Wildlife & Wild Places

Close Encounter with a Polar Bear

Franz Josef Land is the northernmost archipelago in the world, only 560 miles (900 kilometers) from the North Pole in the Russian Arctic. It is uninhabited by humans—except for a few scientists working in the nature reserve—and the wildlife population is robust. The rugged environment is home to thousands of walruses, whales and polar bears.

A polar bear chews on a remote camera tripod. (Photo by Cory Richards)
A polar bear chews on a remote camera tripod. (Photo by Cory Richards)

Photography Fellow and National Geographic grantee Cory Richards joined the Pristine Seas expedition to Franz Josef Land as a natural history photographer. When it came to making an image of the mighty polar bear, it was trial by fire. “I’ve been working for over a month to try to capture something that both celebrates the power of this animal, but also celebrates intimacy and gets us in close. This is my first time trying to actually photograph a polar bear in its natural environment. I’m learning. I’m learning every single second.”

On one of his final attempts to photograph a polar bear, he decided to get out of the boat and go onto the shore, where he saw a polar bear in the distance. The plan was to set up a camera on the beach and hope that the bear would come over, Richards said. “As I get out of the boat, I’m thinking, ‘First of all, this is stupid. There have been fatal attacks on these islands. People have lost their lives here. I’m willfully jumping onto the beach, with a very hungry bear, who has lost the opportunity to escape with the ice pack. I’m now food. I’m part of the food chain. And I’m certainly not the top of it.'” Richards set up a time-lapse camera on the beach, as well as a small video camera. “All that matters right now to me is making an image that has a lasting impact.” But the bear was not paying attention to the team or coming any closer—until they launched a drone.

A polar bear approaches remote camera and knocks it over with his nose. (Photo by Cory Richards)
A polar bear approaches remote camera and knocks it over with his nose. (Photo by Cory Richards)

The team quickly got back in the boat to let the bear be, and the bear’s curiosity led him right toward the camera on the beach. Richards got the images he was hoping for. “I think polar bears are one of the most special species that we can be looking at right now. Their life, in every way, is threatened. Climate change is affecting their environment. Photographing a polar bear, in the current state of the world, is not only beautiful but deeply important and deeply impactful.”

Find out more about the Pristine Seas expedition to Franz Josef Land—in collaboration with Russkaya Arktika National Park, the Russian Geographical Society, and National Geographic—in the National Geographic magazine feature article.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Expedition Raw video series here.

Carolyn Barnwell has been a producer on the Science and Exploration Media team at National Geographic for over five years. She creates content to support the non-profit National Geographic Society including impact initiatives and the important work of explorers and grantees around the globe. She wrote, produced and edited for Nat Geo’s first-ever web series focused on explorers in the field: Expedition Raw and Best Job Ever. She loves yin yoga, wildlife encounters, and eating baked goods while they are still warm from the oven.

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