Alaska Polar Bears Photo Tour

Polar Bear Cub Playing With a Stick, ANWR, Alaska

A Remarkable Photo Tour

Get eye-level with a polar bear.

Get eye-level with two polar bears.

Better yet, get eye-level with two dozen polar bears. This photo tour puts you and your lens smack in the middle of the polar bear’s world.

Snow and ice. This is the arctic.

Nanuq the Sea Bear, front and center.

Limited to 5 clients.

  • – Accommodations and meals in arctic Alaska
  • – Frequently as many as 20-30 polar bears
  • – Daily boat trips, and/or motor vehicle transport as weather permits
  • – 6 nights, 5 full days, 1 half day
  • – Catch the polar bears in snow and ice, during “freeze-up”
  • – Adult male polar bears, sows and cubs and playful juveniles
  • – Local Inupiaq guide and boat captain
  • – Small, photo only group
  • – One cultural evening with local Inupiaq sharing local traditions, customs, etc

Join me for a tour  – >

Unlike most other Alaska polar bear photo tours, this tour is all about the bears. We spend the entire week concentrating on polar bear photography, and everything else we may or may not shoot along the way, such as northern lights, etc, is somewhat secondary (if the northern lights might ever be considered “secondary” ). 🙂

Polar Bears. Playful. Powerful. Photogenic.

Arctic Alaska is home to many creatures we all love to see and to photograph, but perhaps no other animal quite encapsulates the region like the great Polar bear; Ursus maritimus; Nanuq (or Nanook).

We’ll spend 6 nights in a small native island community, at the very northern edges of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with 5 full days and another half day focusing on photographing the magnificent polar bears that gather here late in the fall.

Rather than just 2 or maybe 3 days with the bears like most other arctic Alaska polar bear photo tours, we spend the entire week focused on getting the very best polar bear photos we can. For the most part, that means giving ourselves as much time as possible.

To do that we’ll spend all week on the island, looking for optimal conditions. Good light, no wind, and active and energetic polar bears! Watch the video below to see a small sample of the kind of opportunities available:

A cub of the year, approximately 8-9 months of age, walks toward the camera over the fresh snow of arctic Alaska.

Polar Bear. Ice Bear.

This tour is all about the bears. You’ll photograph bears playing in the water, polar bear cubs chasing each other across the frozen snow-covered islands, and adult males wrestling and sparring. More poses and portraits that you can imagine.

Bears are always a treat to photograph. Polar bears particularly so. Nowhere in the world is there a better place than Arctic Alaska to photograph these astonishing creatures.

An average of 40 bears in the immediate vicinity each of the last 5 years. A high population of nearly 80 bears in 2012). This is simply THE place to go.

Eye Level Photography. Intimate encounters. Swimming bears. Playful Cubs. Sows Nursing. Males sparring.

Want to learn more about polar bears? – >

Details

Photo Tour Location

This tour is a great opportunity for photographers interested in catching some great polar bear photos. There aren’t too many places in the world where you have the possibility of having 50 or more polar bears to choose from. This year there were nearly 80 polar bears counted on the island at one time. The polar bears come here in the fall to feed on the whale bone carcasses left after the local Inupiaq Bowhead whale harvest. The bears gorge themselves on muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber). When we arrive for this photo tour, the bears are in their prime, heavy, fat and happy. Few animals are as photogenic as polar bear in his prime; the bulk of the tourists and tour groups are gone, and we’ll largely be left alone to concentrate on some serious polar bear photography.

A small native village (approx population =250) in arctic Alaska, right on the edges of the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean; about as remote a village as a village can be. The local people (Inupiaq, or Inupiat) are allowed a subsistence Bowhead whale hunt, to harvest up to 3 whales for the village annually. After harvesting the meat and celebrating the take, the whale bones and scraps are removed from the village to a small sand spit at the very end of the island. Then it becomes the bears’ time to celebrate, as they feast on the remains.

