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Polar Bear Photography at Kaktovik, Alaska

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Polar bears roaming on the island

Kaktovik, a remote village on Alaska's Arctic coast, has become a hotspot for polar bear photography in recent years. It has been claimed as the polar bear capital of the United States lately, although it used to be called the Blizzard capital in the past. In late summer and early fall, there are increasing numbers of polar bears migrating to Barter Island, where the village of Kaktovik sits at its northern slope. Polar bear viewing became a booming tourism business for the tiny Iñupiat village. There are six companies on the island providing touring activities for tourists from all over the world.

We took a flight of one and a half hours from Fairbanks to Barter Island via the regional airline RAVN Alaska. Sue, the bus driver, was waiting for us at the airport when we landed. She took us to Waldo Arms Hotel, where we stayed for the duration. The hotel provides very basic accommodation, which consist of two twin beds per room, shared shower. There is a large TV and a pool table in the common area. The dining room sits about 15-20 guests. The spectacular view of the harbor and lagoon can be seen from the dining room. Meals were prepared by Chef Marty and his staff during our stay.

According to our boat skipper Jack Kayotuk, an Iñupiaq local in his fifties, there were few polar bears around Barter Island thirty years ago. Due to climate change, the Arctic icepack retreats further north each summer. It was about 50 miles from the shore 30 years ago, and is now about 400 miles away during the summer time. It is increasingly difficult for polar bears to hunt seals without ice to stalk their prey during this time. Instead, they come to Barter Island to search for food. The Iñupiat residents have a tradition of whale hunting. They still keep the practice of hunting bowhead whales each summer. They have a quota of three whales each year. The polar bears learned and adapted to this phenomenon. They scavenge on the whale carcass left by the villagers.

The villagers are butchering a bowhead whale

Polar bears are Scavenging on the whale carcass the second morning

A stuffed polar bear was strolling back to the beach

The hotel is not far from the place where the polar bears congregate. Our photography guide Steven Kazlowski took six of us to the harbor in his old rusty Chevy truck with cracks on the windshield. It took about 5 minutes to get to the harbor. The boat skipper Jack was waiting for us. There was barely enough room on the boat for eight people. It took about 5 to 10 minutes to get close to the polar bear viewing place. Since the boat stayed in the lagoon, the ride was quite smooth. However, it got a little rough when it was windy. We did have a taste of the unpredictable arctic harsh weather. The weather changed from hour to hour . We experienced rain, drizzle, fog and wind in one day. We only saw the pale sun behind the clouds briefly during our 4 days' tour.

Taking photos from the boat is not quite as easy as on land. The boat bounced and swung constantly due to the water waves, and it got worse with strong wind. There is a 90 yards rule distance from the polar bears according to the wildlife refuge regulation. So it is not easy to hold my 600mm lens with over 10 lbs equipment. Luckily I brought a monopod with ProMediaGear gimbal.

It is a joy to watch the bear cubs play. Each adult female bear will produce 2-3 cubs every 2-4 years. The cubs will stay in the den under snow drift for about 3-4 months. Then the cubs follow their mother and learn hunting and survival skills in the Arctic. They will rely on the mother's milk for about two and half years. They are very playful in nature. They would hold, touch and wrestle each other and roll on the ground. It is hard to imagine that they will grow into one of the fiercest land animal on the planet.

After playing with its sibling, this little cub was still full of energy, and found a way to entertain itself by playing with a stick.

Can you still see me?

Polar bears are born strong swimmers due to their strong limbs and high body fat content. The adult bear has about 4 inches of fat under the skin for insulation. They can swim for hours and over 50 miles without rest. They also like to play in water too. We watched two polar bears playing in the water for over one hour. See some of the shots below.

Let me go otherwise I will bite you!

Leave me alone, OK?

Is that a fish?

What's under the twig?

One night we heard single gunshot from our hotel. We were wondering if this community also has crime problem. It turned out that the gunshot was from the bear patrol. They scared the bear away from the village with a 12-gauge shotguns with beanbag rounds.

Hey! I am coming!

I am ready for the shot!

Do I really want to go there?

What's going on over there?

The Boneyard has became a famous photography spot in Kaktovik. Each year, the community has a quota of hunting three whales. Once the whale is butchered and distributed among the residents, the leftover carcass is delivered to a small islet across the village, where it is left for polar bears. Over the years with accumulation of tons of whale bones, this place has become a famous boneyard. Due to recent climate change and coastal erosion, this boneyard is not accessible by truck anymore. Whale carcasses were dumped into the Arctic Beaufort sea for the past three years. The polar bears still visit this boneyard regularly even to these days.

The Boneyard

Polar bear cubs searching in the bone pile

Polar bear mother with her cubs walking near boneyard, the backdrop is Kaktovik

According to a recent survey, there were about two thousand tourists visiting this new found polar bear capital each year. The tourism brought unforseen fortune to some residents of this remote Arctic community. However, not all residents embrace the opportunities. Some of them are quite concerned that pictures of whale butchering, animal bones and skulls could attract attention of animal rights groups and environmentalists. They also felt the violation of their privacy and their way of life due to the tourism. Taking photos of local residents, houses, or even the street are forbidden during our visit.

Two polar bear were alerted by a "grey" polar bear

I had a chance of chatting with Hatty, an Iñupiaq man in his forties during dinner. He told me that local residents have to take a flight to Barrow or Fairbanks to seek medical care since it is not available in Kaktovik. Sometime they have difficulty booking a seat on flights full of tourists. There are about 300 local residents in the village. There are about 60 kids attending Harold Kaveolook School from pre-K through grade 12 in the village. Iñupiaq culture teaching is part of their curriculum. Unfortunately, less Iñupiaq residents understand their native language nowadays. Hatty told me that his mother got scolded in her school while she was talking to her classmates in her native language.

They need to take a shower after the play

Three-day photography trip came to end quickly. I am blessed to have the opportunity to witness these amazing creatures in their wild habitat. The innocent polar bear cubs play was the best part of the showcase in nature. I also felt the impact of climate change to the lives of polar bears and the Iñupiaq community. For the time being, they strive to coexist and manage to carry on their own way of lives. The future is less certain though. I am wondering if our future generations will have a chance to witness these cute giants as we did today.

By the time we just packed our belongs and were ready for a ride to the airport, we were told that the RAVN flight of the day was cancelled due to mechanical problem. The next available RAVN flight would be in two days . We then had to hire a charter airplane to fly out the second morning. We ended up with an extra night stay at the ramshackle Waldo Arms Hotel. This was certainly something beyond our control. At last, we were glad that we came back home safely!

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