From Fear to Triumph: Diving with Polar bears
By Amos Nachoum
Image: Copyright © Amos Nachoum 2019 – BigAnimals.com
Twelve people have walked on the moon.
More than 4,000 have summited Mt. Everest.
Only five have ever been diving with polar bears.
I’d been photographing the world’s largest aquatic animals for more than 40 years, swimming with seals, great white sharks and whales all over the world, but one thing eluded me: diving with the most feared animal of the tundra, and surfacing with photos of their underwater behavior. It was the ultimate mission, one more than a decade in the making, and the riskiest challenge of my career. The result was the most thrilling and empowering series of photographs that I’ve ever taken.
The large male polar bear was only fifteen meters away and slowly swimming toward me. I whipped my head around to see where my safety diver was but he had vanished. The bear was getting closer. I looked to my support vessel but the crew was busy—they were working hard and fast to pull the safety diver from the water. With the animal now only five meters away, I didn’t have time to ask why I had been abandoned. All I knew was that the bear could definitely smell me now and I had to dive down away from him as quickly as possible.
I deflated the air in my BCD and dry suit, tilted downward, and started kicking as hard as possible. Needing to equalize, I paused at about ten meters. But this was a mistake. The bear was still with me, in fact he was only a few feet above me and reaching his paws toward my body. This time, I dove faster. My lungs were heaving and my heart felt like it was going to explode as I pushed through two more equalization depths and finally stopped just shy of thirty meters. Set against the dark, deep water, the white bear was still menacing, but now only its legs were moving and its head was titled upward. I descended a few more feet so I could properly enjoy this amazing spectacle. There are no words to describe the feeling of tranquility that came over me once I realized he was moving toward the surface.
But I had to reach the surface as well, and my team was still nowhere to be found and the bear was still lurking…
Image: Copyright © Amos Nachoum 2019 – BigAnimals.com
Rising to the surface, I kept my eyes peeled for anything that looked like the bear but all I was met with was the beautiful blue arctic sky. No one was around. I filled my emergency sausage with air and signaled for the vessel to come back. After a few minutes, the fear was back. Where was the bear? Where were the others? Where was my team? The boat? I started shivering—I needed to combat both my fear of the bear and the cold. I had to move to increase my circulation and keep my mind off the bear so I started swimming back to camp for the longest fifteen minutes of my life. Finally, they found me. As we stood there, hugging and kissing and congratulating each other, I realized I had been marked forever. I didn’t take a single photo, but I survived.
Right then and there, huddled beneath my parka, hot soup between my frozen fingers, I decided I had to return. If the bear wanted to hurt me, it would have—there was no way I was truly faster than him. It was a warning, I had invaded his comfort zone. But what was that comfort zone? I was determined to find out. My whole life has been about dispelling myths around “dangerous” wildlife, how could I give up on this creature? All I had to do was study polar bear behavior and find a better team…
For ten years before this my mantra had been: “The enemy of all fear is knowledge and experience.” So up to twice a year I traveled to Canada, Svalbard, Norway, and Russia to observe and photograph polar bears hunting, nursing, and mating.
On my 60th birthday one of my students, Yonatan Nir, an Israeli filmmaker, on his graduation decided to make a movie about my life as a wildlife photographer. After all, he said, twelve people have landed on the moon, but only four have ever dived with a polar bear and brought back images to prove it.
After years of worldwide story pitching to TV stations by Yoni and his production team, Yoni was able to raise enough funding for our adventure in the summer of 2015. During these five years I was able to learn more about Polar behavior. Yoni believed in me and so did a man named Adam Ravetch, a leading high-arctic filmmaker who had his own underwater encounter with a polar bear. We brought in another producer, Dani Menkin, and hired an Inuit family from a nearby village: Joe Kaludjack, his brother Patrick, and two of his sons, Bill and Junior.
Our goal was to find a remote place where polar bears roam freely and feed naturally. Being that it was summer and there was no ice, bears would have to swim from one island to the next: we knew there was a good chance we would see them in the water if we picked the right place. And ideally, we’d find a mother with cubs. So on August 10th, Dani, Yoni, and I arrived in one northernmost towns in Canada, met Adam, and finished all our shopping.
Image: Copyright © Amos Nachoum 2019 – BigAnimals.com
We were set to fly again the next day, but it was cloudy and rainy so the bush pilot told us that we couldn’t leave until the weather was clear or cancel. The wait was terrible. We were so close to the promised land. When finally there was a break in the clouds, we loaded up fast and set off on a three hour flight toward Ellesmere Island in our single engine plane, with all our gear, including generator, compressor, tanks and 2,000 liters of fuel and toilet paper, too. We were all quiet during the flight—not because it was noisy, but because we were about to face the biggest challenge of our careers. The success of the mission would depend on each one of us fulfilling our roles. Although we were four very determined people, we also carried with us other people’s thoughts, fears, and judgements about our expedition.
