Nanuk of the North – the Polar bears of the Canadian Arctic

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Revered in Inuit mythology as Nanuk, the great white bear god of hunting, the Polar bear is considered to be wise, powerful, ‘almost a man’.

There is something about these great wanderers of the North that haunts the imagination . As the planet’s largest land predator, they are one of the most iconic and impressive animals on earth. The last time I photographed polar bears was four years ago on a trip to Svalbard, so I was looking forward to spending time with them again.

For my trip to Svalbard I had been aboard a Russian Icebreaker. This time we would be looking for them taking an altogether different form of transport – Tundra buggies!

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A Tundra Buggy is an all terrain vehicle capable of negotiating the difficult and challenging landscape of the Arctic Tundra – a fun, if bumpy, way to travel! It’s also offers a great way of getting close to the bears that are best adapted to this harsh and inhospitable environment.

Seeing Polar Bears is usually guaranteed at the time we had planned our visit; the bears gathering in late autumn on the edge of Hudson Bay waiting for the ice to form. With climate change, the pattern over the last few years has been that the ice has formed later and later each year, around about early December. This year though, a major storm occurring on the 10th November, followed by some really cold temperatures down to – 40 below meant the sea ice froze much earlier. Whilst great news for the Polar bear population of Churchill , eager to get on to the ice to hunt, it was not so good news for us, meaning there were not as many bears around as we had hoped.

On our first day out on the Tundra Buggy though we got lucky, coming across a mother and her young cub.

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Tundra Buggies usually take forty people. Natures Images though had hired a Tundra Buggy for a small party of 12. Having the Tundra Buggy all to ourselves  was a tremendous advantage so far as photography was concerned. It meant we could dictate how long we stayed with our subject. Mother and cub spent a lot of time sleeping making it very much a waiting game.

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The bond between mother and cub was really wonderful to see, making for some intimate images.

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Our patience was eventually rewarded when the cub becoming restless and got up to explore, delighting us with his antics.

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Eventually he found a willow branch to play with which was lovely to watch.

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When he had exhausted the fun to be had with his stick he found an object closer to home to play with. Open mouth, insert foot!

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Whilst we enjoyed the cub’s antics, its protective  mother was never far away, ever watchful. With a big male bear passing through the area scattering a group of ptarmigan, mum was taking no chances.

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In total we had  four days on the Tundra buggies . With many bears already out hunting on the vast sea ice we had to work a little bit harder, travelling big distances over very difficult terrain and with the risk of getting stuck, to find our subject. Hard work though reaps its own rewards and we had some great encounters.

This next image is for my good friend Tracey Rich. Bit of a Polar bear Pilates vibe going on here!

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We found a couple of really big males in particular patrolling the sea ice. Because the ice had only recently frozen it provided a perfect, pristine setting for our subjects.

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This next image is one of my favourites from the trip. Small in the frame, with the expanse of sea ice beside I love the sense it gives of the polar bear in its natural environment. The raised paw is the icing on the cake.

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It was really interesting to watch the bears’ behaviour, this particularly impressive male testing the sea ice.

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On our last day on the tundra buggy we had a difficult day with very poor weather conditions and no bear sightings which was a shame. The best though was yet to come.

On our last afternoon of the trip though we headed out of town in our 4 x 4 vehicles in the hope of one last sighting of a Polar Bear. Again, we got lucky finding this huge male bear. It was a particularly memorable encounter. Once again the decision to hire the 4 x 4s proved inspired, allowing  us to get a low angle from which to shoot. It was a humbling experience to be eye to eye with this beautiful powerful animal. Just look at the size of those paws!

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As the sun began to set we were also rewarded with a sun dog, an ice halo effect created by the refraction of light from ice crystals in cold weather. A truly breathtaking phenomenon.

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The last three days it was very cold at – 35 degrees, causing problems for our camera equipment. There was also the risk of frostbite, which one of the group only just about got away with.

Our polar bear encounters were wonderful and for a couple of the members of our group very emotional as a life long ambition realised. For me though our various encounters with another polar species, the Arctic Fox, were the undoubted highlight of the trip. And its to the beautiful Snow Fox to which  I will be devoting my final blog of the year,  just in time for Christmas….

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6 Responses to Nanuk of the North – the Polar bears of the Canadian Arctic

  1. Rona Morgan says:

    Stunning pictures Jules. You really capture the magic of those moments.

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Thanks Rona. hopefully brings back some memories of our Polar bear encounters in Svalbard a few years back. Great memories. Love to you and John x

  2. Paul Cox says:

    Absolutely stunning images Julian, I feel very lucky to see them. What a beautiful landscape with such ‘adjectives fail’ creatures.

    Have a lovely Christmas.

    • jcoxfoto says:

      hello Paul

      Great to hear from you mate. Thanks for saying such nice things about my images. You’ll like the next blog I think…Arctic Foxes. A very Happy Christmas to you and the family.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Stunning photos. Thank you so much for sharing.

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