There's a duality to the polar bear. White coats in animals symbolize purity and magic, yet polar bears are also the Arctic's apex predators and most infamous-and famous- residents. This fearsome beauty is, in part, what makes them intriguing and culturally significant.
During my expedition to the Arctic, I wanted to focus on this duality as it has always fascinated me regarding predators like the polar bear. On this particular trip, Mother Nature delivered, and I had the most moving wildlife encounter of my career.
After arriving in Svalbard, we embarked on a repurposed research vessel, the R/V Kinfish, which would become our home for the days to follow as we searched for polar bears and Arctic life of all kinds. Researchers had not spotted many bears yet that season, so our expectations for sightings were low. The Kinfish's last expedition, which ended the day before we boarded, had one bear sighting on the final day of their voyage and at a very far distance.
When we left the dock and moved further into the archipelago, it wouldn't surprise me to discover we had landed on another planet. With the constant light, marking the familiar passage of time is impossible, and the days melt into one long yet exciting waiting game, scanning the horizon for bears and other signs of life. It can be nearly impossible to spot a bear in this vast territory blanketed in snow and rock, even with binoculars.
While I love minimal environments like those in the Arctic, the residents of these territories can remain invisible if they so choose; their camouflage and ability to disappear into the backdrop allows them to survive.
Several days in, we were approaching a point in our expedition where travel would be impossible based on pack ice, and the landscape became even more surreal and serene. If you looked over the boat's edge, you could see our ship, Kinfish, move carefully through the massive shards of ice melting into the water for the season. We pulled up to the pack ice’s edge for the night and readied ourselves for bed. Just as we had settled into our rooms, our captain came over the loudspeaker announcing a bear had been spotted. Eagerly, we jumped into our survival suits and lowered the Zodiacs into the water.
This had the potential to be an incredible sighting, given how close to the water's edge the bears were, but keep in mind our movements were isolated to our Zodiacs. You never know what could happen next, and the bears could get up and walk inland without notice to disappear into the landscape. Yet as we approached the ice, the mother and cub remained entwined and comfortable resting at the water's edge. We spent about an hour with them as they slept, which by any measure is an exceptional sighting.
However, this would just be the beginning for us, and the next few hours would become my career's most extraordinary wildlife encounter to date.
Svalbard feels like a whole new world. It is one of the most dramatic and beautiful places on Earth, with snowcapped peaks that end at the water's edge, ancient glaciers in brilliant blue hues, and sea ice that the water has sculpted into organic, floating forms. Low-lying clouds embrace the landscape around you, and the light lends a peaceful ambiance to everything it touches. Everywhere you look, you are treated to a breathtaking vista.
Most wildlife encounters are seconds or minutes, so I rarely have as much time as I’d like to be reflective on expeditions. However, with the length of time we had with the bears, I could put my camera down and process this experience as it unfolded. As I was taking in the beauty of this place, the bears began to move.
The cub started to play, and the mother followed. They climbed and slid down a nearby embankment, headfirst, and then again, on their bellies. After a few rounds on the ‘slide, the cub began to pounce on the ice's edge, breaking off pieces of ice and then tossing them in the air only to catch them and throw them in the water. Diving in, the cub would retrieve the ice, or what was left of it, and start the whole spectacle again. He was clumsy like a child learning about dexterity but in the most charming, captivating way. Hours passed as we watched the mother and her cub swim and play, amusing themselves in their natural playground.
Two hours had passed, and we were still privy to the most incredible show on Earth. Beyond any of these elements, the humanity of the mother and cub together left an indelible mark on me. Watching any young animal is typically adorable, but the bond between mother and child is universally significant and easily recognizable.
Maybe it’s because I am in a similar phase of my life, raising my two young children, and I intimately know the joys of these moments. Or, it's because, as an artist, I always look for meaningful ways to connect with the subject, primarily through scenes that endear themself to the viewer.
As the Zodiacs took us back to our ship, I felt like I had gotten to know these two animals in a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, allowing for a deeper understanding of the softer side of these apex predators. We can only love and protect what we understand, and I knew I had captured a moment that anyone could appreciate for its symbolism and beauty. The two hours we spent with these two were beyond powerful, and they reinforced my love for all things wild and free.
If you are interested in learning more about future trips to Svalbard with Drew, please click here.