Photo Opportunities

With an abundance of bears, we’ll have an abundance of photo opportunities. Polar bears of all sizes and shapes are to be found; massive adult boars, standing 10′ tall, cute cubs of the year, the animated and energetic subadults (3-5 year olds), and everything in between. This year we were able to photograph bears sleeping, eating, playing, fighting, swimming, running, walking, standing, lying down, chasing one another, sliding on the newly formed sea ice, just about everything imaginable. Polar bears feasting on the piles of whale bones, playing tag with driftwood, wrestling one another, playing ‘keep away’ with muktuk, even polar bears curiously waving hello to the cameras. An amazing place.

One benefit of being here in October, rather than earlier in mid-late September when many other tour groups head up here, is the snow and ice that we are more likely to see by October. Polar bears look much more photogenic on snow and ice, with nice clean coats, than they do on dirt and sand and muddy, dirty coats that they often have in the summer/fall. Typically the arctic does NOT see snow sticking in September.

We also benefit from fewer people here at this time; most of the hordes of tourists and other photo tour groups are gone; without the hustle and bustle of dozens of people all lining up, we’ll stand much better chances to be in the right spot at the right times.

Other possibilities include the northern lights and some wonderful arctic landscapes. There are birds here as well, various species of gulls, including the rare Ross’ gull, but most migratory shorebirds and waterfowl have left the area by October.


Inquire For More Info

2017 Dates

Oct 4-10, 2017
Oct 10-16, 2017

2018 Dates

Oct 4-10, 2018
Oct 10-16, 2018

Trip Cost

$8900

 

Orientations

We’ll pick you up when you arrive on Barter Island, and shuttle you to the hotel. There we’ll check in and have lunch, as well as a brief orientation for the tour. Immediately afterwards, we’ll ride down to the waterfront and meet your boat captain.

The nearby barrier islands are where we typically find the bears, so it’s a short ride. There we’ll find which bears we want to photograph, and spend our first afternoon with the bears.

Meals and Wheels

Dinner back at the hotel again. Meals are first class food (this is the arctic, not New York City, but the food is always excellent, and plenty of it). After dinner we can download and review or edit images if you like.

The hotel serves three meals a day, buffet style, with custom orders limited but available as time and staffing permits. Any dietary restrictions, if you can let me know ahead of time, we can typically accommodate.

Your transport from the hotel to the boat and back is provided each day, morning and afternoon.

Weather conditions vary, but you should expect it to be cold. You’re in the arctic. Wind can be strong, and blowing snow is not uncommon. If the weather is too adversarial, we won’t go out on the water (at the boat captain’s discretion). Safety is a priority, of course.

On The Water

Your boat captain is a US Coast Guard licensed marine captain. Both the boat captain and myself are permitted through the US Fish & Wildlife Service to operate on the Arctic Refuge waters. We also carry all the requisite insurance, and licensing, etc. Both operators have submitted safety plans for your tours. I carry a satellite phone as well as a first aid kit on the water. The boat operator also has the requisite radio and emergency equipment for safe operations in arctic waters.

Sometimes the bears are feeding at the “bone pile”, so shooting from there is an option if the weather dictates we don’t take the boat. We’ll look into a vehicle and take you there as needed.

Cameras and Clothes

Upon your reservation, I’ll send you a full Trip Departure Packet eBook, filled with photos and information about the tour, including two chapters on clothing and camera equipment options. As a general rule, think of any standard wildlife photography (long, fast lenses, high ISO performance cameras are a good start). Beanbags or monopods work better than tripods, but occasionally a tripod can be handy.

Clothing needs to be arctic wear. If you’re not familiar with what that is, we’ll discuss than and I can send you the section on what to wear.

Terms & Conditions

The Terms and Conditions for all Expeditions Alaska trips, my guiding business, can be found on the website here.

This tour is limited in scope, by weather and available space, so it fills up early. If you’re at all interested in the tour, I strongly suggest you contact me asap via the form below, and we look at availability and waiting lists. Thank you.


