It is pitch dark outside and snowing lightly as we leave our motel in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada on an expedition to photograph some of the last remaining polar bears in the world.
Sitting on the southern edge of Hudson Bay in the sub-Arctic, Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the world. Every November the 1,000 or so remaining polar bears living in their natural habitat congregate along the shores waiting for the ice to form. They will spend the next several months away from land, feasting on seals (their staple food) until the ice begins to break up in the late summer. Then, they are forced back onto shore where there is little for them to eat. It is for this reason that climate change is so devastating for these majestic creatures – the longer it takes the ice to form or the shorter their hunting season due to earlier melting, the longer the bears have to go without food.
A glimmer of red appears in the sky as we approach the clearing where we will board our “Tundra Buggy” for a day of exploration around the area. It looks like a bus sitting on tractor wheels that lift it 6 feet off the ground. Windows line the sides, permitting you to photograph the bears in safety. A viewing platform at the back is also available. A stove at the rear of the Buggy provides warmth, and there are even flush toilets.
We are bundled in multiple layers of Arctic clothing including glasses and balaklavas. With these low temperatures, the slightest bit of exposed skin can lead to frostbite. Multiple hand warmers and toe warmers help keep the cold at bay.
A thick layer of snow blankets the landscape around us, blown into wild shapes by the relentless wind. It is bleak, even in the pink glow of the sun sitting low in the sky. Solitary black spruce trees, their growth stunted by the harsh conditions, dot the tundra. Low bushes, encrusted with snow and ice line frozen ponds.
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the largest land carnivores in the world. The males can grow to more than 1,320 lbs. and stand 10 feet tall but they move with exceptional speed and agility. It would be a mistake to try to outrun one.
They are difficult to spot, especially in the swirling snow that provides a perfect camouflage. Their coats are not pure white; the long, hollow guard hairs are honey-colored, growing over a dense undercoat and thick layers of subcutaneous fat that keep the animal warm in these harsh conditions.
Over the course of the next four days, we see about 15 bears, including a mother and cub right outside the airport, observing each for upwards of an hour at a time. Previous groups reportedly saw more than 30 bears. How many bears you actually see depends entirely on the thickness of the ice when you visit.
Bear tracks are everywhere, massive imprints in the snow. We see two young males sparring. They wrestle and lunge, rising to full height and dancing around. With all the growling and roaring it is hard to remember that they are merely playing. The real battles take place far out on the ice.
We see another bear sleeping in the snow. It briefly opens its eyes when we approach, stares for a few minutes and goes back to sleep. We remain to watch. Eventually, the bear awakens, plods to a frozen pond and plops onto its belly, hind legs outstretched that it uses to propel itself over the ice before rolling on its back, scratching and twisting from side to side. This is how the bears keep their fur clean.
One approaches our Tundra Buggy and stands up to its full height, leaning against the sides of the vehicle for a better look at the occupants inside. They have been known to swat a camera out of a visitor’s hands.
Besides the bears, there are many other wildlife photo opportunities in this stark, beautiful land. Over the course of our visit, we see Arctic foxes, red foxes, flocks of ptarmigan (pigeon-like white birds with tufts of feathers on their feet), snowy owls and Arctic Hares. There are also unique opportunities for landscape photography, especially along the edges of Hudson Bay where glacier-sculpted boulders line the edge of the water.
Late one night our guide, Brad, knocks at our door. “The lights are great tonight,” he says. We quickly bundle ourselves back into the multiple layers of clothes, grab our camera gear and head out to the Inukshuk, an Inuit statue on the edge of Hudson Bay.
Green, red and white streaks dance across the sky, changing shapes as they swirl among the stars. We are so excited to finally photograph this phenomenon that we are not even aware of the -30 degrees temperature. Because of Churchill’s position beneath the Aurora Oval, locals tell us that you can see the Northern lights for 300 nights of the year.
There isn’t much else to do in Churchill in the winter. As the polar bears sometimes prowl the streets, it is not safe to walk anywhere. Although the wardens try very hard to keep them out using “cracker shells” to scare them away, they are so hungry that the scent of garbage and food is sometimes too much. There is even a “Polar Bear Jail” for the recalcitrant bear with a penchant for exploring the town. They are captured and held and then released far away.
Across the world, as a result of hunting and climate change, polar bears are in decline. As the ice disappears, so does their ability to hunt for food. How sad if this magnificent creature were to disappear from the face of the earth because of mankind’s selfishness and greed.
Photographing polar bears is a challenging undertaking. We take most of our images out the window of the Tundra Buggy, using beanbags to steady the camera lens. We take two cameras each, one equipped with a telephoto lens (Sigma 50-500 and Nikon 80-400), the others with a wide-angle lens (Nikon 14-24) or shorter length lenses (Nikon 28-300). You can sometimes use a tripod on the viewing platform but will need to place plates or old tennis balls on the bottom to keep the legs from falling through the grates.
Batteries run out much faster in the cold so we take three each, with the spares carefully tucked inside our Arctic parkas next to some hand warmers to keep them toasty. We try to recycle the batteries every hour or so to keep them charged.
For proper exposure in the white snow and to prevent the camera from giving a false meter reading, we shoot on Manual using the histogram to check the exposure. We frequently need to use the exposure compensation button. A polarizing filter is also essential in bright conditions.
Condensation is a real problem for the cameras, so at the end of the day after removing the media card, we seal our photography bags inside black, plastic garbage bags and let them gradually warm up to room temperature.
In addition to our DSLRs, we use a Go Pro Camera and our iPhones to take video footage of the bears, especially when they are very close.
IF YOU GO
Natural Habitat Adventure organized our expedition. This is the company of choice for all our adventure travel. In addition to their superb organization, they are committed to the preservation of the environment, and their expeditions are conducted accordingly.
For more images go to www.allegriaphotos.com.