You wouldn`t know looking at these adorable photos, but quite a lot of hard work and endurance went into capturing this family of playful polar bears. Photographer Daisy Gilardini has plenty of experience working in Arctic and Antarctic environments, but even this expedition was trying. She waited 117 hours as temperatures reached as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds howled as high as 43 mph.
But when she finally got the opportunity, it was even more amazing than she`d anticipated. The mum calmly emerged from the den, then trotted away.
"She rushed downhill in deep snow when one of the two cubs decided it was much more convenient to hitch a ride on mama’s behind," Gilardini said. "He jumped and reached out holding on with a firm bite on mama’s fur backside: an extremely funny and totally unexpected behaviour."
We talked with Gilardini about her experience photographing the mother bear and her cubs.
Please describe the weather conditions throughout your trip to observe and photograph the polar bears. How did you cope with the cold temperatures? Any special gear?
Gilardini: In these temperatures it is difficult to operate the camera because you need big gloves to prevent your hands from freezing and the cold drains the batteries very fast. I always carry at least three sets of newly charged batteries in which I keep in a pocket very close to my body.
I tend not to expose the camera body (Nikon D4S) and the big lens (Nikkor 800mm) for long periods of time so if the bears are in the den my camera rests in my backpack.
As far as protecting myself, you have to dress in layers. Lots of them! I usually wear three to five layers bottom and top with at least one or two made of down feathers. Essential is to keep your extremities warm. Three layers of gloves, two or three pair of heavy socks, huge insulating boots, a balaclava, a warm hut and a neoprene face mask.
What was your biggest concern during the trip? What were you most excited about?
The biggest concern is to find the bears, then the camera not freezing and last but least is not getting hypothermic. In this particular episode the mama bear was resting with her two young cubs in a day den on the way to the pack ice. Day dens usually consist in wind-protected areas as snowdrift refuges or tree shelter.
Wildlife photography is all about patience and perseverance but despite the challenging conditions and the long hours waiting, the experience of witnessing something so rare is simply priceless and exhilarating.
How did this photography project compare to other expeditions you`ve done in the frigid environments of Antarctica and the Arctic?
I am a nature and wildlife photographer specialised in Polar Regions. In almost two decades of polar explorations I have joined over 60 expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic.
It is extremely difficult to compare the Arctic to Antarctica. Antarctica is the only continent on earth that has no indigenous population. Wildlife is more abundant and as there are no predators (humans and/or animals) on land, photographing them is much easier. Also we usually visit the Antarctic Peninsula during the summer months when temperatures are mild with and average around -5/+5 Celsius (23-41 Fahrenheit).
In the Arctic the dynamics are totally different because of the human presence. Animals are scarce and, because of extensive hunting, they are scared of people.
I have photographed polar bears extensively from the Russian Arctic to the European Arctic and in the Canadian Arctic during the summer months in comfortable temperatures. This project was unique because I wanted to focus on the polar bear cubs exiting the dens for the first time and this happens in a very cold period of the year.
It must be a truly amazing experience to be near polar bears in person. What new things did you learn about these creatures, being so close to them? Anything surprising?
To be a good wildlife photographer you have to know your subject before being on the field in order to be able to anticipate behavior and catch the magic moment.
One thing is reading all about the biology of the bears and how well adapted they are to the cold, another thing is being there observing them playing and enjoying themselves in frigid temperatures while you can hardly breathe through your nostril because of the ice forming on your nose hair.
I feel blessed to have the privilege to witness and capture their personality in their natural environment. What amazed me most is how close some of their behaviour is to humans, especially when the cubs are playing and chasing each other or when they cuddle with mama.
Do you have a particular message you`re trying to share with the world via your wildlife photography? What do you hope people will take away from these pictures?
I hope the images and the video brightened your day but also made you think on how we impact our planet through our everyday actions.
If humankind wants to survive and evolve with our planet we have to act responsibly, by acknowledging with humility that nature is not depended by us but we are dependent by nature. As environmental photographers it is our duty to capture the beauty of places and species at risk and raise awareness through the universal power of the images we capture.
While science provides the data necessary to explain issues and suggest solutions, photography symbolizes these issues. Science is the brain, while photography is the heart and we need to reach people’s heart and emotions in order to move them to action, for Nature and for us.
Gilardini has an action-packed year ahead of her as she will continue her journey to photograph polar bears in Wapusk National Park and beyond. She even has plans to visit the Great Bear Rainforest to search for the elusive Spirit Bear.