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Polar Bears Swimming Amongst Melting Arctic Ice

Polar Bears Swimming Amongst Melting Arctic Ice

Sep 12, 2008 September 12, 2008

Professional photographer and Cleanest Line reader, Scottd_080828_3889e_2The adventure started with a phone call last week from the World Wildife Fund – “Scott, can you be on Kodiak Island tonight for a flight to the Chukchi Sea?” Before I could think I answered, “Sure, what time?”

Slowly I learned the details of the assignment as I packed my bags. Nine polar bears had been sighted swimming in the Chukchi Sea many miles off Alaska’s Arctic coast. It was a rare opportunity to fly with the Coast Guard and polar bear biologists on a survey to see firsthand the polar bears’ plight as the sea ice they depend on melts away beneath them. This was an impressive example of agency cooperation amongst the US Coast Guard, University of Alaska, US geological survey and the World Wildlife Fund. Steve Rychetnik, videographer with Sprocketheads, and myself were brought along to document the effort.

Our team met in Kodiak, home of the Alaska Coast Guard Air Station.The next morning we were at the base meeting the flight crew and discussingthe plan as we boarded a monstrous four-engine C-130 rescue airplane thatwould take us over 1,000 miles north, stopping in Fairbanks for fuel,then onward to Barrow to pickup additional Coast Guard personnel. Weleft Barrow and flew out over the Chukchi Sea and spent five and a halfhours looking amongst ice floes for signs of life. We would fly for12 hours total before landing in Fairbanks later the same evening.

Finding a white bear amongst an ocean of white ice floes while flyingat 200mph turned out to be a challenge. Thankfully the flight crew letSteve and I shoot out an open side door in the back of the plane.Unfortunately, from that position we had no communication with the restof the crew who where helping each other find the bears by talkingthrough their headsets. In the roughly five hours of searching, fivebears where spotted. Through a stroke of good fortune I managed to snapa few shots of one swimming bear. Not exactly the closeup photo I wasdreaming of, but considering the challenge of spotting andphotographing the bear in the 2-3 seconds that it was visible out thedoor, I’m grateful for what I did get. The take-home lesson was thatnext time I’ll make sure I can at least hear what the pilot and rest ofthe crew are saying.

The greater story behind this mission is the fact that the sea icethese bears depend on for food and habitat is melting. The distancebetween the year round ice pack and land is growing rapidly and theamount of suitable broken up ice floes between is also diminishing asthe water temps rise.

You can hear a great NPR interview here with Margaret Williams,Director of WWF’s Alaska office. Also from WWF, here is a news releaseabout the initial bear spotting that was the big motivator for makingthis trip happen.

Below are a few photos from the trip. You can see more photos from the adventure online here.

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Once again, you can see more photos in my stock archive here.

For my fellow photo enthusiasts: Remember that when shooting aerialsit’s very important to have communication with the pilot, especiallywhen trying to photograph hard to find objects! I learned the C-130 isnot an ideal air to land photo platform, despite the pilots doingeverything they could to help. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly in one again,but my dream shot list might be a closer reflection of what’srealistically possible. The photographs were taken with both a Canon 1Dmark III and Canon 5D, lenses ranged from a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS onthe long end, to a Sigma 12-24mm for some wide interior shots. The backof the C-130 where I spent most my time is very dark and I appreciatedthe great high ISO performance of the relatively new 1DmIII camera forshooting portraits there. Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in thecomment box below.

Our thanks go out to Scott for sharing this story with us. Be sure and check out his portfolio, especially cool (!) are his shots of surfing in Alaska.

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