Polar Plunge

This all started with a simple children’s A-Z animal sounds book. See my youngest son, Max loves animals. I can’t pin it on that book for certain, but it seems to have been a starting point at least. We used to read that book repeatedly to him and he’d mimic all the animals sounds with great enthusiasm and theatric drama.

Fast forward, through the countless pounds of animal encyclopedias and endless reference materials, to my son today, a high school sophomore. Since I purchased a little Nikon 4100 point and shoot for him and his brother to document our first journey to the Grand Canyon several years ago, he has been hooked on photography. Not just any photography, animal photography. On our many travels together,Β I can only smile and shake my head when I turn to see him sitting animal-less, bored, and idle, as I capture a striking sunset-lit landscape.

Several years ago, the inevitable conversation, came up. If you could go anywhere to photograph, where would you like to go or what animals would you like to photograph? The answer was quick and definite; polar bears and elephants. Hm, polar bears? Elephants, at the time, seemed so far away. I’m afraid they might have just moved up the list. πŸ™‚

So guess what?

I pulled the trigger on the polar bear photo shoot and here’s the story.

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In northern Canada near Churchill, Manitoba, there is a large group of polar bears that congregate each summer through fall and wait.

What are they waiting for, you ask?

They wait for ice, well actually they’re waiting for seals. Ring seals, the polar bears main diet, are nearly impossible for these massive mammals to catch from the shore, but from the ice, the odds change.

In mid to late November the Hudson Bay freezes over and almost overnight the entire polar bear population around Churchill disappears. The bears head out on the new frozen surface hunting for food, which they haven’t consumed in quantity since June or July.

Yes, you read that right, they basically don’t eat for about four months.

Instead they move very methodically, conserving energy as they wait for ice. The polar bear is almost completely 180Β° out of phase with the better known grizzly bear. Summer is relaxing (but not hibernating) time for the polar bears and the cold dark days of winter are nothing but time to hunt and pack on the pounds.

So how do you see these gorgeous creatures in the wild?

It’s nearly impossible to do this trip alone. A guided tour is the best bet and the route we went. Our accommodations were either a local hotel in Churchill, which meant long drives each day out to the tundra with limited shooting time, or stay in the Tundra Lodge. πŸ™‚ Well, let me tell you the Tundra Lodge is awesome. Five star luxury hotel, it is not. Ideally situated on the edge of the Hudson Bay where the polar bears curiously mill around is the big advantage of the tundra lodge. Essentially the lodge is a series of cars (sleeping, lounge, dining) that are linked together with open air decks, drug out to this remote location for the season.

It was common for everyone to pop up during breakfast or dinner and go to the windows to get a closer look at the latest visitor. Awesome!!! πŸ™‚ We had everything we needed, including amazing meals prepared by well trained chefs.

During the day, we’d head out on Polar Rovers exploring the terrain in search of creatures including the king of the north, the polar bear. The rovers simply backed up to the lodge and merged decks. From Sunday to Friday our boots never touched the ground. Inside the rover an independent propane stove Β heated the rover interior and was a welcome sensation each time we popped back inside from shooting on the rover’s exterior open platform.

We were extremely fortunate as the timing of our trip teetered on the ice forming in the Hudson Bay. Basically, the first three days were filled with opportunities for shooting polar bears, and then the cold came. On Thursday, the wind shifted from the north and WOW did it get cold. We thought is was cold the previous days, but someone decided to show us what cold really is in the arctic north. Temperatures hit –40Β° with hollowing winds. The bears we did find that day had mostly decided to hunker down, nose to the wind, and burrow into the snow, letting it drift over them. On Friday, our departure day from the tundra lodge, the bears were all but gone. Out on the ice, they will stay until June or July when the ice breaks up again.

Wow! Think about that, eight months on ice in the dead of winter. Nature is amazing!

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By the way, just to clear something up. The image that has so notoriously floated around with a bear on a small piece of ice, is a blatant spin and extortion of the general public’s lack of knowledge of this creature. Let me explain. First, the polar bear’s latin name is Ursus maritimus, meaning ‘bear of the sea’. Why? Because they spend eight months of the year in the water. EIGHT MONTHS! Swimming polar bears have been spotted by ships more than 100 miles offshore. Not distressed, not panicked, just being polar bears. Polar bears, like all other hungry creatures can and will move to where food can be found. Please keep this in mind, when others try to pull the furry hide over your eyes. πŸ˜‰

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PHOTO TIP

Photography wise, the biggest issue, besides keeping batteries warm is dealing with exposure compensation due to the bright snow. The camera’s light meter wants to average scenes out and make them equivalent to an 18% grey. What this basically means is the camera sees the bright white snow and thinks it should appear dimmer. This is great when we’re shooting overly bright subjects or have lights in a scene that can get blow out easily. However, when we shoot snow, we want the snow to appear white.

If you are shooting in (P) program, (A) 0r (AV) aperture, (S) or (TV) shutter modes, you can dial in some positive exposure compensation. This will take the camera’s light meter exposure and add additional light. Look for the little icon with a + / – and dial in a third (+0.3) or two thirds (+0.7) compensation and you should be good to go. If you’re shooting in manual mode, simply check your histogram and make sure the majority of the white pixels are positioned more to the right side than the middle.

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Stop back next week, as I share the stunning light variations I found in the arctic north. πŸ™‚