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Ambassadors Programme

Explorer

Danny Green

Jan14

Photographing polar bears

By Danny Green, Tuesday January 14, 2014
A female polar bear, Churchill, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens fitted with a 1.4x extender; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/6.3, ISO 800.

A female polar bear, Churchill, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens fitted with a 1.4x extender; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/6.3, ISO 800. © Danny Green

My previous encounters with polar bears had been in the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Seeing and photographing this impressive predator left me wanting more... which is why I visited Churchill in Canada during November [2013]. At this time of year the bears are moving towards the coast of the Hudson Bay, especially around the town of Churchill. This area of the bay is the first to freeze over during the winter. The bears are on the verge of starvation at this time as life can be tough for a polar bear during the summer months. They eat very little in this period; feeding on berries and bits of seaweed along the shore or, if they get really lucky, a whale carcass will wash up and attract big numbers of bears. By the time the ice starts to form on the Hudson Bay they are desperate to get out and hunt ringed seals, their favourite prey.

The bears can be found hanging around the tundra, where they spend a lot of time resting and conserving energy. During this trip I used two forms of transport to get out onto the tundra to find the bears. Our first was a special vehicle called a 'tundra buggy'. These huge vehicles can go almost anywhere and we had some great opportunities to photograph the bears resting amongst the tundra willows or walking along the freshly-formed ice on the shore. The bears are also used to seeing these vehicles; some can be really inquisitive and come for a closer look. This gives you a great opportunity for getting some intimate portraits. The most memorable encounter during my trip though was with a female bear and her young cub. He was really playful and any strange object grabbed his attention, especially a willow branch.

The other vehicle I used was a 4x4, so I could explore the small network of roads surrounding Churchill to look for bears moving through. Using this vehicle gave me a lower angle to shoot from and gave us some very different images. On our last day, we headed out of town and came across a large male making his way to the coast. He sat down at a safe distance from the vehicle and that allowed me to get out for an even lower angle.

Polar bears are undoubtedly the 'Kings of the Frozen Seas', but we are in danger of losing them. Climate change is affecting the sea ice in the High Arctic. Recently, it’s been as late as December before sufficient ice has formed and allowed the bears to go out and hunt. The ice is also thawing two or three weeks earlier, which means the seal-hunting season is getting shorter. This seems to be having a detrimental effect on the polar bear population. Previously, a female might have had two or three cubs but these days they are lucky to raise one cub. Time seems to be running out for this beautiful predator.

A polar bear cub playing with a willow branch, Churchill, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens fitted with a 1.4x extender; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/6.3, ISO 800.

A polar bear cub playing with a willow branch, Churchill, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens fitted with a 1.4x extender; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/6.3, ISO 800. © Danny Green

A male polar bear, Churchill, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/5.6, ISO 800.

A male polar bear, Churchill, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/5.6, ISO 800. © Danny Green