The Great Polar Bear Photo Adventure

He’s going to come right at us!

And just like that, a 500-kilo polar bear hurled himself up and over the bank and bee-lined straight for us in a cloud of snow and seaweed.

When he was fifty meters from us, he put on the brakes and glanced behind him nervously, watching to see if his nemesis, the little 250-kilo white ball of fury that had chased him towards us, was still in sight.

Seconds later, the mother polar bear marched up the bank with her two big cubs in tow and glared furiously at the male, completely ignoring the two armed guides and the two photographers in front of her.

As the big male lumbered closer and closer towards us (and away from her), I tried desperately to fit some part of him in the frame with my 500mm lens, finally giving up when he got within twenty meters.  In perhaps a final test of what the boundaries might be, he took a hesitant step towards me and was instantly rewarded with a loud boom from one of the guide’s rifles.  The crackerjack shell sent him running off across the tundra for a few hundred meters, where he lay down on the hardpack and cautiously eyed us on his left and the mother and cubs on his right.

The big male came flying over the bank right at us in a panic to escape the female


Two days earlier, I had packed my bags in Canmore and headed for the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill, Manitoba, to begin my adventure.  However, unlike previous years, my trip this time wasn’t going to be confined to the Churchill environs, where tourists crowd out onto the tundra on giant bus-like buggies to view and photograph the polar bears from high above in the safety of the buggies.

Instead, I was heading into the Arctic almost 200 kilometers north of Churchill for a true adventure in Nunavut into the heart of polar bear country along the famed polar bear alley on the west side of Hudson Bay.  I was on a mission to scout out a new location for polar bear photography for my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours company that would give me a unique product not offered by any other photographer; so I’d flown into this tiny cluster of cabins in the absolute middle of nowhere hoping to photograph polar bears on foot at eye level!

I had been to Nunavut once before, as many of you know, on my moderately-successful Arctic Ice Floe Edge trip in 2009.  We had been promised bears and whales galore, but got up there to find ourselves in a landscape where the wildlife lived in constant fear of running into an Inuit hunter; as such, we never got within 150 meters of a bear.

So when I heard that a well-respected Canadian Arctic tour operator was opening up a very small, new polar bear viewing operation in a different part of Nunavut where they promised close encounters on foot with these magnificent animals, I was skeptical, but hopeful.  When the company heard I was interested in checking them out, they extended an invitation, and voila, I was off and running at the start of November.

The adventure began with a thrilling, hour-long flight over the tundra in a Twin Otter Turbo plane from Churchill.  I love small planes that hug the landscape, and this one provided a spectacular view of the coastline and of the Barrenlands.  I spent the entire hour scanning the horizon feverishly for wildlife and was rewarded with five different bear sightings!

We arrived at the tiny Arviat Polar Bear Cabin complex at noon on November 1st and despite the noise of our plane landing on the flat tundra, a polar bear was laying there having a snooze on the seaweed no more than 100 meters from the complex’s electric fence.

The tiny cabin complex (6 cabins in total) is surrounded by an electric fence to keep the bears out

For the next three full days, we watched as eleven different bears wandered by the windswept complex, with many spending hours checking us out.  For the most part we stayed inside the fence and photographed them as they circled around us nosily, but we also ventured outside the fence regularly for forays onto the tundra in search of more bears (we saw five in total on our short hikes) and other arctic wildlife. By the end of the trip, I’d seen arctic hare, arctic fox, willow ptarmigan, snowy owl, and gyrfalcon.

An arctic hare eyes me warily on the edge of a frozen pond

Willow ptarmigan on the tundra

From a polar bear perspective, the trip was a fantastic success — while we didn’t see as many polar bears as I was used to seeing on my Churchill trips (where you can often see 10-20 bears in a day), I was like a schoolkid in a field of candy whenever a polar bear approached us. The level of excitement was palpable, as was the thrill I got from standing on foot face-to-face with these beautiful animals in non-threatening situations (the bears seemed to know that the fence and that the armed Inuit guides meant business and they either stayed back 30-50 meters, or they got a warning crackerjack shot fired at them once or twice, which kept them back).

Being on foot with these polar bears was an experience of a lifetime and I would try to put it more eloquently, but suffice to say that it’s as close to indescribable as wildlife photography gets for me.

A huge polar bear checks us out at close range

A polar bear portrait

I was so impressed with the photography opportunities that presented themselves (and with the glorious ones I envisioned that didn’t present themselves this year), that I began planning my trip back before my November adventure was even over!

So I’m excited to announce that I am going to be leading two polar bear photography adventures to the Arviat Polar Bear Cabins next year with this company, from November 9th-14th and from November 14th-19th.  The trips will include a full extra day at the complex (so a total of two half days on either end, with four full days sandwiched in between) and I’ve secured a deal that absolutely knocks the socks off of other similar photography adventures for polar bears!

It’s a true adventure into Canada’s hinterland, so if you’ve ever dreamed of photographing polar bears from ground level and wanted to do it with a fun group, then check out the rest of my pictures and if you’re still interested, then go read about what the Polar Bear Photography Tour entails for November 2012.

A curious cub walks by us at close range

Polar bear tracks on the tundra just meters from the electric fence

Sunshine and -10 never felt so good!  A scenic view of the coastline at low tide.

A polar bear rolls around in the snow on a windy day

Another polar bear walks the beach by the complex

A polar bear mother and cub

The peek-a-boo polar bear!

My favourite shot from the trip, taken during a blizzard on Day 2

How close do we get?  Pretty close!

Our guides, Jason and Graham, checking out tracks with fellow photographer, Kevin

Eye level and gorgeous!

A mother and cubs trying to decide whether or not they should come visit us

Another one of my favourite polar bear photographs from the trip

Thanks for looking everyone!

Happy shooting!


15 Comments on “The Great Polar Bear Photo Adventure

Vincent Piotrowski
December 15, 2011 at 5:39 am

Wow, looks like a great trip.

Nathalie Fortier
December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Wow John – that's awesome!

December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Beautiful shots!

Millie Jonsson
December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Absolutely fabulous photographs…what an adventure!

December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Hiya John, these pics are all just breath taking
looks like you had an incredible trip

Ginevre Smith
December 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

I am too insanely jealous to comment on how wonderful these photos are.

December 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Some of the best shots I've ever seen…awesome!!!

Kim Odland
December 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

The pictures are amazing John, thanks for sharing them. I'm now even more excited about next year's trip, even makes me want to book both weeks!

December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Awesome shots, John. Sounds like quite the trip.

Andrew Lipsett
December 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Fantastic pictures John!

Andrew Lipsett


just wonderful. i guess like everyone, i like the polar bears. love that artic hare tho'.
tell me, what kind of tripods are those? my regular manfrottos have just gotten too heavy to carry around much in the field.

December 18, 2011 at 3:38 am

Thanks everyone…Kim, you made me laugh out loud with that comment! And Les, those weren't my tripods, though I took my carbon fiber tripod to keep things light.

December 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Absolutely AMAZING photography as usual John – you are an inspiration 🙂

December 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Absolutely stunning photos. That last polar bear shot is sooo crisp, like it is coming out of my monitor ! Nice to see an arctic hare in the collection too. They are one of my favorite tundra animals.

February 2, 2012 at 5:21 am


What an amazing opportunity … Fantastic !


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