Polar Hide and Polar Seek

7 Day Nature Photo Challenge: Day 1
My friend Barrett of BearHead Photography nominated me for the Nature Photo Challenge. Barrett is an incredible photographer, and intimately in tune with nature. His beautiful work reflects this perfectly. Thanks for the nomination! Let’s see if I am able to keep up with this….the goal is to post one photo for the next seven days, all while nominating a new person each day.

Polar Hide and Polar Seek
Spotting wildlife is never guaranteed. In fact, at times it feels like Mother Nature is actively advising her creatures to hide from me. But every now and then, she surprises you with a scene that goes beyond your wildest dreams. This was the case for these courting polar bears in the high arctic.

On the final full day of my 11 day Svalbard expedition, we sailed to a location not typically known for hosting polar bears. I was sad that, in all likelihood, I had already seen the trip’s last polar bear. But it had been a good trip for bears; with 20 or so sightings around the archipelago, and the weather on this day was great. The low angle polar sun provided perfect photographic conditions. Lots of light, blue sky, and puffy clouds. We manned the zodiacs with the goal of bird photography. I observed these two bears and the agenda quickly shifted….

In this scene, a large adult male bear is following an adult female. The sexual dimorphism between them is striking. But despite his substantial size advantage, the male behaved like a nervous teenager that lacks the courage to ask for a date. The female played it cool. Mostly ignoring him as she sniffed the beach, occasionally giving him a playful glance back. This ballet went on for over 2 hours. These bears had each other’s full attention; my zodiac and I weren’t given a passing glance. At one point the female slipped behind this lichen covered rock, as if to hide from her suitor. With the line of sight on his target temporarily obstructed, he froze in his tracks, and waited for her to reappear. I was able to capture this moment, complete with his reaction.

The famous polar bear warning signs posted in Svalbard have the Norwegian words: “Gjelder hele Svalbard” and the image of a polar bear. Which means “Polar Bears to be found all over Svalbard”. The sweetest words in the Norwegian language!

I was nominated by Barrett Hedges of BearHead, and will nominate my friend and fellow polar bear photographer Jack Cunningham. Jack and I met shooting brown bears in Alaska and have traveled to Churchill for polar bears. Check out his website herehttp://www.jackcunninghamphoto.com/

Svalbard: Alkefjellet

A zodiac explores Alkefjellet in Svalbard. Look how small the human component is in the scheme of things.

Some of the most influential forces experienced by planet Earth are contained within the borders of this photo. To list a few: glacial ice, volcanic basalt, Carboniferous limestone, and human existence can all be observed in the scene. Each component has contributed significantly to day-to-day operations of our planet. Whether we are aware of it or not.

Volcanoes erupt rock and create new landscapes, and glaciers polish these new landscapes away. The cliff’s white limestone base indicates one of the more prolific periods in the geologic record; the Carboniferous. This is the period of when forests dominated the landscape, and extraordinary amounts of carbon were sequestered in limestone and coal fields. As such, the Carboniferous period also is responsible for much of the coal and fossil fuels used by industrial man. It is the release of this sequestered carbon that contributes to acceleration of climate change, and increasing the rate of retreat for the glacier depicted here.
Aug 21, 2015
#svalbard #glacier #zodiac #volcano

A zodiac is swallowed by the massive cliff off the northern coast of Spitsbergen.
A zodiac is swallowed by the massive cliff off the northern coast of Spitsbergen.

Svalbard: Lilliehook Glacier

The first morning out….August 20, 2015, Svalbard.

After a rough night sailing through stormy arctic seas (motion sickness medicine was a lifesaver).  The ship, Sea Spirit, made its way through the Krossfjord and King’s Bay, finally entering Lilliehöökfjorden. We dropped anchor and manned the zodiacs to explore the Lilliehöök Glacier. We faced a horseshoe shaped wall of ice. 7 km across, 80m tall, and stretching to the horizon with jagged peaks poking through the ice and clouds.  

Arctic, beluga, birds, glacier, ice, icebergs, Krossfjord, lilliehook, Spitsbergen, svalbard, whales, wildlife
Lilliehook Fjord, massive glacier bay with mountains poking into the clouds, and ice stretching as far as the eye can see.

The only place ice didn’t meet the sea was where a mountain stood instead. In-between these mountains, glaciers spilled out into the fjord.  At least 14 glaciers!  This was the biggest glacier bay I had ever been in.  Of course, this “accomplishment” would soon be “defeated” by other, more massive fjords of Svalbard, it doesn’t detract from the impression this fjord made on me.

The green-blue water was silky smooth and looked thick with glacial silt.  The underwater housing was working, but the  “thickness” of the glacial water limited visibility. Nonetheless, I practiced using this new piece of equipment.  Afterall, this was my first time doing underwater photography in the field!  A bearded seal swam lazily around the smooth water, coming close to a zodiac that I was not in.  Shortly after spotting the seal, a pod of beluga whales surfaced for a few minutes, before diving deep and moving on. 

