Shooting Polar Bears with micro 4/3rds

Driver Jim (no relation) was cursing the weather, the rock hard summer tires on his Tundra Buggy and its frozen, useless wiper blades.   The blowing snow had created conditions of zero visibility so it was a moot point that he couldn’t see out his snow streaked windshield.   With both differentials locked, the vehicle surged up the slight incline and the cabin rocked ferociously to the left as loose items and dozing passengers were suddenly flung across the center aisle accompanied by the sounds of alarmed surprise.

Fortunately, this was not how my trip began.

Churchill, Manitoba is a small community on the edge of the western shore of Hudson’s Bay.   It also happens to be the most accessible location on the planet to view polar bears in their natural environment, Canada’s own version of Kenya and Botswana.  And with considerable shame – something I only recently learned despite living my entirety in Canada.

a1CalmAir
Calm Air ATR42, an Franco Italian regional airliner with Canadian Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines. Our group of 22 started off as a dedicated photo tour but since it was the end of the season, it became more of a mixed group of people. Privately chartered flights are the way to go, no security screenings and you drive right up to the plane.

Clearly, the rest of the world knows.  Our group had an Aussie, a German, a couple from Singapore and a large number of Americans including a family represented by three generations.  Only four of us were Canadians.  And they were all willing to meet up in Winnipeg at the onset of winter and fly another 2 hours North, at considerable financial expense for a four day stay.

a3ChurchillCrop
Churchill, Manitoba from a helicopter’s view. A town of 800 at the transition between boreal forest (taiga) and the tundra. During WW2 it was an important refueling station for Boeing B17 bombers manufactured in Seattle, WA and flown to Europe.  The population swelled to over 4000. It then became an important port for grain exports to Europe (the large grain elevators are visible by the shore) but the abolishment of the Canadian Wheat Board in the 2000s and the poor condition of the rail line has made this financially unviable. There are no roads linking Churchill to the south.  In 2017 a giant snowstorm followed by flooding during the Spring melt damaged the rail track bed.  The American company that owned the rail line refused to spend the hundreds of millions required to repair the damage and the town was cut off for two years.   Finally a consortium of First Nations and local governments bought back the track and restored the link although considerable work is still needed to stabilize the track bed fully so that it can sustain heavy loads at normal rail speeds.    Churchill should be a bustling port of the future with the increasingly ice free North West Passage and the possibility of solid bitumen exports from the Alberta Tar Sands to Europe instead of pipeline building. 

Cape Churchill is a north facing shelf extending 50 km into Hudson’s Bay.  A number of factors combine to make ice form first at this specific location year after year attracting the population of about a thousand polar bears to migrate through Churchill on their journey across the frozen Hudson’s Bay to their winter hunting grounds for ringed seal.   These being the prevailing NW winds, the counterclockwise current of the Hudson’s Bay sweeping loose ice directly onto Cape Churchill, and the draining of vast quantities of fresh water from the Churchill, Nelson and Seal rivers which freeze at significantly higher temperatures than the sea water of Hudson’s Bay.

a6TundraBuggyLodge
Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Lodge on the shore of Hudson’s Bay. The residence is erected and dismantled after only a 7 week period each year and during that time some staff members do not touch terra firma for the entire period. Certainly the guests don’t since you are either in the space station like Lodge or you are in a Tundra Buggy.  The highly respected company has been running the original ecotour since the 1980s and has been granted access to the prime areas of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.  GM-1 with Lumix 14mm f/2.5 lens, ISO800 1/6000 s

If it’s brown, lie down.  If it’s black, attack.  If it’s white – good night.

Polar bears do occasionally make their way into the center of Churchill despite the town eliminating all traces of food wastes.  Inhabitants are taught to approach building and street corners slowly and since there are no roads outside of town, all car doors are left unlocked to allow a quick and easy sanctuary.   Bears are typically driven away with firecrackers and repeat offenders jailed for a month (with no food) before physical relocation.  Not only are these dangers avoided by staying at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, there is easily an hour saved by not having to travel from the town to Cape Churchill.

