Field Report: Portrait of a Polar Bear Family
Photos by Florian Schulz
From July 19 to August 9, 2010, our team traveled the seas around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, in a small ice-breaker, the Havsel, to film and observe polar bears for our 3D IMAX film To The Arctic. On this trip, we saw an amazing 132 bears! Normally, we would have expected to see maybe 10 to 30. However, because of climate change, the polar bear’s ice habitat has been greatly reduced. Usually, northern sea ice breaks up and flows south along the eastern shore of Nordaustlandet. This year, the 50-mile wide ice floe field was “compressed” into 10 square miles, creating an unusually tight concentration of polar bears. About 200 bears, we believe, were pushed into a small area.
Over that 22-day trip, we shot hours of IMAX film and Red Camera HD footage, and more than 10,000 still photographs. Because of the high cost of leasing an ice-breaker, this kind of 22-day expedition has rarely been done before.
Crew Our crew included filmmakers Shaun MacGillivray, Howard Hall, Bob Cranston, Brad Ohlund, and myself. We were assisted by Rob Walker. Still photographers were Florian Schulz and Shaun MacGillivray. Steinar Aksnes, Arne Sivertsen, Odd-Magne Kvalshagen, and Jason Roberts were our naturalist guides. Norwegian Captain Bjorne Kvernmo was in command of the ship.
The Polar Bear Family Our most unusual encounter was with a polar bear mother and her two 7-month cubs. She was the only bear who would not leave when we approached. All others became skittish and sauntered away. The first time we approached her, she seemed interested in us but unalarmed. We were able to come within 200 feet. Then, progressively, we were able to come closer. When the ice floe was blown toward us, at times we came within 30 feet. Over the next five days we were her “guest.” She never tried to leave us unless she was under attack from an approaching male bear and had to flee.
Our guides were amazed, saying this was unheard of. Dr. Andrew Derocher, a polar bear expert and our science advisor, said he’d never heard of this happening before. Because it was July, it was light all day long. We had a two-person team watching the family in four-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. When she fled from the attacking male bears, we would track her with binoculars from our 40-foot high crow’s nest. Since I take notes in a production log every half-hour, I was able to compile the following list of observations:
Nursing — Before nursing, the mother bear would walk around the ice floe, sniffing in all four directions, then dig a hole, sit comfortably in it and growl, as if saying “come and get it.” The cubs would run over and nurse. She would smell the air every 3-4 minutes, searching for intruders. Then, after about 10-20 minutes, she’d roll onto her side, and the cubs would get jostled off her teats. The cubs nursed two to three times daily.
Sleeping — Much of their time was spent resting and sleeping. The mother bear would sniff for intruders then lay down, and the cubs would come over and snuggle in next to her body. She’d only sleep for 15-20 minutes before lifting her head to sniff the air again, sometimes not even opening her eyes. If she caught a scent, she’d investigate, before laying back down or hustling the cubs to another ice-floe. At least two times a day they’d move, sometimes swimming for a half-hour.
Playing — One of the most endearing aspects of this family was how loving and playful they were. Like cute puppies, the cubs would attack each other, bite their mom’s heels as she walked, sneak up on each other and play with ice chips as if hockey pucks. We got a great shot of the smaller cub jumping from an ice platform onto the back of the unsuspecting larger cub, and then they rolled around in mock fighting.
Attacks — Male polar bears are known to attack and eat polar bear cubs. We witnessed four attacks by larger male bears on the family. The males would approach slowly, reading the scent. We would spot them about 400 yards to 800 yards away, because we were 15 feet above the waterline. (It seemed polar bears do not see or hear as well as humans, but their principle sense is smell.) The mother bear would detect the male when it was less than 400 feet away, sometimes only 100 feet, and then she would sneak into the water silently — or if desperate, leap into the water to escape. Each time the mother did this she growled to her cubs and they would run immediately. One time, the smaller cub did not react, and the mother bear growled again at her, which got her immediate attention.
One Particularly Dramatic Attack — On the night of July 27, the three bears were attacked at 1:30am and then by another bear at 3:45am. In the first attack, the mother bear reacted early, when the male was 1000 feet away, and they quickly swam away downwind and the male lost their scent. After four miles of swimming, the mother bear caught a small seal underwater, pulled it up onto an ice floe, and the family feasted. At 3:45am another large male approached. The mother bear reacted when the male was only 100 feet away and sent the cub’s running ahead. When the male — who moves 20% — 40% faster — got to within 30 feet, the mother bear turned and growled aggressively. The male slowed down for 10 seconds, then resumed the full speed chase. When he got to within 20 feet the mother bear turned again, snarling as if to say “if you want to kill my cubs, you’ll have to kill me first.” The male stopped. The mother continued on after her cubs, who were swimming as fast as they could.
After three miles of swimming, she caught another seal and the family ate everything, licking the blood off the ice-floe, then she nursed the cubs and they all slept. The Captian, Bjorne Kvernmo, said: “...this is a very smart and brave mother. She wouldn’t have two cubs left if that were not the case. Most mother bears will lead the cubs when under attack, however, this mother has trained her cubs to lead the way when danger is near, thus blocking the attacking male.” In another attack the mother bear swam into the wind toward the huge ice-cliff of the Austfonna Ice Field at Brasvellbreen glacier. When she got close to the 100 foot ice-cliff, the wind passed right over her, making the family “invisible” to the approaching male’s nose. She also carefully selected ice floes that are not flat, but have contours to hide in while sleeping.
Warm Days — All the bears we encountered were more active when it was colder. The Captain said this was always the case, as they were too warm during the hot, still, July days. The four attacks we observed took place between 8pm and 8am.
Conclusion We were very fortunate and honored that in the final month of our entire film shoot — which took place over three years and in seven locations — we given a huge gift, the central characters to our film. We learned that being a polar bear mother is perhaps the hardest job in the world. With climate change and the ice melting faster, that job is getting harder each year. I have grown to love these wonderful, fascinating arctic dwellers. It is my intention that this film, To The Arctic, will inform, educate and inspire millions of IMAX filmgoers to care about these animals. Our companion book, featuring the work of wildlife photographer Florian Schultz, should impact even more people. I hope people will then spread the message to as many people as possible. Together we can help protect polar bears and their habitats.