The Bears of Kaktovik: Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

My passion for photography has resulted in a fair bit of traveling over the years, but photographing Polar Bears in the Arctic was undoubtedly my most exotic photo excursion so far (and certainly the most expensive)!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I was lucky to capture this touching moment between a mom and her cub…

A couple of months ago I had the chance to visit the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean just off the north coast of Alaska. kaktovik_alaska[1]This tiny town (250 hearty souls) is the only permanent settlement on the North Slope portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Although small, Barter Island’s claim to fame is that dozens of polar bears conjugate here every fall before the ocean freezes.   The native people of Kaktovik (the Inupiat) are allowed a substance harvest of 3 Bowhead Whales each fall and the carcasses of those whales attract the Polar Bears year after year.

This wasn’t one of those trips where you do a bit of research on the internet, fly in, rent a car and drive off to photograph the sights.  The tourism ‘industry’ here is in its infancy and unless you’ve visited before and have good local contacts, I’d suggest you book a spot with one of the few photo tours that go to Kaktovik.  These tours  have access to the handful of rental vehicles and small boats that are an absolute necessity for polar bear photography (don’t expect to find a Hertz or Avis in town!)

I went on a tour operated by Hugh Rose.  Hugh is a real pro and has conducted Polar Bear Photo tours to Kaktovik for years.  He truly knew his stuff and he made sure his group got great shots and stayed safe as well.

It is an adventure just to get to Kaktovik.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Judging from this wreck next to the runway, I’m pretty sure the safety record at the Kaktovik Airfield isn’t exactly perfect!

There are no roads to the island, so nearly everyone has to fly in.  We first had to drive 500 miles on the Dalton Highway (aka: the “Haul Road” of Ice Road Truckers fame) from Fairbanks to Deadhorse before a short 100 mile flight in a puddle jumper to Barter Island (there are direct flights from Fairbanks, but our tour included two days of Aurora and wildlife photography in the Brooks Range along the way).   The Kaktovik airport is little more than a short gravel strip with no control tower.  Bad weather makes delays and postponed flights pretty common..so you need to be flexible in your scheduling.

After the five-minute drive from the airstrip, we unpacked in our home for the next few days…the Waldo Arms.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Rustic would be a good description of the Waldo Arms Hotel

 

Basically, the Waldo looked to me like a half-dozen mobile homes pushed together with doorways cut open between them.  The bedrooms are tiny, the bathrooms are communal. There is a dining room and lounge but don’t be expecting the Ritz (or even Motel 6).  With that said, I don’t think we noticed the rough edges after a few hours…the Waldo made up for its lack of style and sophistication with friendly staff, great food and a funky, comfortable, Arctic lodge atmosphere.

No...you don't have to empty your own bedpan...the Waldo does have real bathrooms:)

No…you don’t really have to empty bedpans…they have real bathrooms:)

No granite countertops here,,,

No granite countertops here…

Arctic Humor?

Arctic warning label.

 

Reminds me of my old college dorm!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, Hugh called us together to review our options for photographing the bears:

  1. Rental vehicles (retired ‘shorty’ school buses) are the most common option.
    The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

    Just can’t get there from here…

    You just put your camera on a bean-bag and shoot through the open windows.

    •  The primary down-side of buses is that they can’t always get to where the bears are.  The bears like to spend most of their day hanging out on a sliver of an island about a 1/4 mile or so from Barter island.  There isn’t a bridge, so you have to wait for them to swim over to you.  Fortunately, the bears do make the trip over nearly every day to feed at the boneyard (where the whales are butchered).  However, this area can flood at high tide, so even if the bears are there, the buses can’t necessarily reach them.
  2.  Photographing from small boats is expensive but it is your best way to get great shots.   You are right at eye level…which makes for much more impactful images.  Plus, if the bears aren’t at the boneyard, you can just cruise over to that little offshore island and photograph them there.  In addition,  you might get a chance to catch the polar bears in the water…which is an incredible photo-op!
    • A word to the wise:  If the cost of renting boats is not included in the cost of your tour, get a firm price from the boat owner when you get to Kaktovik.  My impression was that prices can fluctuate substantially depending on supply and demand.  The boats hadn’t been out in 3 days because of bad weather when we were there…so I think the owners made up for lost revenue by charging a hefty premium over the ‘regular’ rate .  This wasn’t Hugh’s fault, the boats are independently owned and operated by locals…and they have clearly learned the fundamentals of American free-enterprise capitalism;)

      The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

      Yes…I said small boats!

  3. Don’t even think about hiking out to the boneyard on foot.  Polar bears have little fear of man…so you don’t want to be walking around anywhere alone, especially after dark or in poor visibility.  In fact, the bears occasionally cruise right into the village (see this link for a recent incident).

Once we heard these three options, well…naturally, we all wanted to go out on the boats.  But the weather was too rough…none of the boats had been able to get out of the little harbor for a while.  Instead we loaded into our school bus and made the short trip to the boneyard.

