Trip Report by Amos Nachoum, BigAnimals Expeditions Leader

As soon as we arrived in Svalbard we met at the operations headquarters for a full review of our cold weather gear: boots, undergarments, upper layers, hats and gloves.

In short order it became quite clear that we needed more protection in order to survive the extreme cold, especially since we would be driving eight to ten hours a day in an open snowmobile.

After that, there was a basic introductory course in Snow Mobile driving, for those of us who were new to it. We packed all our gear and camera equipment onto one trailer. On another trailer we secured our food supply for the week, along with fuel, a first aid kit, and satellite communications.

We were ready to leave. Before setting out, our expert guide re-checked the map, weather and ice conditions. To our disappointment we learned that earlier in the year the ice had thinned right at the main staging area where the most and best polar bear encounters take place.

Our daily plan was to seek out (and hopefully witness) the ultimate in wildlife behavior: a mother polar bear escorting her cubs in search of seals.

We came here with high expectations and excitement, simply because this level of adventure was ordinarily reserved only for television and movie teams. But the Big Animals expedition team had received a limited offer to have this extraordinary, out-of-reach experience.

And then we were off.

It was a strange sensation driving my snowmobile across the endless iced fjords in Svalbard. Despite all the gear the team provided, driving fast through the cold air, my upper body was cold no matter how many layers I wore, yet my lower body warmed the longer and faster I went.

Due to the change in weather and ice thickness, the guides quickly re-evaluated and decided to pursue other, potentially promising fjords further north rather than south. The first section of our drive was merely getting out of town; but after few miles we were treated to a dreamlike view of sheer white: hills and valleys, mountains and glaciers. All ice. Countless shades of white, yellow and blue. It was simply breathtaking and totally mesmerizing.

After the first day, the guides got a report from the other teams that there were two female bears, one followed by three cubs and the other by two. The first was said to be shy and wary, while the second was more at ease with people around her. We set out to find the second family.

After three hours of search, including a stop for hot tea and a snack, the guides located the mother and her two cubs! We all rushed to view the King of the ice through our binoculars.

At this point, in order to reduce the amount of noise, we left the snowmobiles behind and followed the trailer that carried our cameras as we approached the mother bear and her cubs. The mother bear would be hungry and she had two cubs to feed. Wildlife photography is first and foremost about the welfare of the animals themselves.

So we approached cautiously, patiently and respectfully.

We stopped at about 400 feet away at first in order to observe her and let her get used to our presence. We stayed there for an about hour. It was very cold being stationary. When the guides noticed the bear going about her business and not being bothered by us we inched 200 feet closer on the snowmobile.

Then still closer: 100 feet! From three we could see her sniffing the air, recognizing our smell. Her two cubs played behind her, rolling around and then getting close to her.

The mother then laid down on the ice with her front legs stretched out in front of her, placing her head between her legs and closing her eyes as if sleeping. The young ones came near and snuggled her.

We did nothing but observe, motionless. Another hour passed, then two and I was freezing. My fingers and feet were numb and I could only shake my hands and wiggle my toes to get some circulation.

The first to wake up were the cubs. They began climbing over each other, biting and hiding in the crevices of their massive mom. Soon enough she too awoke, stood up and looked at the cubs. They stopped playing and just watched her as she was watched them, as if she were giving them some sort of a lesson. She then turned almost 360 degree, a slow, full, circle, then sat. One of the two cubs approached her side, leaned in and went to nurse on the dark nipple that we could easily see even at our distance. Shortly after the second cub showed up and did the same. We were in awe, witnessing this warmest most tender moment of an apex predator.

I was shooting as fast as the camera would allow, not missing a moment. I had no idea what was coming next, nor how long this amazing scene would last. But it continued for 10 minutes or longer, before she fell asleep again. We decided to take a break, too, moving out a dinner of nuts, cookies, tea, coffee and pre-made noodles in hot water (such is the diet on the ice safari) on the ice.

The question was: should we go back to camp to sleep or follow her? it was not really a question. The guides merely wanted to see how determined we were. We stay with her, we said in concert.

We found her an hour later, ambling slowly across the ice with the cubs, as usual, trailing behind her, playing, falling behind, then racing back. She was on a mission. Her head was close to the ice, with her nose sniffing, actively searching for a seal hole, explained one of the guides. “You must be still,” he insisted, very firmly. No moving, no walking and no shaking or shivering, he said, demanding total silence.

The mother bear laid down for reasons that were unclear from our point of view. This time her paws were facing each other, her head resting on them and her nose to the ice. The guide explained that was she likely smelling a seal very close under her, near the ice.

Any movement or any step we would have made would have been amplified under the ice, chasing away the seal and forcing the mother and her cubs to have to wait longer to find another meal. We sat still on our rear ends or knees on the ice, enduring the cold and the long wait.

My camera was mounted and focused for 20 minutes, then 30, 45, an hour, and finally 75 minutes. My ends of my finger, toes and nose were numb and I couldn’t stop biting my lips and dreaming of the blue sky and white, warm beaches of Indonesia. Then, like a bolt of lightning she jumped from a totally motionless position, stood up on her hind legs and with all her power bent over and punched the ice, practically disappearing into it. I could only see her tail end up in the air. Her head and upper torso and arms were deep in the ice.

The cameras whizzed away and my eyes stayed glued to the viewfinder. Suddenly, just as fast as she’d punched the ice she came out of the hole with a dripping seal held firmly grasped between her two mighty paws! I could not believe my eyes. I quickly looked again at the monitor: did i get it????

Yes, i got it.

As the bear pulled the seal out, she quickly struck down with her powerful jaws onto the poor seal’s neck, pulling it of the hole. Blood began dripping on the ice, marking the encounter site. The cold, stark contrast of white and red on the kill site is a grim reminder of the power of this species.

What started as so warm and nurturing ended with a climactic act of bloody predation. Then, much to my surprise, after having initially laid the dead seal on the ice, she picked it up again, carried its motionless body to the hole, dipped it in and pulled it out again She repeated this action about six times. “She’s teaching the young ones how to hunt,” our guide explained.

Embracing this amazing and rarely witnessed vision, I invite you to join me next season. I would be more than happy to share the adventure with you and teach you the appropriate photographic tricks it takes to capture images like these.



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