Our camp was on a secluded beach. There was nothing around us save for moss-covered rocks, blowing wind, crashing waves, and endless horizon. After a dinner of scrambled eggs and strong coffee we went to sleep, only to wake to a stormy, gray sky. Rain was coming so we spent the rest of the day in preparation and then with the Inuit. Their tent was filled with seal and caribou skins, as well as dozens of National Geographic magazines—their family had led a few of the trips that resulted in major stories. We spoke only of the bears. After asking each other about our motivations and experiences, I was confident that Joe and his family were the right people to lead us. They agreed that diving with a single bear was too dangerous—our goal was to find a mother and her one or two cubs, if we are lucky
Day two had similar weather but day three were finally able to get out on the water. I was laser focused—all I could think about was getting my gear in order. After jumping in six times to test my weights and buoyancy (I had to borrow a socket and wrenches from the boat to use as extra weight), I was finally ready to go. In the next hour, the Inuit spotted two large bears that were swimming alone. But these were not our bears as they would not hesitate to dive after us if they felt threatened. No, we needed a mother with her cub for the images to tell a story. And three hours later, that’s what we found.
It was my moment of reckoning but I was at peace with my mission. I made sure the lighting was right and then slipped into the water with Adam, right in their path but 50 meters away, we waited for the bears to approach us. And they did, veering only at the last minute to avoid passing over our head. We immediately submerged to about three meters to continue filming. When they passed by us, they were less than three meters away from me. And this time, instead of a large male reaching for me, I got to see a mother bear wrap her leg around her baby to protect it. It was a such a tender moment, and it was only something we could have seen from the water.
Out of the water Adam and I embraced—our brotherhood forever cemented by the joy, happiness, and the huge challenge we had just faced.
Amos Nachoum, Adam Ravetch and Joe Kalucak. © Amos Nachoum 2019
But we didn’t get as much on film as we had liked and with days four and five having the same rainy weather as the first day, tensions were running high. We only had two days left and we had to get more footage.
Day six was perfect. We were fast and efficient getting out onto the water. By noon we had only seen the two adult bears climbing on rocks to eat birds’ eggs. Right in the middle of lunch we got a call on the radio that Patrick had spotted some other bears—Nanuk, nanuk, he called. Joe increased the boat's speed and we searched with binoculars until we saw her with her two cubs, probably 16-18 months old, standing on a small island. We all understood that because of the high mortality rates these days, this was a rare and special sight.
Like the first day, I shut out the outside voices and refocused on my gear. The bear family was slowly making their way to the water but we kept our distance as we observed their movement. We spoke little, moving around only when we had to. I was going back in to face the bears again and once again realize the dream I had harbored for all of my adult life. Once the bears were in the water, I saw that everyone was looking at me, their eyes wide. Help me with my tank, I said to Adam, I am ready.
Joe started the engine and we followed the three bears as they set off to the water toward a different island. We made a big turn to be closer to the land mass the family was aiming for, at 70 meter ahead of them, then Adam and I slipped into the water, the boat now some distance away. We were alone and treading water, waiting on the surface, making ourselves visible for the bear to come to us. They kept swimming and we didn’t move or close the distance. We let them decide where they wanted to go.
Everything was peaceful around us. The sun was out and the visibility underwater was better than ten meters—I had the ideal conditions to photograph the apex predator in its domain. Twenty minutes later, the bear family was still swimming toward us but by this time my legs were starting to go numb in the 8ºC water. One minute later they were ten meters from us and I had my BCD deflator in one hand and my camera in the other. We submerged to five meters. I raised the camera to start filming, I could clearly see the mother and her cubs through the arctic blue water. But then I stopped. I was eye to eye with three polar bears—I needed a bare view of this amazing moment.
But the adventure wasn’t over yet. Once I had my camera situated, one of the youngsters dove toward where we were now about twenty feet below. It came within three feet of me out of curiosity and then it pulled back up to rejoin its family and swim away in formation.
At the surface, Adam and I raised our fists and screamed with joy and gratitude to the Inuit family that guided us safely and to Yoni and Dani for trusting us.
The difference between the first dive in 1995 to the later one two years ago was mainly having a solid team with patience and respect for the Apex predator, as well as ten more years of experience—the enemy of all fears is knowledge and experience.
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Amos Nachoum, a world acclaimed wildlife photographer, is the recipient of numerous photography awards and acknowledgements for his groundbreaking work in scuba diving with polar bears, great white sharks, and orcas in the open ocean. His expeditions and work have been featured on the National Geographic and Discovery channels as well as the BBC.
Amos has over 35 years experience as a wildlife adventure guide, and 15 years experience diving in Antarctica. His work generates attention for endangered species to aid in their preservation and to provoke public awareness and opinion. If you'd like to participate in one of his expeditions, please contact him at BigAnimals.com
Above all else, Amos loves people as much as he does wildlife. His concern for both inspired him to co-found Israel’s Marine National Park on the Red Sea. His interest in conservation brings attention to the most fragile regions of the underwater realm, with preservation of the environment foremost in his mind.