The giant machine comes to a stop. Engine off. Silence. Despite the loud motor and immense size of a Tundra Buggy, I tiptoe. Once the buggy is stopped and a polar bear begins to approach, one stomp or slam of the door could be enough to spook it. Only the wind whistles.
I gingerly adjust my tripod legs and prepare to frame a photograph from the back deck of Buggy One. A polar bear approaches, head down, I wait. I prefer to aim for quality over quantity. In the digital era it’s easy to defer to the machine-gun shutter method.
Nearly every minute is scheduled when I am working in the north with Polar Bears International, so my time is valuable and the less editing and sorting I have to do later the better. I practice patience and wait. The polar bear raises his head, ‘click.’
Sometimes I am silent for hours, waiting in the cold, hands in parka pockets, hoods up, watching and waiting for a sleeping polar bear to lift his head, shuffle his paw, or if I’m lucky do a nice big stretch! Sometimes the polar bear doesn’t move all day…
Wildlife photography is tricky because it’s impossible to guess what animals might do. I prefer to have a quiver of tools to pull out depending on the situation. My go-to set up is a long lens (400mm +) with a Canon 5D mark iii on a steady tripod, ready to catch any and all moments.
75% of the time this does the trick, allowing me to capture moments from far away, and even close ups near by; shots of faces, ears, paws, interactions between two bears, cubs nuzzling their mother.
But the polar bears do, fairly often, come right up to the Tundra Buggies, a behavior which we fondly refer to as ‘Buggy Love.’ So then what? Do I frantically try to switch lenses while tiptoeing to whatever side of the Buggy the polar bear wandered up to, knowing I’m missing the best shots as I fumble my way through the transition?
No. I prefer to have a second camera body with a wider lens over my shoulder or strategically placed in my un-zipped, ready-to-go Pro Trekker 450 AW at my feet. And my favorite additional trick this year? A GoPro in my pocket.
Those little cameras are awesome, and capture super unique high quality images! I like to think of my GoPro as the Holga of the digital world. So I guess it’s all about anticipating, acting quickly when necessary, and patiently waiting otherwise.
Awareness is also key when photographing wildlife, particularly in regards to safety. It’s easy to get swept up in an intimate moment and forget about spatial awareness. This is true with all wildlife, be it bison, bald eagles, or polar bears. Tundra Buggies, fortunately, are very safe. Tundra Buggy windows are nearly 10 feet off the ground and they are built to keep polar bears out.
However the largest male polar bears are tall enough when standing on their hind legs to reach their nose or paw into an open window or even over the railing on the back deck! You have to watch your digits, and if you drop a camera or a lens onto the tundra, likelihood is high that you won’t see it again.
Going on the ground with polar bears is not a wise idea. They are extremely curious creatures and the time at which we are photographing them is also the time when they are essentially starving.
Hudson Bay polar bear habitat is unique in that it melts each summer, forcing the polar bears onto land where they fast for approximately 5 months until the bay freezes again and they can go out and hunt seals on the sea ice.
With more and more ice-free days each year, due to climate change, the polar bear population of Western Hudson Bay is stressed. So, YES they are hungry, and YES they are opportunistic.
I feel it is our responsibility as photographers to be safe, be aware, practice patience, and bring back incredible moments to share with the world. Moments that inspire, moments that instill a stewardship for the natural world, moments that cause people to pause, re-connect, and appreciate. What better thing to do, and what better gift to give the world?