Prepare to be blown away – Polar bears

By Ellen Cuylaerts

 

Junior climbing out of a breathing hole for seals after taking a polar plunge.

Junior climbing out of a breathing hole for seals after taking a polar plunge.

When Amos asked me to write about my experience during the Big Animals Polar Bear (hunting & nursing) expedition last May I could not say no.

 

But how to write about an experience that is so raw and pure that it is too overwhelming to describe in words?

Lucky I am a photographer and I can try to capture my experience in images that will speak for themselves if words should fail.

We booked this trip with Amos as a duo, Michael Maes (wildlife cinematographer) and I. We would be accompanied by Tom, our polar bear and safety guide and by Amos himself, who scouted this trip the year before.

Majestic older male awake…in between sleeping in front of a glacier.

Majestic older male awake

As with all wildlife expeditions, the best way to embark on a journey like this is to leave all expectations at home but to be prepared at all time. We’re talking wildlife here and our subject is one of the top predators Ursus Maritimus, the polar bear,in his realm: the last Arctic wilderness. Translated in traveling this means: arctic clothing and a camera that can perform in the cold enhanced by a tele lens to be able to capture the subject from very far. (Svalbard has strict rules regarding protecting polar bears from humans and vice versa: you can observe but not actively approach, that’s why you need the best guidance there is).

Arriving in Svalbard we were met by Amos and Tom at the airport and we immediately reconnected and connected. It’s always a joy to be in the field with like minded people on a mission. It’s always a joy to be in the field with like minded people on a mission.

The first job was to repack our gear to be carried by sleds behind snowmobiles and our basecamp would be Sveagruva, a mining town about to be closed. Sveagruva is located next to the Van Mijnenfjord and we were hopeful the remaining ice would be strong enough to carry us 4 on our snowmobiles looking for polar bears.

We were prepared to leave more comfort behind us and to stay in an old trappers hut but the condition of the ice in the fjords decided differently. Climate change is a reality and year after year we are confronted with the consequences which add to the drive of capturing images and footage of subjects that suffer the most.

…in between sleeping in front of a glacier.

…in between sleeping in front of a glacier.

Within minutes we left Longyearbyen on our snow scooters we were surrounded by a winter wonderland, an experience I’ll never forget. The vastness of the area, having at times 4 bears around us, nothing more than a dot, hardly able to see with the naked eye, feeling humble to be there and the long waits anticipating what direction a bear would go or when he/she would wake up. To be in the middle of the elements, to experience this lonely and harsh environment, to be exhausted from the cold and to breathe yourself through cramping up, not wanting to move because the ice carries every sound, and to want to go out again and again…that is what wildlife photography is about.

 

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Young male in his hunting attempts. ‘Tai Chi Bear’

Our encounters were like being in the middle of a BBC documentary. We connected with the animals we observed because being focussed on them for a long time, you start to read their character and yes, we were guilty of naming them. We’ll never forget Junior, a young male, who did not get the concept of preserving energy yet and enjoyed digging holes in the ice to go for a swim or to gallop away some distances and look like a horse.

Scar an older male made quite an impression too. Majestic but scarred for life by fights with other males, he showed us what a predator is all about: relaxed confidence because he knows he is at the top of the food chain. Only we know that his faith is vulnerable and his food is becoming scarce. Confronted with that truth we left the ice after 5 exhausting days. Grateful and with lots of inspiration.

Only we know that his faith is vulnerable and his food is becoming scarce. Confronted with that truth we left the ice after 5 exhausting days. Grateful and with lots of inspiration.

Thank you, Tom Foreman, for your excellent guidance and thank you Amos Nachoum for the wonderful inspiring dedicated person you are! We thank you for the experience and we’ll make you proud spreading the message of the challenges in the Arctic area.

Uncertain future

Uncertain future