Polar Wisdom

There are no guarantees in the world of assignment photography. Even a world-class publication like National Geographic can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars sending a team of carefully selected photographers to the farthest reaches of the planet, only to have them return empty-handed months later. It is certainly not for lack of passion, skill, or effort when this happens, as it often does. Sometimes, the moment you are chasing simply doesn’t appear.

I fail ninety-eight percent of the time when it comes to my wildlife photography, but I was fortunate never to have failed an assignment while shooting for the magazine. There were a number of times I came close – this is the story of one such occasion.

It was the summer of 2007. The National Geographic ship that runs weekly and bi-weekly tours around Svalbard, Norway, lowered my assistant, Shaun Powell, and me into a small Zodiac that sat heavy in the Arctic water. We had jammed it with as many supplies as we possibly could: two thousand pounds of camping and camera equipment, three drums of fuel, and rations from the ship’s kitchen, including a bottle of cheap scotch and half a carrot cake. Confident nothing more would fit, we hit the throttle – the bow of the boat rose into the air, and we were off.

A self-portrait of Shaun and I moving camp by the light of the midnight sun to accommodate for the tide – Arctic living at its finest.

I remember feeling like a hero as passengers on the top deck waved to us. Shaun and I waved enthusiastically back, right up until we collided with the small iceberg they had, in retrospect, clearly been trying to warn us of. Our egos took more damage than the Zodiac, thankfully, and we sheepishly resumed waving after getting back underway. For two months, we cruised the ice-filled ocean, pausing to take refuge in our tents only when neither of us could keep our eyes open any longer. The sky stays bright for a full twenty-four hours in the land of the midnight sun – we often worked all night and slept all day.

The first one, two, or three photographs you see when you flip to a featured article in National Geographic are what I call home-run images – big, beautiful, double-page spreads capable of transporting the reader through time and space. We had not hit any home runs on this trip, much less captured anything that would be usable by the magazine. Wildlife encounters were fleeting at best, and my memory cards slowly filled with generic images of guillemots, kittiwakes, icebergs, distant walruses, and an occasional bearded seal.

With our time running out, I was desperate to capture anything even resembling an iconic, powerful moment when one suddenly presented itself.

Despite our poor luck with local wildlife, there was no shortage of spectacular scenics to connect a global audience with the effects of climate change on the most fragile ecosystem on Earth.

Shaun and I rounded a corner in the Zodiac to discover perhaps the largest bear either of us had ever seen – a thick, healthy, stoic-looking male whose face bore the crisscrossed scars of challenges to his right to breed. He stared at us from behind the half-eaten carcass of a large, adult bearded seal, satiated and sluggish after consuming what we estimated to be at least a hundred and fifty pounds of fresh meat. I held my breath, raised my camera, and motioned for Shaun to nudge us closer to shore, but every time we approached, the bear would become obstructed by some outcrop of rock or pile of snow. He sat there patiently, never moving an inch, but after trying again and again, it became clear the distance between us was too great – only by leaving the security of the Zodiac and standing on land would I be able to get the shot I envisioned.

I am very proud never to have harmed a polar bear in self-defense, despite several thousand experiences with them during my forty years living and working in the Arctic.

Planning to give him control over the encounter, I mounted my camera on a tripod and began taking pictures. I moved slowly and cautiously, allowing him to see, smell, and hear me. I let him grow familiar with the shutter’s click as I worked. His appetite was astonishing – with nowhere left to put the seal meat, every other mouthful he forced down was vomited up moments later. He seemed determined to extract every calorie possible from what might have been his first full meal in weeks.

Other than watching me closely as he tore strips from the carcass, our encounter had been peaceful, and he had behaved exactly as most bears do, in my experience: calmly and naturally. Few things in life are more rewarding than leaving animals the way I found them, and I already had what I needed, so I said goodbye under my breath and slowly backed my way towards the boat.

National Geographic ultimately chose this photo, taken from the Zodiac, to include alongside the story.

Shaun and I celebrated as we zipped back to camp in the Zodiac, harsh Arctic wind stinging our smiling faces. Good fortune had stepped in when we needed it most, and my uncertainty traded places with confidence that I had images National Geographic would find fit to print at last. The scotch we had packed with us was cheap, but later that night, as we toasted our success back at camp, it tasted better than any I had sipped before.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,