In terms of photography, the stop in Lilliehöök provided a gentle warm up session to get into that “photo-mindset”. Not all the zodiac expeditions would be nearly as smooth and easy.  In fact, many times the arctic sea conditions were not conducive to producing interesting photography, that is, unless the photographer was adequately prepared and exercised sound judgement in the field….For me the learning process never ends. and the conditions I experienced in Svalbard forced me to re-evaluate and adjust some of my preparations.

Alaska: Kenai Fjords NP

Part 1 Kenai Fjords + Seward

The September Alaska photo expedition began in Anchorage where my parents, who were on their way back from a week in Denali, picked me up. The time here was spent hiking, hunting for wildlife, and taking a boat ride to view Fjords from the sea.

Day 1- Anchorage to Whittier, Portage Glacier hike
Day 2- Seward, Exit Glacier hike. Kenai Fjords National Park
Day 3- Seward, tour of Northwestern glacier and fjord. Kenai Fjords National Park

The definite highlights of this portion of the trip was the Exit Glacier hike to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjord National Park. This is a beautiful, but relatively strenuous, 8-9 mile dayhike with a 3000 foot elevation change. However, the rewards for this trek are plenty.  Wildlife dotted the hillsides, and the view of the Harding Icefield is spectacular.  Ice stretching to the horizon as far as you can see, with mountain peaks poking through. 

The next day was a Kenai Fjord boat tour.   9 hours in length, it leaves Resurrection Bay  and hugs the coastline all the way down to Northwestern Fjord/Glacier. The views afforded from a seaside vantage point were spectacular. This is one place that is best experienced from the water (unless you are an expert glacier traverser).  The only way to improve on this boat experience is to go by kayak, gliding silently between the icebergs and camp on some isolated beach.  Wildlife was also abundant. Wildlife photography from a boat is typically never easy, and when you are using a fixed 600mm lens with 1.4x extender, the challenges are increased even further. But despite this, I was able to get get some decent bird, seal, sea lion, and orca photos. However, my mom was able to capture a couple orca breaches! Very jealous of that!

The Seward area is tucked into a bay surrounded by seaside mountains, therefore there isn’t much sunrise or sunset light getting the ground, save for the highest peaks.  But each night I was take walks and use this period of gentle light to search for eagles in the surrounding areas.  I was even able to use the fiery sunset colors with some eagle “headshots”.

Glacier Grizzlies

In preparation for my trip to Katmai National Park this week.  Here is a small gallery of photos taken on a single day from last years trip to Glacier National Park (Sept 2012).  These were taken in the Many Glacier section of the park. It was crawling with bears, both grizzlies and black bears.  I was shooting with Jeff Callihan.  We made sure to stay upwind from where we assumed the bears were located, thereby alerting them of our presence by scent. We saw several grizzlies, including a mother and her cub.

One of the grizzlies got a bit too close for comfort, as seen in this gallery. We handled this bear calmly, carefully and respectfully. The bear had been popping in and out of the thicket for several hours, never coming within 200m of our position. We remained stationary the entire time.  After sometime, the bear began to appear closer to our position. When she emerged from the thicket about 40m away, we stood up and slowly moved, side by side, away from the thicket and into the meadow to give her right of way should she desire it.  Looking at us, she kept coming towards us.  When she charged in our direction, we spoke firmly to her, reassuring her of our implicit human-ness.  The charge was likely a curious, exploratory one. But one can never be complacent with a charging grizzly, and the simple act of showing our backs could have triggered the predator/prey instincts of this apex predator. 

At the nearest, she was within 20-30 feet of us.  Once the situation was defused (without needing to spray the bear), Jeff and I quickly left the area and returned to his truck with a freshly invigorated respect for these powerful animals. 

The Grizzly bear is a subspecies of the Brown Bear. To be clear, a grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis) is an interior North American Brown Bear and was so named by the “grizzled” (read: silver tipped) appearance of its coat, which can be observed in these photos.  This subspecies is different from its larger and less “grizzled” cousins found in the coastal regions of Alaska, including Kodiak Island and Katmai NP, and other brown bear subspecies (Russia, Europe).  Despite this, and this is where the confusion stems, the eponymous term Grizzly Bear has been applied to both the inland and coastal varieties of the brown bear. This is because the name “Grizzly Bear” is so awesome that the people near other brown bears got jealous and wanted a name more inventive than “brown bear”.  While it is true that a proper inland grizzly bear is pretty awesome, other brown bears are awesome too, so they shouldn’t feel jealous of their smaller, meaner kin.  The interior grizzly bears can be found in places like: Yellowstone NP in Wyoming, Glacier NP in Montana, Idaho, Washington, the parks of the Canadian Rockies, and inland Alaska (such as Denali NP).  There is also an indie band named “Grizzly Bear”, but don’t let their lame and wanna-be obscure musical styling confuse you with the ferocious nature of this animal. Unless they took inspiration from a grizzly bear’s hibernation period, it would have been more appropriate for them to call themselves “Prairie Dog”.