Inquire For More Info

Info ^     Top ^

Itinerary

You’ll arrive around mid-day, where I’ll meet you at the airport, and we’ll all ride up to our hotel. Each day we’ve scheduled to out with by boat, with a local Inupiaq guide, to photograph. If inclement weather prohibits boating, we’ll take our vehicle down to the ‘bone pile’, and look for polar bears feeding on the pile of whale bones leftover from the local harvest. This can be a dramatic experience, with bears, gulls and massive whale bones in front of us. The sights, sounds and smells are intense; it can be a dramatic experience, for sure.

Each morning and evening we’ll head out to shoot, depending on the weather, we may leave before sunup to catch some polar bear silhouettes and sunrise images, or after sunup if it’s cloudy and stormy. A flexible itinerary is most productive here, rather than scheduling in advance by a clock.

We’ll come back for lunch, most days; but we’ll set it up with the hotel to hold meals for us if we come back after lunch or dinner because the shooting is great. For example, one day in 2012, we didn’t return to the hotel until nearly 4pm, because the photography opportunities were too good to walk away from (one great thing about arctic light in October, is that it doesn’t get “bad” anytime during the day, the sun remains low on the horizon all day long).

When weather doesn’t allow us to go out in the boat, we can look for landscape compositions, photograph around the small native community, relax at the hotel and enjoy the downtime, and/or look at digital processing and workflow or composition ideas for photography.

Your final day will include breakfast, a polar bear photography, before you fly out (I suggest you book the mid-day flight, there is also another afternoon flight as well). We’ll drop you at the airport, load your luggage (yes, we load our own here in the arctic!), say good byes, and depart.

Info ^     Top ^

What’s Included?

Currently, I’m providing one chartered flight Fairbanks – Barter Island. For the first week (Oct 4-10), that’ll be your return flight. For the 2nd week tour (Oct 10-16), that’ll be your arrival flight to Barter Island. So for week one, you need to book a flight Fairbanks -> Barter Island on the 4th. For week two, you need to book a flight Oct 16 Barter Island -> Fairbanks.

All accommodation and meals on Barter Island is included.

All transport on Barter Island is included.

Daily boat charter out on to the waters of the inner coastal, with a Coast Guard licensed and US FWS permitted boat captain.

Photography instruction as needed. Photography processing advice and instruction if required.

One cultural evening with a local Inupiat. Traditions and customs and stories of life in the arctic are always fascinating.

What’s Not Included?

Your airfare to/from Alaska.

Trip Insurance (strongly recommended).

Accommodations outside Barter Island.

Camera Equipment. Camera Insurance.

Personal expenses.

Gratuities.

One of your Fairbanks/Barter Island flights.

Info ^     Top ^

Polar Bears

Polar bears are classified as a marine mammal, and spend much of their life on ice, at sea. However, some bears do come ashore and spend part of the year on land. These bears will often gather at various places to await the return of the pack ice in late fall. The northern edges of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, is one of these locations, where the ready supply of freshly discarded whale meat and blubber makes for a great pre-winter feast. In 2012, US FWS surveys counted 78 bears on the island. On our trip in early October, we often had as many as 30 bears in view at any given time, from cute “little” cubs of the year to massive, full grown adult males weighing as much as 1200 pounds. There were fewer bears in 2013, but as many as 20 sighted at at one time on our tour. This is an incredible opportunity to photograph such an array of polar bears, unmatched around the world.

The polar bear was listed threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008. Climate changes, both present and incipient, pose a real and dire threat to polar bear populations around the world, and to the species as a whole. Here’s a page from Polar Bears International, with pertinent information on how we might each help by lowering our own carbon footprint. These magnificent creatures deserve our best.

Polar bears are indeed a string of contradictions. Solitary yet extremely sociable, he’s fearless, yet timid. Curious, yet cautious. Intelligent, yet comical. A powerful athlete, yet clumsy and awkward. A fierce predator, yet playful and affectionate.

Collectively, they’re a successful apex predator, yet a vulnerable species, precariously balanced on that apex and now threatened with extinction. These paradoxes tell me we have a lot more to learn about (and from) the polar bear.

A series of adaptations make the polar bear a great swimmer. They have some webbing between their toes, they have a water repellent coat, a streamlined, tapered body shape, strong powerful forelegs for paddling (they don’t use their hind legs when paddling, but hold them aloft behind, like rudders) and broad feet.

