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)!
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. 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.
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.
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.
Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, Hugh called us together to review our options for photographing the bears:
- Rental vehicles (retired ‘shorty’ school buses) are the most common option.
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.
- 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;)
- 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).
Parts of the boneyard were nearly ten feet high packed with the bones from years of whale hunts.
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!
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.
Then he headed right at us……and he didn’t stop…
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.
Inside the bus all you could hear were shutters frantically clicking as the photographers desperately tried to capture the spectacle right before them.
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.
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!
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:
After a while (and over a thousand photos), one of the cubs seemed to notice our boat..
Suddenly, he put his head down and started swimming right at us.
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!
Soon after, the cubs got bored and headed for shore.
The siblings kissed and made up:
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.
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:
And just like that, the adventure was over. The next morning, it was time to go.
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!
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.