Polar Bear Photo Tour
The polar bear; Ursus maritimus. This photo tour provides a simply unparalleled opportunity to photograph the largest terrestrial carnivore in North America. The photo tour is scheduled to meet the absolute prime conditions for polar bear photography in the region. We spend 6 nights in arctic Alaska, taking boat trips out each day (weather permitting) to photograph the bears. The best polar bear photo tour in Alaska, bar none.
Photo Tour Outline
- - 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
* * * * * * *
The Alaska Polar Bear
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.
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" ). :) 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:
Polar Bear Photo Tour Videos
For more information and details on the tour, read over the notes below. This will give you more of an idea about the tour, itinerary, what you need and do not need, and whether or not this tour is the one you're looking for.
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.
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.
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.
Weather will, of course, dictate everything. This IS arctic Alaska, after all, and we can expect some inclement weather. You'll see more information about this throughout this page, but know that a flexible itinerary and a fluid approach to the schedule are needed. Some days we might not be able to go out on the water if the ocean is too rough, etc. There'll likely be some downtime, which is par for the course in the arctic anytime of the year. We'll make every effort possible to utilize everything available to maximize our opportunities for some great polar bear photography. The benefit of a week long stay is the chances improve dramatically for a combination of great weather and light conditions, polar bear activity and photography.
$8900.00 Double occupancy. Single room may not be available, and require a $1500.00 surcharge for the week.
October 5-10, 10-16.
October 4-10, 11-6.
Added: Sept 10-17
Group size is limited to a maximum of 4-5 photographers (5 under extenuating circumstances - see "Terms", below). The small group size is fundamental to the 'you' in 'your photo tour'. Many of the other tours you'll see 6 people plus a guide on the boat, and that can definitely hamper your opportunities to shoot what you want. Smaller is better.
Both your own and the bears' safety is paramount. We take the extra step to make sure your photo tour is a safe one. We pay close attention to the bears and their behavior and follow their lead on what's OK and what's not OK for us to do. No exceptions.
We'll bring for you
First rate food and accommodations, offer in the field photo advice, and first class local guiding experience. Sat phone, emergency equipment, etc, medical training and so on. I can offer assistance with various digital photography concerns as Photoshop and post-processing if you like.
Note: there are only 2 places to stay in town, and we definitely will be staying at the best place in town. Hands down! We get great food, great service, clean, quiet accommodations, and a wonderful atmosphere.
Photo Tour 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).
Nighttime, after dinner we'll keep an eye on the sky and aurora borealis forecasts; if it's happening, the arctic is an awesome place to watch and photograph the northern lights. A short drive out of the village gives us some nice options to set up for aurora photography.
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.
The terms of the tour are simple. Because this tour is limited to such a small group, and because of the narrow window of time I can run a tour like this, a 40% deposit ($3600.00) is required to hold your spot. The balance is due 90 days prior to the trip departure. A helpful installment plan is available.
This trip requires a minimum of 3 photographers to go. For this trip, we can do a "non-photographer's rate", of $2000.00 for a spouse or partner as an extra person (NB: this rate does NOT include the boat and motor vehicle trips, but DOES include meals and lodging, etc).
If you have to cancel after you've paid in full, refunds will only be given depending on whether the spot is filled. It's also contextual - I understand emergencies, etc, and try to be as flexible as I can about that kind of stuff. If I can't fill the spot, I might possibly be able to put the balance towards the trip the following year.
Definitely recommend you take out travel insurance on this trip. Due to the nature of the arctic, weather conditions can drastically influence things, and most of the outfitters we deal with up there have a no refund policy for bookings.
Local Alaska business
I'll stress again the benefit of heading out with an Alaskan company. You simply can't beat local experience when it comes to nature photography, and particularly wildlife photography. What you get here is 2 Alaskan guides working together to offer you the best in polar bear photography.
Native Inupiaq guide
For the duration of the trip we'll hire a local Inupiaq guide to take us out on his boat to get up close and personal with polar bears. This is expensive, but critical to maximise our photo opportunities. The bears are often curious, and will often venture out toward the boat, or playfully spar with one another in the water beside us. A guide who knows these polar bears, who grew up around them and knows them well makes the world of difference.
As the photo tour leader, I bring a wealth of photography experience to this tour. I've photographed bears extensively for well over 15 years now, across much of the state of Alaska, and have sound experience with bears and bear behavior. I'm knowledgeable regarding their natural history and ecology, as well as our own behavior around bears, whether it be polar bears, brown bears and grizzlies, or black bears.
I've also been guiding both backcountry and front country trips for over 10 years, so I'm familiar and comfortable in my role as a leader and a guide. I'm a certified Wilderness First Responder, and experienced at dealing with backcountry situations. With any remote travel, having experienced and trained medical help around is critical.
I've also spent nearly 25 years working with people, and also teaching; this is a photo tour, not an instructional photo "workshop", but I'm more than glad to offer assistance and instruction for those who need it in the field. I'm an experienced instructor and offer my experience and knowledge to help you improve your own shooting as we go. If you have any questions, I'm glad to help as possible.*
* NB: being that we're frequently shooting from a boat, this particular trip doesn't always lend itself to a lot of hands on instruction in the field - being still and not moving on the boat is critical to best allow a steady platform for everybody to shoot from; but we'll do what we can, as we can, when needed.
We'll enjoy first class lodging and meals included in the photo tour price. Once you arrive everything's taken care of, from the shuttle to the hotel, a polar bear safety briefing, lodging, meals, transport, guiding, and return shuttle to the airport upon your departure.
The hotel accommodations are clean and comfortable, the friendly staff both welcoming and helpful. There is some cell phone service on the island, for AT&T, but not all providers work here. You can buy a short-term phone locally for about $40-50 for the week. Free wireless internet access is available in the hotel.
Your options to get to/from the refuge (fly to Kaktovik, Barter Island) are either fly from Anchorage, via Fairbanks to Deadhorse to Barter Island, or fly direct from Fairbanks to Barter. RAVN Airlines are who you want to look to for these flights.
... your passion. Your camera gear, and clothing for a week. Good raingear and warm clothing is essential in Alaska at any time of year, but particularly so in the arctic. This trip is not a hiking or backcountry trip, but being in somewhat decent physical shape makes dealing with arctic Alaska that much easier. We won't have a lot of walking to do, but the cold and arctic conditions have a way of making everything feel a little bit harder. Climbing into and out of a boat is probably the most challenging physical task of the tour, but that's also not for everyone.
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'.
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.
I recommend chemical hand-warmer packs if you need them. Some folks like these for their feet as well (I don't find them helpful for my feet, myself); I'll have plenty along you're welcome to use, but it's always a good idea to have some extra.