Photographing Polar Bears in Alaska – Part 1
Welcome to Kaktovik, Alaska, a small Eskimo village located on the northeast shores of the Arctic Ocean. The small barrier islands around Kaktovik are a great habitat for polar bears, especially in the fall months as they wait for the sea ice to freeze solid. The waters around Kaktovik form part of ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Although polar bears can be spotted from land and from air, the best views are obtained on a boat with a licensed ANWR guide. The waters are surprisingly calm in the bay since the barrier islands help shield it from the rough Beaufort Sea. This makes it ideal for photographing these majestic creatures since we can get in close and maintain an eye-level perspective. If you’re interested, I am offering a Polar Bear and Northern Lights trip this fall.
Although there are many other places to see polar bears around the world, Kaktovik has to be one of the best. By using a small boat we can get in close and photograph the bears from almost ground level. This is very important for shots like the one above with the bear resting on the snowy bank. You can see in the second image how we were able to get down low for the best angles.
One of the most impressive sights is seeing these bears stand up to their full height. It makes you feel very small! They have great balance with their giant paws. In places like Churchill, Manitoba (the proclaimed polar bear capital of the world) you wouldn’t get shots like this since most of the viewing is done from high platforms aboard large polar bear vehicles. In order to be safe, these vehicles have to be much higher than the max height of the bears. In Kaktovik, viewing from a boat is very safe since we can always make a fast retreat in deep water.
One of my favorite things about the arctic is the variable weather conditions and lighting. This provides great variety to the images you can capture. The image above was taken on a rather dull, overcast day. However, a dark cloud near the horizon provided a great backdrop for this bear and made for a stunning image.
At other times, the sun would break through and provide a whole different type of photo. It’s a lot of fun playing with different lighting angles and positions (side-light, back-light). This is another reason why I love Kaktovik. With the boat, we can quickly move from one side to the other to get a backlit shot vs front-lighting. In places like Churchill this is often not possible since the polar bear vehicles have to stay on designated tracks.
This shot of a backlit bear is one of my favorites because it combines a classic nature shot with some more abstract elements. Did you know that polars have translucent fur? Their skin is actually black and their fur allows sunlight to pass through and warm their skin. This is one reason why you can see the outline of the backlit bear so well.
There’s also a wide variety of bears near Kaktovik, from large surly males, to playful cubs. These cubs were some of our favorites to photograph. In this portrait, one of them was chewing on a stick shortly before I took the shot. The little stick in his mouth makes it look like he’s smoking!
Being able to see these bears in action is one of the highlights of the trip. In the first shot above, these two brothers were a bundle of energy. They were constantly playing and wrestling with each other. In the second shot, a bear tried to catch a seagull but he missed. This gull gets to live another day!
As the day winds down, clear skies can offer incredibly warm light as the sun slowly sinks below the horizon. I’ve never seen a sunset last as long as they do up in the arctic. It’s kind of nice photographing a sunset in slow motion! All in all, seeing the polar bears in Kaktovik was such a fun experience that I can’t wait to go again. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog which I’ll be publishing soon. Happy Exploring!
Photographing Polar Bears in Alaska