The boneyard was kinda gruesome and it frankly gave at least a couple of folks in our group the ‘creeps’.  Just the week before, the village had caught and butchered whales (in fact, they had actually caught all 3 of their allotted bowheads in one week…a rare event).

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

After butchering, there are still plenty of scraps that draw in the bears

Parts of the boneyard were nearly ten feet high packed with the bones from years of whale hunts.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Looks like the set from a George Romaro horror flick.

There wasn’t a bear to be seen when we first got there.  Well, we could see them…with binoculars.  Over two dozen beautiful white polar bears were cruising up and down the beach just a few hundred yards away on the little barrier island just off-shore of the boneyard.  But just as it started getting close to sunset, things really got interesting!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

A mother polar bear and her two cubs emerge from the surf…

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

and walk right by one of the buses filled with photographers as they amble over to the boneyard

We parked our bus close to the bone pile and waited.   Hugh spotted three bears jump in the water and start swimming toward us.  Soon they were joined by others…many others.   Most of them ignored us, but the cubs seemed to be curious about people.

One cub got bored with the bones, rose up, sniffed the air and looked over at us.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I smell a photographer…

Then he headed right at us……and he didn’t stop…

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

At a distance, I thought this cub was cute, but as he got closer I was very happy to be inside a nice steel bus!

He rambled right up to the bus.  We enthusiastically honked the horn, yelled and reved the engine to scare him away.  Hugh clearly felt a great responsibility to prevent the bears from getting too close…and too accustomed to humans.  As he explained, those were the ones that eventually might threaten the locals…and end up getting shot in self-defense.

Within a few minutes nearly a dozen bears were milling around within 250 feet of us.

Bear Buffet

Bear Buffet

Inside the bus all you could hear were shutters frantically clicking as the photographers desperately tried to capture the spectacle right before them.

 

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Looks like a spinal column in his mouth…sure hope it belonged to a whale.

 

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Two big bruins take a bead on brunch.

Before we knew it, the light faded beyond the ability of the best camera sensor.  We put our equipment down and silently watched until it was pitch black.  Only then did we head back to the Waldo.

The weather worsened overnight.  Morning dawned with waves whipping across the lagoon.  That meant no boats again.   We checked the bonepile, but the bears weren’t around, so we had a few hours free.  I grabbed a new buddy I had met on the trip, Cesar Aristeiguieta, and we used the time to head out and do our own ‘Photo-Walk’ around Kaktovik.  The village itself is a wild blend of people and culture..both old and new.  It was truly fascinating.  I’ll publish a separate blog about Kaktovik next month and show you some of the shots I took on our walk.  Even without the bears, there is plenty to keep a photographer busy here.

2014 Alaska 091514 01484

Early Warning Radar

After lunch, the weather still wasn’t cooperating, so Hugh took us out in the bus to explore the rest of the island.  We drove past the Cold-War DEW-Line radar facility and out into the tundra to check-out the wildlife.

A number of the folks on the tour were birders and they had a field day over the next couple hours as they spotted one unusual bird after another.  Cesar and I may have been the only non-birders on the tour and, yes, maybe we did joke around a bit and say ‘hey, look…another small brown bird’, but even we had a good time.

After another home-cooked dinner at the Waldo, we suited up in our muck-boots and parkas, climbed into the bus and headed out to find some bears.   It was heavily overcast and the light was far from ideal but there were tons of bears at the boneyard, so we weren’t complaining!The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

We woke up the next day to find that the wind had finally settled down.  There were a lot of photographers on the island from other tours that had also been waiting a couple of days to get out in a boat, but Hugh’s long-term relationship with the locals allowed him to snag one for us.  Cesar and I headed out soon right after breakfast and it took no more than five minutes to cross the lagoon.

Although the sun wasn’t exactly shining, the cloud cover did thin out and we were finally able to get some good light.  Better yet, the bears were very active …it was what military pilots call a ‘target-rich environment!”  I took more photos during the next couple hours than I took on the rest of my entire 10 day tour.  The most exciting 40 minutes of the trip unfolded when two cub siblings ran into the surf and had a rambunctious (but good-natured) battle:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Battle Royale!”

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“What did you just call me?”

After a while (and over a thousand photos), one of the cubs seemed to notice our boat..

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

and then he started to give us the evil-eye… The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Suddenly, he put his head down and started swimming right at us.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

He must have been over 100 feet away, but he covered the distance in a flash.  Our boat captain was paying close attention and  fired up the engine and moved us away.  But the bear got close enough that I didn’t need a zoom for this shot!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Another couple of seconds and I would have had that Nikon for lunch!”

Soon after, the cubs got bored and headed for shore.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

It was amazing how the bears shook water from their fur…like a huge white dog on steroids.

