It sounds relatively easy. No food? Find another food source. But this is the arctic. There isn’t a tree for hundreds of miles and game is scarce – both on land and at sea. When the summer pack ice melts and disappears every year the bears have to adapt. Some travel further out to sea where large ice sheets remain and some travel to the arctic coast hoping to find food.
For years the native population residing in the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island has traditionally hunted Bowhead Whales off the coast to feed their community. Polar Bears have always inhabited the region adjacent to Barter Island but in recent years have been attracted the leftover and discarded whale parts. For years Inupiaq whalers discarded the whale bones into a pile just outside of the village – which inevitably attracted Polar Bears.
Nowadays, the bone pile is gone but the bears keep coming – whether this is an instinctual reaction or they are just hopeful – the bears keep coming. Every summer from about mid-August through mid-October, Polar Bears arrive daily looking for a whale feast.
Kaktovik is situated on the Northside of Barter Island along a protected lagoon. This lagoon provides a calm respite from the pounding waves of the arctic ocean and is a great place for the Polar Bears to hang out while they wait for the ice to form.
Our photography expedition involves a small, open-air boat that allows us to maneuver through the shallow arctic lagoon in search of Polar Bears. But we don’t have to search – they are right there. Within five minutes of pulling off the shore, we can usually find bears as they forage, wrestle and swim along a stretch of land known as Bernard Sand Spit.
What’s so remarkable about this trip is that we are able to position our boat in ways that allow for extreme close-ups of these bears. Sure you need a long lens but the quality of up-close photographs that can be made is second to none in the world.
Svalbard has better scenery and there are higher numbers of Polar Bears in Hudson Bay but nowhere on the planet do we as humans have close-up and safe access to photograph Polar Bears like at Barter Island, Alaska.
Like anywhere in the Arctic – conditions can be all over the map. Wind, fog, rain, snow – beautiful bluebird skies – you name it. I’ve personally never traveled anywhere in the world with such constantly changing weather conditions as Alaska. This dynamic environment can be a challenge for photography but it can also make for some incredible atmospheric conditions.
On our two trips this year we seemed to be constantly treated to incredible sunsets and backlit conditions. I’ve never had the opportunity to get such amazing Polar Bear silhouette photographs. The detailed close-ups are relatively easy to come by on this trip – you know the ones with the bears looking right at the camera!
What I find to be the more interesting shots after having led these expeditions for some time are the rarer moments like a spring cub standing up and waving at the boat (yes this actually happened – multiple times) or a large boar (male bears are known as boars) with the mighty Brooks Range framed directly behind him in perfect light – those are the “aha” moments and we definitely got them in droves this year.
Northern Lights photography is tricky on Barter Island as one has to be careful of roaming Polar Bears after dark. We generally do most of our Northern Lights photography in Fairbanks before and after we travel to Barter Island to photograph the Polar Bears.
One interesting fact about the aurora – is that it runs in a narrow oval or band around the polar regions of the world. When we are on Barter Island we are actually North of the more active aurora displays and so often we are looking south to photograph the Northern Lights – wrap your head around that one!
Fairbanks is one of the best places on the planet to photograph the Northern Lights as it sits just underneath the Auroral Oval – and fall is often one of the best times to see them as the skies are generally more clear than at other times of the year.
Needless to say Polar Bears of the Alaskan Arctic is quite an adventure and one of the more exhilarating and rewarding photography trips we offer. There really isn’t anything quite like coming face to face with the Arctic’s most fearsome predator.
We only take six photographers at a time on this trip and usually run two departures. Space is extremely limited each year so if you want to join us make your reservation early. Click here to learn more.
I hope to meet you in Fairbanks sometime over dinner at Lavelle’s Bistro before we board that bush plane up to Barter Island in search of Polar Bears!