Polar Bears of Baffin Island

by Jonathan Huyer
May 14, 2016

“Arcticus Feverus” is the term given to an irresistable draw to the north, and I knew on my very first trip above the 60th parallel in 2009 that I had caught this incurable bug.  From the stunning landscapes to the incredible wildlife, and the wonderful people and culture, I’m hopelessly hooked.  The polar bear is without question the icon of the north, and after witnessing the rare and unique sight of a newborn cub emerging from a den in Wapusk National Park two years ago, I desperately needed to go back for more.  In April 2016 I joined a small group on an exploratory trip to Baffin Island, with the goal of observing and photographing polar bear mothers and cubs as they made their way out onto the ice from the dens, to hunt for seals.  The journey was organized almost entirely on the word of the local Inuit, who indicated that newborn polar bear cubs can be found in the area in early April.  But we were definitely not being frivolous, because the Inuit are renowned for their observational skills and accurate reporting.  With this reliable research in hand, six intrepid photographers and a complement of guides made their way to a remote cabin north of the town of Qikiqtarjuaq, at 68 degrees latitude.

aurora borealis by Jonathan Huyer

Our cabin on the icy shores of Baffin Island.  The northern lights are visible on virtually all clear nights.

Travel through the area was by snowmobile and qamutik (sleds), over the frozen sea.  We spent hours each day cruising through the immense area, gawking at the fjords, mountains, and icebergs that made us feel so incredibly small.  Polar bears tend to gravitate towards the icebergs, as the churned-up ice in the perimeter makes for excellent seal pup den locations.  Bears can detect the dens by smell, and will try to excavate the nutritious meal before the pup can escape.

Icebergs Baffin Island by Jonathan Huyer ©

Our group on the sea ice, with dozens of locked-in icebergs to explore (panorama of 3 images)

Our first three days searching for bears were unsuccessful, but then we started to score some luck.  We found two separate Moms with yearling cubs, relaxing on icebergs and giving us wonderful poses.  The photography was simply a dream, being able to choose any angle we desired (from the requisite 100 metre distance), in a truly fabulous setting.  The bears were curious, having quite possibly never seen people before, and they were also relaxed since the Moms quickly realized that we were not a threat to their cubs.  I didn’t expect that some of my best shots would come with a wide-angle lens, capturing the entire scene.

Mother and yearling cub, relaxing on an iceberg by Jonathan Huyer ©

Mother and yearling cub, relaxing on an iceberg

Close-up of the same bears, using a 500 mm f/4 lens by Jonathan Huyer ©

Close-up of the same bears, using a 500 mm f/4 lens

The photos of yearlings were lovely of course, but we were after the Holy Grail, which was newborn cubs.  It took until our 6th day out of 7 to locate a family close enough to photograph, in an extraordinary encounter that left us utterly awestruck.  When we spotted them, the bears had just finished dining on a seal pup adjacent to an iceberg.  We approached slowly, and upon hearing our snowmobiles the bears then moved on top of the iceberg.  Our first look at the bears was a complete surprise – their faces were covered with seal blood.  At this stage, the cubs are still nursing, but Mom is obviously keen to wean them onto fresh meat.  The amount of mess they made was reminiscent of a toddler trying to eat spaghetti!

Polar Bears - messy eaters by Jonathan Huyer ©

Family of messy eaters

We spent a precious 40 minutes with this young family, until the mother calmly walked off towards the shore in the blowing snow with her cubs.  It was a spectacular encounter, and made the long hours of searching so incredibly worthwhile.

Polar bears into the Blizzard by Jonathan Huyer ©

Into the Blizzard

The snowstorm continued through the night, and our final day dawned calm and bright.  We knew that any tracks we could find would be fresh, and we spent the entire day searching.  It wasn’t until the last hours of the afternoon that we came across another mother with a pair of newborns, adjacent to an iceberg.  It turned into a glorious opportunity.  Once again the Mom was completely relaxed, while her cubs snuggled and played.  We could walk right around the iceberg, and photograph from any angle we desired.

Mom and polar bear cubns with backlighting by Jonathan Huyer ©

Mom and cubs with backlighting


Polar bears by Jonathan Huyer ©

View from the opposite side

Wide angle photo of polar bears on iceberg by Jonathan Huyer ©

Wide angle shot from the same vantage point

This was obviously a tremendous topper to our trip, and we grinned like schoolkids for the entire 2-hour ride back to the cabin.  The next day we began the long journey home, enduring another long ride in the qamutiks, followed by a series of interrupted and diverted flights around arctic snowstorms.  All told, this exploratory trip was a spectacular success, just as the local Inuit said it would be.

With respect to equipment and preparation, having prior experience in the arctic under winter conditions was crucial for being able to survive and operate in the extreme cold.  The temperature averaged -25 C during the day, and windchill was a serious factor especially when traveling on the qamutiks.  My time at Wapusk Park in 2014 was an excellent learning opportunity, helping me to fine-tune my gear selection.  If you are planning a trip such as this, feel free to get in touch with me by email with any questions.  But beware... Arcticus Feverus is highly contagious, and completely incurable.

Jonathan Huyer with camera in front of polar bears by John Rollins ©

The author photographing bears on an iceberg - photo courtsey John Rollins.


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Jonathan Huyer portrait Bio: Jonathan Huyer is a nature and wildlife photographer based in Canmore Alberta.  A gallery of his photos can be found at www.huyerperspectives.com

Contact : jhuyer@gmail.com

Website: www.huyerperspectives.com

This is Jon's 7th Article for the Canadian Nature Photographer see his other articles:

Great Bear Rainforest
Nature Photographer’s Headquarters
Photography in the Galapagos Islands
Polar Bears of Spitsbergen
Snowy Owls of Boundary Bay, BC
Polar Bear Cubs of Wapusk National Park

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