How Close?

 One of the really rewarding aspects of having my pictures on display at the Jam Factory over the last couple of months has been the chance to talk to lots of people about both the pictures and places where they were taken.

For a lot of people the highlights seem to have been the wildlife images; the puffins, the penguins and particularly the polar bears.  And the most common question about the polar bears - how close were you?

Close to the waters edge, Svalbard
The reality is that for all the pictures I've taken of polar bears, I was on boats of varying sizes and separated from the bears by at least 10 or 12 meters of water.  Polar bears are well known for their ability to swim long distances (they aren't called ursus maritimus without good reason), however they don't swim very fast and certainly not fast enough to out-swim a Zodiac.

The bear images, in my mind, fall into two groups. 

Some were taken from 'big boats'. In this context a 'big boat' is a 100m long expedition ship, and bear spotting involves seeing bears a long way away then stopping the ship at an ice edge and hoping the bears will come close.  The bears natural curiosity, and their constant search for food, means that they will move long distances to investigate. 

This family came up close to the expedition ship Ioffe, Northwest Passage, Canada

A ship, particularly if it's quiet, deserves closer scrutiny.  In a number of cases, I can remember seeing bears a long way off in the distance, and just waiting until they came within a few metres of the ship, sometimes even standing up to get a good look at the visitors. In this situation, the visiting ship is changing the bears behaviour, but the key is leaving the bear in control, he or she is making the decision to come closer to the visitors.
Getting a closer look at the expedition ship Vavilov, Svalbard
The other group of images, often the more intimate ones, are taken at bears-eye level from Zodiacs.  These are very manoeuvrable inflatable boats with outboard motors, which can move in towards the bears to get a closer look at what they are doing.  The balance here is getting close enough for good photographs, but not so close that the bears behaviour is changed.  My favourite set of bear images were taken from a Zodiac, probably no more than 15 metres from the bears who were in this case completely absorbed in feeding on a old whale carcass washed up into a bay in Svalbard. 

Walk the Spine, Svalbard
Concentrating on Lunch, Svalbard
In some cases, particularly with young bears, they will get curious about the visitors in the rubber boats too, and will try and get closer so that they can get a good look. The sensible thing to do at this point is to slowly back away from the bears, but this can provide some great photo opportunities.

Looking at the Zodiacs, Svalbard
You can have a closer look at some of these images at the Jam Factory in Oxford, until 13th January 2014 and on the North South Images website at any time (

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