Journey to northern Manitoba, part II
It was Day 3 and besides yesterday’s brief encounter with the sow and cubs, I was frantic to find and photograph some polar bears at my own pace. Don’t tell my mother, but I also wanted to be eye level with these magnificent beasts which the guide wasn’t permitting. I’m not advocating for anyone to ignore local words of caution—I understood why the guides have such strict policies and appreciated their commitment to not stress the bears. However, I absorbed the guides advice, have a fairly good understanding of bear behavior, know my own abilities/limits, and share the commitment to not stress the bears. So, my objectives were to hire a bear guard, and rent a vehicle. A couple fellow travelers from Australia who I had become friendly with (and coincidentally had met a year ago, in remote Prince Rupert BC on a whale watching excursion) agreed to rent the vehicle with me which I was more than happy to accept! More eyes to scout for danger. But, surprisingly, finding a bear guard turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had imagined, and eventually we ran out of time. We had heard that a United Kingdom (UK) filming crew might be shooting video at the whale carcass with their own bear guard, so we decided we would try to mooch off their guard, and if they weren’t there, we would keep a much safer distance from the bears, and stick close to the vehicle. We loaded into the rental Jeep, which drove like shit and blinked the “check engine” light insistently, making our way out to the coastal dirt road en route to the whale carcass. Within 10 minutes, “Oh my God…” I spotted a large polar bear resting in a thicket of evergreens. The excitement hits like a punch to the gut. He didn’t care for our vehicle, and immediately lumbered into the pines. Hoping that he might exit the pines uphill, we drove a bit further and sure enough he was lazily walking out of the pines and through some sand dunes dotted with purple wildflowers, against a backdrop of rocky shoreline. See my photo “Miss Piggy” for my best shot from this short encounter. He quickly disappeared again into the pines and we climbed back into the Jeep headed for the whale carcass. When we arrived to the site of the whale carcass we let out a holler of thanks—the filming crew was there, the bear guard was there, and at least 2 polar bears were there! One polar bear was passed out, legs spread, face down in the open belly of the whale carcass… clearly gorged to exhaustion, and not wanting to give up his seat at the dinner table.
A second bear was 60 yards to our right, also passed out, butt raised in the air.
This second bear was snow white and clean so we presumed it was waiting for its turn to feast. The filming crew had been there for many hours, were bored out of their minds, and had devised a clever game of throwing stones…. at other stones… I got set up with my Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod, Nikon D810 with the Tamrom 150-600mm lens, and hooked up to a remote shutter release which allows me to “click” the shutter without actually touching the camera, and thus eliminating camera shake. At this point we were a solid 100 yards from both bears, but also about 40 yards from our vehicle. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long for them to wake up and start making moves. The bear at the carcass, let’s call him Steve, got to his feet and was licking the bloody insides. The bear to our right, let’s call her Bernadette, got to her feet and began to move in the direction of the carcass. An epic stare-down commenced. Steve lowered his massive head, mouth ever-so- slightly agape, and leaned forward menacingly as Bernadette slowly approached. Bernadette maintained a calm, nonchalant demeanor and moved closer and closer. Her body language was innocent, like “Hey, just out for a stroll, didn’t even see ya there. What’s that, a whale?” Steve on the other hand, was throwing her a death stare that would make a grown man cry. See Steve’s death-stare below in photo. In unison, the film crew started chanting “Fight. Fight. Fight.” I really shouldn’t build this up any further because despite all the makings of a school yard brawl, Steve was too full to start shit, and besides some posturing and loud growls, Bernadette was permitted to share in the bounty.
For a couple hours I snapped about 1200 photos, getting as close as we safely could, about 45 yards. The danger was low—the whale carcass acted as an ideal distraction for us. The bears were eating well, focused on feeding, and only glanced at us occasionally. I’ve found in my close encounters with black bears that body language communicates intentions, both in my perceptions of the bear, and the bears perception of me. They look for signs of human aggression, and they will show you warning signs of aggression and discomfort- this could be aggressive posturing, jaw-smacking, mock charge, death stare, head-down-slow-swagger, etc. It is fairly simple to read a bears comfort level, and polar bears are similar in these respects. If the whale carcass was not there, it would have been a whole different ballgame.
After tearing apart the whale and eating several pounds each, the bears slowly lost interest and focused their attention on finding comfortable places to nap. Feeling satisfied and thrilled with our good fortune, we piled back into the Jeep and headed back to the lodge. After watching the bears bury their faces in rotting whale guts, I was hungry for a good steak.
For those photographers curious about the more technical side, here is a basic overview of my equipment and settings I used on this shoot:
Remote shutter release
Manfrotto CF tripod
Manfrotto ball head
Usually fully extended at 600mm, at f6.3 in Aperture priority mode. The background was very barren, so I wanted a narrow depth of field (blurred background) to keep the focus on the bears without too much busy elements distracting in the background. Shutter speed was , which is fast enough to freeze moving subjects. I had my ISO set to auto.