The captain gently guided “Freya”, our trusted Norwegian ship onto the fast ice for the evening, resting the bow gently onto a think panel of frozen water and tossing the anchor into the snow with a “thud”. Our eagle-eyed guides let us know that they had seen a mother and two cubs feeding on a fresh kill and resting about 3 miles from the ship. However, they were paying little attention to us. It was doubtful that would approach the ship but anchoring close for the evening could peak their curiously..
As the photography guide on this expedition, I wouldn't be able to do my job without our guides and spotters up in the bridge, always watching and scanning the horizon for bears. We had already enjoyed a bountiful day of bear sightings so I wasn’t putting too many eggs in this late night basket.
We enjoyed a top notch dinner and settled down for the evening. Our guides assured us that if the bears approached the boat they would knock on our cabin doors. So most of us feel asleep with a telephoto lens mounted to a camera on the bedside table for quick access should the alarm come. I guess I forgot to do so after my second glass of wine…
Around 2:30am, a gentle knock came to our cabin door, “the bears are approaching, please quietly make your way out to the deck if you’d like to observe them.” I remember rolling over and slipping on my boots, I rushed out of my cabin door and make it into the hallway before remembering I forgot my camera on the bedside table, i ran back in and snatched it. I had accidentally left my 12-24mm wide angle lens mounted on the body overnight. Not the best lens for photographing distant polar bears. “I’ll just have a quick look outside” I thought, and a quickly grabbed the camera.
I opened to port-side door the the deck and scanned the horizon for bears. Nothing… It was eerily silent in that moment and I recall a few-wide eyed passengers gazing down in my direction from the upper viewing deck.
Within seconds, I heard the heavy breath at my feet, even before I smelled it (spiced with a tingle of seal, as it were.) I looked down to see the mother bear had stood up on her hind feet and was taking a real good look at my boots from through the gunnel hole. My photo instincts are much sharper than my survival instincts so I bent down quickly and snuck off a few photos before she lost interest, gathered her cubs and make their way into back into the mist. I thanked my lucky stars for walking out into this moment with my wide angle lens. A little luck goes a long way, I suppose.
Close wildlife encounters are incredibly rare, frustratingly evasive and equally as fleeting. If your lucky enough to be in the right place at the time the moment can impact the rest of your life. A huge thanks to NWS for this once in a lifetime opportunity.