Every year, hundreds of polar bears gather near a remote town in northern Canada, waiting for sea ice to freeze. It's the largest gathering of bears you can get close to and the best opportunity you have to bring home a trophy — a photograph like this one.
Live polar bear cam courtesy of explore.org, Polar Bears International, Frontiers North Adventures. Explore.org produces and streams all video content as part of the charity's aim to inspire viewers to take action.
Churchill, Manitoba is a town with more bears than people. Here, on the doorstep of the Arctic, the bears gather for the freezing of the winter sea ice, eager to return to hunting seals on Hudson Bay and pack on the calories they've lost during their seasonal fast. But, these thousand-pounders aren't the only ones making the pilgrimage. Every year for one week in November, Churchill's 800 residents share their home with a flood of scientists, researchers and tourists who flock to see the massive creatures waiting for their water to become ice.
Here on the southernmost edge of the Arctic, it's taking longer and longer to freeze, a visible sign of climate change. Which makes being in the presence of these creatures all the more special. Nanuk, wapusk, the white ursus go by many names, and all revere this spirit of the north. Locking eyes with a wild polar bear is like staring straight at a living deity—albeit one whose future we humans hold in our hands.
These animals are battling steadily worsening odds, but here in Canada's wild north you can still experience these endangered bears. You can even shoot them—and take home your trophy. And you can do it with a camera, not a gun. Besides building likes and retweets, those images can potentially help raise awareness, and maybe even convince non-believers about the reality of climate change. Here's how to shoot these majestic bears, in person, or without even leaving the warm glow of your laptop.
Getting There: Northern Canada is ground zero for arctic research, the best place to get the up-close pics you want. Hook up with a local outfit (there are only two in the Churchill area to pick from), and fly in on a chartered twin-prop from Winnipeg. There are no roads in or out of of town, and as long as you stay in the bush, your feet won't touch the ground. Literally. That's because accommodations are trailer-like lodges suspended off the ground, safe enough to keep the bears from breaking in (most of the time), and warm enough to make you forget you're in the tundra.
Invest in a good pair of gloves, scarf, long underwear, thermals and a down parka (do not skimp here). And don't forget batteries and memory cards, lot's of both, because if you buy them in town, expect to pay exorbitant prices.
Equipment: You won't be on foot in the arctic. It's just too dangerous. You'll be on a tundra buggy, massive retrofitted harvesters which can fit up to 30, and come equipped with heating and very knowledgeable guides. Forget a blind, these are the roving studios you will shoot from.
Getting The Shot: Get a good DSLR-level camera. You can get decent shots with your smartphone, but if you're paying for a champagne-level trip, sip from a champagne glass, not a paper cup. And forget your tripod. They're hard to set up, and you'll be spending a lot of time in moving vehicles. Wildlife photographer Dan Cox recommends Panasonic's micro four thirds system, light-weight machines with medium lenses perfect for wide-angles or close-ups. Cox been shooting bears here since the early 1980s, and he knows how to adjust for the very moody weather. It's all about lighting. Because you're shooting a white subject on a white surface with overcast lighting, increase exposure to 1 to 1.5 stops. When it's a bright day with shadows and a bright sun, leave your camera at zero.
What You're Doing Wrong: "The number one thing is not cupping the lens with your left hand or putting your elbow into your stomach, or your side, which helps support the camera," Cox explains. "Movement makes pictures soft and blurry, basically smearing the light across the sensor when the light comes in to be captured. A stable platform gets sharper pictures." To hack that, set up a small beanbag for support, and use a shutter speed equal to or greater to the lens you're photographing with.
Getting The Shot From Home: Frontiers North, which operates an eco-lodge bordering Wapusk National Park, has a tundra buggy that doubles as a roving studio. Eight HD cameras are mounted on vehicles, which live stream the bears as they test the ice. Cams are bankrolled by the Explore.org 501 (c)3 and streamed for "Polar Bear Week." Polar Bears International, an educational partner and grantee of Explore, manages the cams, regularly broadcasting with polar scientists in the hopes of raising awareness. And based on the numbers, lots of folks are listening. More than 10 million hours of video has been streamed in 179 countries, with nearly a million views on the tundra buggy cam since 2012.
Safety: You'll be looking down at bears from the relative safety of one of your lodge's walkways, or via buggy transport. But even off the ground, bears can and do strike. They're not nearly as cuddly as they look—and if you're seeing them in early November, they're bordering on starving. Which means you have to be fast and focused when they're around. Double-that for when you don't see them (being a large mass of white blends in like camo). Never walk alone, even if you're in town.
That goes double at night. Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, who has spent 34 years studying polar bears in Alaska and Canada, and testified to Congress on behalf of these animals, puts it simply: "As far as trying to get the best picture, the thing is slow, deliberate movements, and don't make a lot of racket," he says. "If you have anything hanging out of the buggy, a big bear could reach up and snag it. I've seen them reach out when a camera strap is hanging down. Make sure you have your camera strap over your neck or secured. I've seen people with lenses drop to the ground—most of the time you can't get that back." So don't lean over the edge of railings, or towards these animals. People are on the menu. No touching and no feeding (it's a felony). The general rule: don't expose any body part you wouldn't be upset to lose.
Top Photo: Allan Hopkins, other photos Adam Popescu and Explore.org.
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