a7TundraBuggyLodgeBerth
My berth for the next 3 nights. They are arranged like bunk beds in an overnight rail car. I brought my OM-1 and GM-1 and the E-M1X as a backup body along with the MC-20, Lumix 14mm f/2.5 and Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro.  And my ultracompact 11″ MacBook Air which Apple no longer makes in its infinite wisdom. The blanket is the famous Hudson’s Bay Company blanket used historically by the British to trade for furs from the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. It is also a sinister symbol of colonial crimes against humanity. Often these blankets had been used by smallpox victims and allowed the British to introduce biological warfare to decimate indigenous populations.
a5WFBearonIceHelicopter
The utter desolation of the tundra is enough to make a human curl up and cry. But it’s just another day for the polar bear while he waits for ice on the Hudson’s Bay to be strong enough to traverse. Evidence of earlier ice formation that was weakened by warm southerly winds and fractured by the rising tide. Taken from a helicopter flight and soft because of the speed of the craft and the distortion induced by the curved plexiglass canopy.
a4LoneBearfromHelicopter
A lone polar bear begins the trek to his Northern hunting grounds with the formation of solid ice on Hudson’s Bay. Our tour was the last one of the season and our driver was concerned we would see no bears at all, they all having left the mainland during the previous week.  Zuiko 150-400 mm f/4.5 at 150mm ISO 1600 1/1000 s OM-1 from helicopter.
a2RedFoxCrop
Red Fox encountered in town. These are the same species that I see in Toronto but their range has expanded so greatly with climate change. They are also significantly larger than their Arctic Fox cousins and are able to out compete them. Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 OM-1 ISO 1600 1/100 s
a10RingedSeal
Ringed seal in the distance on surface ice in Hudson’s Bay. Ringed seal are amongst the chief diet for polar bears, especially newborn pups which are particularly rich in blubber. Often the polar bear will simply strip the skin and blubber from its victim leaving behind the rest of the corpse untouched.  Eating blubber is the most energy efficient way to add fat to the polar bear since the costs to assimilate the fat is very low as opposed to protein.  Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 at 500mm f/5.6 ISO1600, 1/200s OM-1

The next morning we set off for our first full eight hour day with our Tundra Buggy carefully following old military trails through the conservation area to avoid damaging the environment.

a8SoftImageBearTrio
“Who Farted?” A mom and her two yearling cubs. The use of MC-20 boosted the focal length to 800mm at f/9 with the Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro telephoto lens. This along with the severely overcast skies with dim daytime lighting and the occasional gust of wind spreading snow particles produced distinctly soft images. I stopped using it shortly thereafter.
A9Mom&Cubs
Mom and her cubs are often the last to leave for the ice on Hudson’s Bay in order to prevent any inadvertent confrontations with the occasionally violent male. Male polar bears do kill and eat cubs. Their snouts are dirty from digging into the shoreline for kelp to eat.

The biology of female polar bears is fascinating and unrivaled.   Mating typically occurs on the ice in May and the act of intercourse actually stimulates ovulation.   The embryo remains unimplanted for four months until it is determined that the female weighs at least 300 kg and has 200 kg of fat reserves, otherwise the pregnancy is absorbed.  The female builds an underground den and gives birth in December to a small 0.5 kg baby and begins nursing it for the next 2 years.  During these initial months, the mother doesn’t eat or drink anything and her waste products are reabsorbed by her body.  Her heart rate drops from 70 bpm to 8 bpm and the baby rapidly gains weight from the high fat content milk, emerging from the den in March 10-14 kg in size.

A11ArcticFox1
The exquisite arctic fox. He was so small that I initially mistook him for a weasel or mink. In the summer their fur turns brown and grey to help them hide in that environment. Notice the formation of hoar frost on the grass stalks.
A11JumpFox1crop
The Arctic Fox listens carefully for the sound of small rodents like voles and lemmings burrowing beneath the snow. When he has triangulated its position, he jumps high in the air and dives through the snow to seize its prey.
B1PolarBearWednesday1
Hand held high resolution image of a sleeping male polar bear. This season the Hudson’s Bay ice broke up on June 19th so this male has not eaten for 150 days so everything a polar bear does is to conserve energy. Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro at 253 mm, OM-1 ISO800, 1/3200s
Extreme closeup.Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro @ 450mm f/5.6 OM-1  ISO800 1/2000s
Extreme closeup. Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro @ 450mm f/5.6 OM-1 ISO800 1/2000s
B3Sleeping2
Hand held high resolution image of a truly relaxed and sleeping male polar bear. Not only is his unprotected belly exposed, he still has to roll over before being able to rise and respond to danger.  The polar bear is the largest bear on the planet and an expert swimmer, capable of swimming several hundred kilometers at once.  Males weigh 1500 lbs and females half that.  The biggest weighed in at 2200 lbs and a standing height of 11 feet.
b4PassengersinBack
The sleeping male has garnered the attention of all the passengers in Tundra Buggy #11. Frontiers North has about 15 of these custom made vehicles with #1 the oldest in the active fleet. Each new buggy represents an evolution in design beginning in 1979 with 4WD, monster mud crawling tires and able to seat 40 passengers. The height markings in the rear show that the average male polar bear will never be able to climb onto the rear platform ensuring safety for all (bears reach 8-10 feet in height).
b5Buggy1
Buggy #1 no longer carries passengers but has been converted into a mobile science classroom with its own Internet uplink. In association with Polar Bears International, students from all over the world can see real time interaction between the polar bears and the scientists on board.