The siblings kissed and made up:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Sorry if I got carried away bro”

And right about then it seemed that every bear within sight decided it was naptime:The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Sleeping bears are cute but soon we started cruising up and down the coast looking for activity.  Although there were still a lot of bruins in sight, they were all snoozing.  After six hours on the boat, my cash was tapped out, so I decided to call it a day and had the captain drop me off at the harbor.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Great Sphinx of Kaktovik

I met up with the rest of the group and we headed out to the bonepile one last time.  By then the light was fading, but one bear was playing on the bonepile like it was a jungle gym:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“King of the Hill”

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I loved it when this bear stood upright and grabbed this part of Bowhead skull…couldn’t have posed him better!

And just like that, the adventure was over.  The next morning, it was time to go.

2014 Alaska 091414 00379

Seeing these magnificent apex predators in the wild was an incredible, emotional and intense experience.  One that I will remember the rest of my days. I made a bunch of new friends, learned a lot about wildlife photography and got a real feel for a world far different from the one I was returning home to.

Polar Bear Photography Tips and Suggestions for my Fellow Photographers who might make this Trip in the Future:

  • You will need a good zoom.  I found my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4x teleconverter to be perfect.  Even when the bears were a distance away, the 400mm was adequate and the flexibility of a zoom was a godsend as the bears moved around.  Plus I think that you would find anything larger than a 400mm to be unwieldly in the bus and on the boat.
  • Bring a second camera mounted with a 50mm or a small zoom (24-70mm or so).  Keep this handy if a bear approaches your bus or boat.  Otherwise you might find you can’t focus close enough to get a shot.    Also, there isn’t a camera shop within 500 miles, so a second body will serve as a backup if you have problems with your primary camera.
  • You won’t really need a tripod/monopod for the bears, but bring a small travel tripod if you get a chance to shoot the Northern Lights at night.  Plus it will come in handy for landscape photography around the island.
  • If your funds aren’t unlimited, schedule your time on the boats to be early in the morning and near dusk.  Although the bears can be active at any time of the day, they seem to be less ‘frisky’ during the middle of the day.
  • Shutter Speed. If the bears are just walking around, a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second will be fast enough to stop the action.  If they are playing in the water and there is water spraying around, you will need something around 1/100th.
  • Aperture.  If light is poor, you may have to shoot wide open.  If the bears are at a distance, then depth of field won’t be a problem.  However, if they are close, you may have to select a higher aperture to avoid having part of the head out of focus.  If so, adjust your ISO up (or set your ISO on an auto function so it does it changes automatically).
  • Fast Memory Cards/Big Buffer.  I love my D800E, but it wasn’t the ideal camera for this experience.  You need a camera that can shoot quickly and has a buffer big enough to hold a lot of shots.  Often the action is fast and furious when the bears are playing in the water.  I missed shots when my buffer filled up.  My friend Cesar, was shooting with a D3 was able to get twice as many frames per second…and his his buffer could handle it.
  • Dress appropriately.  The buses have little heat (but more than the boats!) and the wind on the water can be nippy.  If your extremities are going numb, you won’t be likely to take great shots.  Good gloves, insulated ‘muck boots,’ chemical hand warmers, warm hat and a parka should be considered mandatory.

I hope you get a chance to visit the Bears of Kaktovik…it is quite the adventure!
Jeff

 

PS:  If you would like to see some of my other blogs about photography in Alaska, check out my story about seeing the Aurora Borealis and my write-up about How-to-photograph the Northern Lights.  You might also be interested in my article about the Highlights of my Alaska trip.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Connie L. September 10, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    Great photos! What an adventure! I’ve been to Churchill and am hoping to go to Kaktovik. What is the best timeframe for seeing bears there? When are the whale bones put out? Thank you.

    • Jeff Stamer September 10, 2016 at 7:25 pm #

      Hi Connie,
      Thanks for the compliment, glad you enjoyed the photos!
      September is usually the best month. It really all depends on when the villagers catch and butcher the three whales they are allowed. The year I was there, they had captured all three the week before, but other times, it takes them a couple months to fill their quota. There is a bit of pure luck involved in choosing your time. Good luck!

  2. Jean Bjerke January 17, 2016 at 7:06 pm #

    Wow what an amazing adventure. A photo trip to shoot polar bears is on my bucket list. Have been looking at Natural Habitat Adventures tours in Churchill, Manitoba, and have also read other accounts of great photo ops in Kaktovik. My husband and I drove the Haul Road a couple of years ago, up to Deadhorse, so we have an idea what it’s like up there. Thank you for this account of the details of visiting Kaktovik. Your photos of the bears are wonderful, and your images of Kaktovik, your lodging, the school bus and boats really seem to give a complete impression of what the trip might be like. Makes me want to go there right now!

    • Jeff Stamer January 18, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

      Hello Jean,
      It is good to hear that my blog accomplished its goal of giving you a good idea of what a photo trip to Kaktovik is like. I’ve also heard good things about Churchill and hope to visit that location myself some day!
      Jeff

  3. Shane Hedberg August 3, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    Wow. Amazing shots. Sounds like a great adventure.

    • Jeff Stamer August 4, 2015 at 7:47 am #

      Hi Shane, Kaktovik was incredible…the landscape, the bears the people. Hope I get a chance to return some day!

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