By Paul Nicklen with Cristina Mittermeier
It had been a long time since I had any feeling in my feet or hands as I sat on the sea ice in Svalbard, Norway, at minus 22°F. I wanted to jump around, stomp my feet, and swing my arms to entice the feeling back into my frozen limbs, but I did not dare move for fear of scaring away the pair of polar bears I had been watching for more than 24 hours.
For 15 years I had been hoping to witness this moment. As a wildlife biologist and photographer for National Geographic, I have spent countless hours observing polar bears hunting, catching seals, nursing cubs, and sparring with each other. I probably have seen over a thousand polar bears in the wild, and yet, I have never watched them mate. I sat quietly on the frozen Barents Sea, watching the drama of a mating pair. The huge male tried everything in his power to entice her to mate.
When we first came upon this pair, my assistant, Karl Erik, and I parked our snowmobiles facing away from the bears, which allowed us to have an easy escape route. As we waited in silence, hour after hour, for the couple to consummate their courtship, the idea of capturing this moment that I had dreamed about for so many years became a lump in my throat, and I had to control my hands shaking in anticipation.
The thin, weak, and unpredictable conditions of the sea ice surrounding Svalbard, Norway, in recent years had forced me to put this assignment on hold for several years. Traditionally, sea ice envelops Svalbard and the surrounding islands year-round, but like everywhere else in the Arctic, things are changing fast.
Svalbard is now facing historic sea ice declines. Even though it was March, when the sea ice should be at its largest seasonal extent, we were only able to find a tiny strip of ice on the east side of Svalbard.
The bears were plentiful as there was nowhere else for them to hunt seals, but the lack of ice and lack of opportunities for the bears to hunt meant we had frequent visits to our camp by hungry bears on a near nightly basis. We saw many instances in which bear trails disappeared into the slushy soup of an ailing frozen sea to find solid ice again only several hundred yards away.
A close look at sea ice reveals its life-giving properties. After the long winter months, when the sun finally returns to the Arctic, phytoplankton starts to grow on the underside of the ice. The tiny plant communities that thrive there create an inverted garden that becomes the base for the entire food chain. Tiny crustaceans, such as amphipods and copepods, feed on the phytoplankton. Also feeding on this soup of tiny creatures is the Arctic cod, a key component of the Arctic ecosystem that has a direct effect in the energy transfer between the plankton and the larger vertebrate species like fish, seals, walrus, and marine birds. The mighty bowhead whales, as well as beluga whales and narwhals, also feed on the cod. And at the top of the food chain, the apex predator, the polar bear, feeds on seals and walrus. In the absence of sea ice, polar bears lose their hunting platform to chase seals and are then confined to land.
A couple of years ago, I escorted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter around Svalbard. As we looked into the frozen landscape he told me that if people are to care about complex and distant issues, like climate change and the loss of sea ice, then we will need to find a common and simple language to share and spread the facts with the rest of the world. To me that language is photography; it gives me the opportunity to create evocative images that speak for the polar wildlife and their dependence on healthy polar environments. The polar regions that have been my lifelong playground are disappearing right in front of my eyes, and I want my images to become banners of hope, ambassadors for a world very few of us will ever see.
As dire as things are, polar bears are still thriving in many areas, and I still love finding big males hunting, females playing with their cubs, or young males fighting. On that cold spring day when I found a mating pair I waited for as long as I could. Just when I thought I could not take the cold any longer, the female finally got up, calmly walked over to the sleepy male, and nudged him to mate. I wiped my frosty breath away from the viewfinder, ready to capture whatever happened next.
At that exact moment, another large male appeared out of the corner of my eye. He ran at the other male, roaring. The female ran away into the sea ice with the males in hot pursuit.
I was left sitting on the frozen ground, in complete disbelief. The moment was over. I had lost the chance of a lifetime, but will never forget being so present in the drama of nature. Perhaps one day I will have another chance at making this photograph. For now, I will be content with the memory of an incredible day spent in the company of bears.
Paul Nicklen is a wildlife photographer for National Geographic. He recently published the book Bear: Spirit of the Wild.
Sea Legacy is an initiative created by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier to use their talents as biologists, photographers, and writers on behalf of marine conservation. Sea Legacy aspires to create new marine protected areas around the world to promote a healthy ocean and planet.