Cinematographer Dom West and photographer Joshua Holko along with director, Abraham Joffe and crew trekked over 120 miles per day in Svalbard (a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole) to capture polar bears on film for the video documentary, Ghosts of the Arctic.
Polar bears are marine mammals that have been around for a very long time, and for thousands of years, have been an important figure in the material, spiritual and cultural life of indigenous people throughout the Arctic region. A ‘sister species’ to the brown bear, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) evolved somewhere around 350,000 – 6 million years ago, and at some point, split off from the brown bear and moved North, during which time a series of evolutionary changes occurred allowing the polar bear to survive the harsh conditions of the Arctic. The polar bear of today has black skin covering a layer of fat up to 4.49 inches (11.4 centimeters) thick, small ears, a short tail, and fur made of dense, insulating underfur with top guard hairs of varying lengths that prevent heat loss, and paws and claws perfect for roaming around the Arctic and swimming.
Home for a polar bear is on the ice in the Arctic region, including Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway (60-80% are in Canada), and it feeds almost exclusively on the fat of ice-dependent seals. As sea ice advances and retreats each season, polar bears may journey thousands of miles to find food, and they rely on the ice to travel, hunt seals, breed, and sometimes den.
Prior to the 1970’s, polar bear populations were in decline as a result of unsustainable hunting and trapping that began as far back as the 1600s, but a 1973 international agreement that strictly regulates commercial hunting helped the population numbers improve. It’s estimated there are currently 22,000-31,000 polar bears in the world. In the 21st century, however, polar bears face additional threats including pollution, oil & gas exploration/development, shipping, human-bear interactions, and climate change as Arctic sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate. If ice-free periods exceed a polar bear’s fasting ability of 220 days, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for polar bears to survive, especially in areas that lack an alternate food source.
In May 2006, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the polar bear to its ‘Red List’ of the world’s most imperiled animals, predicting a 30% reduction in the polar bear population in the next 45 years.
Kingdom of the Ice Bear: Film shot by Abraham Joffe during an August 2015 photography expedition.
BYU Polar Bear Research Video: Working with Polar Bears International, Brigham Young University Professor of Wildlife Sciences, Tom Smith, and his students are engaged in a multiyear study to monitor maternal polar bear den sites in Alaska and to determine how climate change is impacting these animals.
Polar Bear International (Polar Bears 101, Human Interaction, Tracking Map & FAQ)
Defenders of Wildlife – Basic Facts About Polar Bears
World Wide Fund For Nature – Polar Bear Status
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Red List of Threatened Species -Polar Bears
Conservation of Polar Bears in Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada
How a Production Team Broke Cameras and Braved -30° to Shoot Polar Bears in 4K, by Emily Buder, No Film School (August 2, 2017)
Feature photo is a screen shot taken from the Untitled Film Works video, Ghosts of the Arctic
Photo of Arctic polar bear is courtesy of Pixabay/Pexels, CC0