It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6-1/2 months since I visited with the polar bears of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s hard to believe that Kaktovik,in the fall season, was about 70+ degrees (farenheit) colder than I find it in the spring of south Florida. Especially hard to believe that we actually had the most amazing of weather while I was there … from sunny clear days to misty/foggy days to snowy days … but the notorious arctic winds were never strong enough for us to be grounded in the 5 days. Quite lucky for us … adding to the unbelievable experience that I had there.
On this morning, it was lightly snowing … just enough to make it pretty for the composition, but not too much to cause problems with the actual photography experience. I have to admit that it was probably my favorite morning for capturing the “mood” and environment they lived in … see, polar bears should be in the snow. At least that’s what I had always thought while growing up. 🙂
I love to imagine what it was like for the polar bears to roam around on the arctic landscape each and every time I took their image. While the one above seemed to be enjoying the snowfall, I wondered if it sensed that the period of waiting for that ice to freeze was shortening and it knew that soon it would be off on its hunt across the frozen landscape. Or was it simply enjoying the snowfall and trying to catch a snowflake? LOL Didn’t matter to me … either scenario was intriguing to me.
One by one they made their way down the shore of Barter Island and as they did, I struggled with how exactly I wanted to capture them. So I opted for a variety of near and faraway images to better tell their story of struggle, survival, and love for their young. I wanted to hang onto every ounce of emotion that I was feeling as I possibly could. Sometimes they would encounter others along the way … while other times they would simply pass by them, while other times, they would stop to interact with a sniff, a swim in the water together, a submissive move away from the dominant bear, or engage in a bit of a pushing match … which I’m sure was also a lesson in learning one’s hierarchy status. I couldn’t help but notice the differences in their coats – a range of creamy white to quite “dirty” looking … probably a consequence of dining on whale blubber. The most tender moments, that would instantaneously melt my heart (and serve to keep me warm out in the cold) were the moments and images captured of moms and their cubs. Of course, the cuddle moments were highlights on that list. When they snuggled, whether playing or napping, they were absolutely endearing to photograph. These cubs were generally “cubs of the year” and therefore about 10-11 months old. Interestingly, only pregnant female polar bears den during the winter, where they give birth somewhere between Novemeber and December. Females then emerge from the den when the cubs are old enough to safely do so, usually in March or April. One afternoon, I probably hit my “squeal quota” observing the antics being performed by this young cub, in its attempt to entertain itself while its mom was resting nearby. This cub had THE BEST TIME with this stick, that it managed to find on the snowy landscape, as it wielded it around and around, and falling clumsily over and over, all around it. I remember how it played with it for probably 45 minutes while we watched. During that time, it seemed that time stood still for me. I don’t remember breathing (though I’m sure that I did), I don’t remember feeling my heart beat or my chest expand and sink with my respirations. I simply remember hearing the clicking of my shutter … endlessly … and feeling a huge smile spread across my face. My heart was melting. I found another true “happy place”. Finally I guess the thrill of playing with that stick was gone because the cub eventually abandoned it and returned to its sleeping mom. I sensed that the cub was a bit uncertain if it should wake up its mom, but it cautiously and gently tried to approach her. To my surprise, the mom responded by sitting up and rolling over, patting her cub on its head. Nursing of the cub soon followed and just in case I had any heart space that hadn’t been touched yet, that moment sure sealed the deal.
I’ve said previously how impressed that I was with how wonderful these polar bear moms were … patient, nurturing, loving, and kind … though still in charge when necessary.I noticed also that they moms appeared that they would take turns watching over each others cubs, enabling a sleepy mom some much needed rest, especially those who still had several cubs in tow. The moms were never far from their cubs though, which was refreshing to see. Speaking of refreshing … look who’s playing a game of “Tag” and “Hide & Seek”? These two cubs were so entertaining as they swam around and under this iceberg, climbing up it a bit to get a better vantage point to check on it playmate. It was so heartwarming to see them playing as such, reminding me of our own young children … having fun, learning new things, interacting with others, all while being supervised by their mom. Well, maybe they do that more than some humans do, but that’s a whole other story. LOL.
Yes, these polar bears were such interesting subjects and by day 3, I think that we had learned so much about them and their behaviors. Good thing too, for that’s when wildlife photography really can kick in, being able to anticipate their behaviors and next moves. It also allows you to open yourself to enjoy the experience more. As I write about my experiences, emotions that I dealt with, and share these images, one thing that I know for sure is that I will return to see and photograph these amazing polar bears again one day. How could I not? There will be more polar bear images and stories later this summer, but for now I’ll return to more birding action from Florida … UP NEXT.
© 2015 Debbie Tubridy / TNWA Photography