Though they’re excellent swimmers and have been known to swim over 400 miles to reach an ice pack, polar bears are generally not capable of out-swimming the seals they prey on.

Learn a whole lot more about polar bears with a free eBook > over 80 photographs and 3 essays about polar bears.

Info ^     Top ^

VIDEO

FAQs

1. What are the chances of no bears?

I’d be extremely, extremely surprised. Every year we’ve been here we’ve seen and photographed well over two dozen bears in any one week.

2. What gear do I bring?

You’ll be visiting arctic Alaska in October. That being the case, bring warm, arctic gear. See this blog post for some ideas on appropriate clothing. We shouldn’t expect weather Q-U-I-T-E that cold, but temperatures below freezing aren’t uncommon. Snow and ice should be expected at times. Temperatures as low as 10 deg F are possible, and we’ll be sitting on small boats on the water, so the cold is right under our feet.

Good warm, insulated pac boots, are ideal. Wool or fleece hats, warm gloves and a good down or synthetic fill jacket is the way to go. Insulated pants are a good idea; either down pants or synthetic fill pants. A balaclava or fleece face mask is great, as well. Have good rain/snow gear (pants and jacket), as well as weather covers for your camera gear.

Some kind of large dry bag is helpful on the boat; I use one to stuff my lens and camera inside if the waves start splashing overboard or when we decide to take off and move locations. It’s a little more user-friendly than having to pack everything away inside a standard daypack or camera pack. Something like a 30-40L dry bag is perfect, depending on which lens/camera setup you need it for. It’s not critical, but useful. Something you can easily put your longest lens inside with the camera attached is all you need.

Camera gear?

I highly recommend a zoom lens for this trip; ideally, a 70-200mm lens and a longer telephoto, like Nikon’s 200-400mm lens (with converters). A 300mm f2.8 would be helpful, or a longer super telephoto like a 500mm f4. Any camera that is capable of fast frames per second (greater than 5 fps) and high quality high ISO performance (> ISO 1000) is a great option. We’ll often be handholding gear, shooting from a boat or inside a motor vehicle, so shutter speed is paramount.

A recharger for your camera batteries is critical,and I definitely recommend some kind of hard drive device to backup your images nightly is strongly recommended.

Other useful lens options include a 28-70mm, and possibly a fast wide angle lens, like a 28 f1.8 or 24mm 1.8 – if we get opportunities for shooting the aurora, either of these lenses are great.

A good sturdy tripod is critical for most wildlife photography, and definitely for aurora borealis photography. Though we’ll be handholding lenses on the boat, most often, I definitely bring my tripod each outing; a great photography mantra is ‘just in case’.

3. What temperatures can we expect?

It will likely be right around freezing. Expect snow. Remember too, that an ambient temperature of 32˚F (0˚C) will feel significantly colder than what you might expect when we’re on a small boat on the icy water of the southern Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean.

4. What communications are available?

The accommodations of choice have satellite internet (included). It’s not fast, and not good for uploading large files, etc, but for email and reading the news, it works fine. Cell coverage is available, but can be spotty for different providers. AT&T works well. There is a landline available at the hotel as well. In the field I carry a satellite phone, and we have radios on the boat as well. Typically, the boats are NOT out of cell phone coverage from the village.

5. Any northern lights opportunities?

For my groups, no. I think it’s unsafe and unsound to take a group of photographers out of the village to photograph the northern lights in an area with 40 polar bears in the vicinity. Some other tour operators will do this, and you’re welcome to book with them if you want to. In my opinion, it’s reckless and asking for a problem.

6. What other photography opportunities are there?

This tour is all about polar bears. There is not a lot of other wildlife in the nearby area. Some times we’ll see an arctic fox. Most of the birds have left this lateen the year, but there are various gulls and some waterfowl still in the area.

It’s my opinion that the best polar bear photography comes when we spend our time working on photographing polar bears.

Info ^     Top ^

PHOTO GALLERY