Why did you choose wildlife photography?
Wildlife photography allowed me to find solitude and to tune into the quietude of nature in the midst of the cacophony of sounds around me. There is something special and exciting about photographing unique and potentially dangerous animals. The adrenaline rush is not unlike that which the athlete feels, especially in extreme sports. You know you will come out of this alive, but maybe you won't.
What fascinated you about the polar bears?
The polar bear is an iconic animal of the north and the classic lover of solitude. It spends much of its life in darkness and wanders over vast frozen spaces in search of food. It is at once the most regal and adorable looking of animals and one of the most dangerous. Their calm and benign appearance gives no warning of the sudden charge that may ensue during an encounter.
How is photographing polar bears among fireweed in the summer different from photographing them in the ice and snow of winter?
Although polar bears do not experience true hibernation, the summer on land is a restful and lazy time for them. They seem to enjoy the presence of flowers, perhaps because they represent some soft soil underfoot. That lazy attitude to prevent over-heating while they face the warm sun can make them reasonably approachable.
In early winter, as they wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over to take them to seal hunting territory, they become very restless and energised. Frequent wrestling matches among males to establish who is stronger to be a potential mating partner for females, means they may also become more aggressive.
I have stood many a day at windchill temperatures of -40°C to -50°C. Keeping equipment working becomes especially difficult at such times.
How do you capture such personal, playful portraits of polar bears up close?
You seldom need to worry about finding a polar bear up north. If there is one in the area, it will find you! If you spend enough time in their presence, polar bears quickly discover that if they leave you alone, you will not pose a threat to them. It is at that time when it is the easiest to photograph them. Bears are also much more cautious and wary if you are in a tight group rather than alone or with just a few people. If polar bears see that you are in a cage, they may lie down and go to sleep mere metres away.
Wildlife photography requires a lot of patience. How many days/hours did it take you to get the perfect pictures?
I doubt that any passion takes more patience than wildlife photography. You may get some amazing photos on the first encounter with a given species, but more likely it will take months and even years. I spent two weeks in a blind once trying to film wolves, another passion of mine, and came away with only a few meaningful images.
Isn't it dangerous/scary?
Yes! Most of the time I try my best to be prepared for any eventuality with escape plans in my head. But when a polar bear starts to approach, no matter how experienced you are, you know that your life, or the bear's, may be on the line. Thankfully, I've never had to shoot a polar bear, but I have been within seconds of having to do so before the bear thought better of it.
Are they now familiar with your presence?
When polar bears spend extended times around a camp or lodge, they do become familiar with you. Just as we recognise newcomers in the area, the bears know when it's someone they have had encounters with before.
Any specific rules for photographing polar bears?
It really is not a great idea to photograph polar bears on your own. However, for an extra edge to the experience I would highly recommend the lodges of Churchill Wild (Manitoba, Canada). You will most likely have many close experiences at eye level from the safety of an encampment. At the same time, as a guide for them for 20 years, I can say that nothing quite compares to be out on a hike with 12 or 15 fellow adventurers and to watch a polar bear approach. We do not approach closer than 50 metres, but bears don't have similar restrictions. When a polar bear looks you in the eye at close range your life changes forever.
Any plans to come to India to capture wildlife?
My bucket list is very long and keeps growing! I have loved tigers and monkeys from as far back as I can remember, and what better place to photograph them than in India. Of course, India has the added appeal of a rich and colourful culture and beautiful people. I think it just moved up a number of notches on my list! Stay tuned.