central part of the ship was too low and too dangerous to stand close to. So far the encounter had been very positive and I wanted to keep it that way, the bear was clearly on a mission and as yet we weren't entirely sure what it was.
Clearly he had an unusual amount of interest in us and both Adam and I are experienced enough to know that this is not a bear being "friendly". Polar bears are not friendly, they are killers. When in polar bear country it's something that we never forget as you'd only do it once. It's a sobering thought. I tracked him slowly as he started towards the back again, and watched as he tested the ice near to the ship. Clearly he could not get right up against the ship anymore as the movement of the ship had disturbed the ice. He could get close yes, he was still incredibly dangerous yes, but provided I did not fall over the side I would be safe on the railing and it gave me an idea for a shot.
I grabbed the 10.5mm fish eye lens, which had been specially prepared for the trip to allow it to work with a full frame camera. In other words someone had used a lathe to grind down the lens hood!!!! Now that is responsibility. Slowly I approached the railing, keeping both eyes open I looked through the viewfinder. The view through the camera was amazing, the earth really curved at the horizon, but there was a problem. The angle of the fisheye was so wide that it showed my feet and the deck behind me too!!! So I had to lean out further!! The bear, fascinated by all this activity sat up and watched me, I was now on high alert as I knew he was watching me.
I'm not naive with polar bears, having several close encounters on the ice with them has taught me a lot, and I knew that he was calculating how to pull me off the deck and waiting for any opportunity to do so. I saw though that his weight was all on his front legs, and knew that to stand up he'd have to shift it to his back legs, which would give me seconds to lean back to the ship. Little things like this matter, my life depends on them. There was no way I was going to lean out all the way looking through the viewfinder as I needed to keep both eyes on him at all times for the slightest tell-tale movement. So I enlisted the help of my friend and fellow FotoBuzzer fireman Phil, who grabbed onto my back as I leant very very slowly out. I held the camera right out at arm's length and took two or three shots, spaced apart so as not to scare the bear. He continued to watch me, looking straight into the camera and I could see that he was thinking about becoming a polar bear basketball star and leaping up. Deciding that I would pre-empt any silliness on his part, I leant back in. I didn't want to push my luck with the bear, he had been awesome and the encounter had been a positive one, I wanted to keep it that way. When I looked at the image, I almost dropped the camera back on the ice......
The picture was incredible, the curve of the earth gave the image a real "at the top of the world feeling” and a completely different look from the rest of the polar bear images that I had taken previously. Part of me of course wanted to have bright blue skies, but after looking at this image for a few months I’m now of the opinion that it’s better off with the dark and moody look. A picture that has become one of the most iconic I have ever taken. My attention was distracted for a moment by the picture, but not enough not to notice that the ice had moved back to the side of the ship. The bear noticed it too and immediately stood up against the side.
Everyone was well back within a safe distance, Adam ensured that, but I wanted to get a quick shot, so I grabbed my monopod and quick camera release and climbed the stairs to the deck above. With fumbling fingers I attached the camera and the remote release and edged the camera over the side. It was a safe distance above the bear and gave a very bizarre view...Weird huh, almost surreal the way that deck bends away either side. In fact you can see my lenses there on the left! Funky or what? The bear stayed upright for a few more seconds, then obviously bored (or frustrated) it moved back to the front of the ship, settled down and went back to sleep again! We just could not believe that a bear could behave like this, the encounter had already been 6 hours long and showed no signs of ending. Slowly we all moved back to the front, this time I took my new found friend the fisheye and took some very different images of the bear sleeping, looking completely relaxed with the world. All good things must come to an end though and eventually, just as I was forging great plans for more fish eye images, the bear decided that he’d had enough and slowly ambled off into the distance. He didn't even give us a backward glance, making his way across the ice. It had been an incredible day with an incredible animal, the like of which I have neverencountered since. During the 10 hours or so I had taken some of my most iconic polar images ever and all of my clients had incredible images, even those who just used an iPhone!
The buzz on board that evening was incredible and over dinner I gave my traditional toast and thank you to the bear, "Good luck and good hunting". I will remember this bear for the rest of my life and one day perhaps, we will meet again on the pack ice. One day my friend, one day again.
Of course the moral of the story here is that without the pack ice there would be no polar bear. Every year we are losing the pack ice at a frightening rate, and with it the chance of seeing a polar bear in 10 years is diminishing rapidly. It's global warming / climate change yes that is responsible, whether it is man made or a natural warming is up to the scientists to debate. There is no miracle cure here, I cannot give you a link that you can click on save the planet. Trust me I wish that I could, it would save me the heartache of watching animals that I truly love disappear in front of my eyes. I'm powerless to do anything about it and I write this in the hope that one of you reading this will be the person that makes the difference. I certainly hope so......
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