b6BearUnderBuggy

b7BigBearUpperHead
This male is missing fur from his neck revealing the black skin underneath. This is damage suffered from fighting with other males. He also has a matching black tongue.  His ears and tail are minimal in size to prevent heat loss.
b8buggybear
The same male made his way to the Tundra Buggy Lodge and socializes with one of the staff members.
b9BearPeeringUpBuggy
He then made his way to Buggy #9, and here I am carefully peering over the edge of the rear platform before he has a chance to stand and fully extend himself.
b10BearUnderGrating
The polar bear’s most acute sense is that of smell. He can smell a seal more than a mile away. Which is why he spent his time with us sniffing very loudly before moving on. Humans are too skinny for them to be desirable to polar bears.
DistantSparSunset
I had to crank the ISO to 3200 since these two sparring males happened at sunset when conditions were getting very dark. At 1/40s, 400mm f/4.5 there is simply too much movement and noise to get a sharp image. Hopefully we’ll encounter another male pair tomorrow morning.
b12BlackSpruceOneSide
Sunset. The stunted growth of these 4-5 feet high black spruce trees marks the transition from Boreal Forest biome to Tundra. And the distinctive loss of only one half of the branches from the tree trunk is caused by the winds coming consistently from the North West blowing hard and abrasive ice crystals against that one side.
c1AxelDriving
Our youngest expedition member takes a turn at driving the Tundra Buggy, which at less than 5 kph and light traffic is pretty safe.  With the terrain now thoroughly frozen, our progress is generally faster and easier than for preceeding tour groups.   With mud and open water, the buggies could get stuck in hidden holes and one buggy actually lost one of its driveshafts when it buried its rear axle so deep into an unexpected water filled pit that the driver feared for the safety of his passengers as the rear was now at ground level.   
c1TwoClownswithPieFaces
Polar bears alternate between the ridiculous … and the deadly. Here these two are buried in the snow bank to gain some shelter from the chilling winds.
c2Sparring1crop
Despite the proclivity of polar bears to conserve energy, males will often spar because it’s good for their mental health. While males become sexually mature by age 5, they often don’t procreate until they are much older since real fighting does break out during the mating season and age brings both size and experience.  Those bites do draw blood but no damage or pain since there is 3-4 inches of fat right under the skin.  The fat is what keeps the polar bears warm, not his fur coat.

c3Sparring2

c4Sparring3

.... all tired out after a a bout of sparring.
. . . .  spent and exhausted after a bout of sparring.  His hands are the size of dinner plates, for good weight distribution and swimming.
c6BigMaleWalking
One of the males has had enough of all these humans staring at him and leaves the area.

c7BlowingSnowAd

MomCubStorm
Another Mom and her single cub (typically cubs are born as twins) emerging from the storm.
c8PtarmigansCrop
Ptarmigans, are very common as we saw them often and in numbers amongst the islands of willows that grow like brush. In the summer they have brown feathers and like other members of the grouse family are widely eaten by us.
c9PtmariganBigfeet
Ptarmigans, like all snow adapted creatures, have big feet to allow them to walk on snow without sinking into it.

With whiteout conditions all Friday, we decided to cut our time short in the Tundra Buggy and fly back to Winnipeg before all the flights out of Churchill became grounded.  It was a glorious experience showing the attention to detail that comes from a highly refined business.  Every meal we enjoyed was Toronto restaurant quality, sophisticated and delicious.   We lived in great comfort in one of the most remote and harshest areas of the planet.   Our drivers had decades of experience and were true wildlife experts with a deep understanding of polar bear behavior and how to find them.   Many return to Jasper, Alberta to operate Snow Cats on the ski slopes for the remainder of the winter.

While there are many tour operators, Frontiers North is a wholly Canadian venture and the original.   Others will not have access to prime polar bear areas that they do.  Others may not spend 8 hours in the field, preferring to give you tours of the town.   And still others will not have Tundra Buggies, but use conventional vans with armed guards to protect their clients when they emerge to view the bears.  They advertise that their clients are able to photograph bears at ground level giving them a more authentic appearance than those taken from an elevated platform.  This is of course specious.  I defy anybody looking at telephoto shots to discern that they were taken at a slight elevation.

Once again, I was the lone Olympus photographer.  Which has the advantage of nobody knowing the painfully expensive cost of the Zuiko 150-400mm f4.5 Pro telephoto lens.   One Canon pro photographer on the trip brought his L Series 600mm f/4 .  Impressively big but those have been around for so long that used ones on eBay are easy to find and easy on the wallet.  I was able to carry all my camera gear in one average sized knapsack, no specialized camera bag, no hard shelled foam lined Pelican cases.  Just an unassuming knapsack.   The successful wildlife photographer is the covert photographer.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s