From Fear to Triumph
The large male Polar bear was only fifteen meters away and slowly swimming towards me. I whipped my head around to check in with my safety diver. He was not in his usual place behind me. The bear was getting closer. I looked towards my support vessel, the crew was busy working furiously to pull the safety diver from the water. With the beast now only five meters away, I didn’t have time to ask why I had to make my own decision. I knew the bear could definitely smell me now and I had to escape – either swim to the boat or dive – the vessel was far and I was slow with 17kg around my waist, scuba tank on my back, and camera in my hands. I decided to dive down, as far 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 slowed down at about ten meters. This was a mistake. The bear was diving towards me, in fact, he was only a meter or two above me and extending 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 25 meters. Only then did I dare to look up, and saw the bear in silhouette against the dark water. I descended a few more meters, so I could catch my breath and control my fear. The bear gave up its pursuit of me. There are no words to describe the feeling of relief that came over me once I realized the bear was swimming towards the surface. I remained for a few more minutes, steadying my breath and assured myself that the bear was on the surface. Checking my pressure gauge, I saw I was low on air and needed to surface. As I was ascending it got harder and harder to breathe. At about 10 meters, I took the last breath of air. That was one more scary moment. I kicked hard and made a free ascent. I took few deep breaths on the surface and looked around. No boat and no bear. I kept scanning the horizon for anything that looked like the bear, but all I saw was the beautiful blue Arctic sky. No one was around. I filled my emergency sausage with air and signalled for the vessel to come find me. 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 started swimming to increase my circulation and keep my mind off the bear. I dumped the heavy weights around my waist and swam towards a distant ice pack. This was the longest, coldest 15 minute swim of my life. Finally, the team found me. As we stood there, hugging and crying, laughing 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 and lips, I decided I would return. If the bear had wanted to hurt me it could have done so. There was no way I was faster than him. It was a warning as I had invaded his comfort zone. But what was that comfort zone? I was determined to find out. My entire diving and photography life is about dispelling myths around “dangerous” wildlife. How could I give up on this creature? All I had to do was to study polar bear behavior more intently and find a dedicated team.
For ten years my mantra has been: “The enemy of all fear is knowledge and experience.” So 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 photographer turned filmmaker, had the idea 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 video and film to prove it. But no one had swam with the polar bear underwater and taken a still photograph.
After many years of meetings, Yonatan and his partner Dani Menkin, were able to find financing from French, German, and Israeli TV stations and raised enough funding for our adventure. During that time I was getting my team ready. As Yonatan believed in me, so I believed in Adam Ravetch, a man I had the chance to mentor in the early ’80s. Adam had become a leading high Arctic filmmaker who had his own successful underwater encounters filming polar bears. We 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 location where bears had not encountered humans. Where polar bears roam freely and feed naturally. We knew there was a good chance we would see them in the water if we picked the right place. It was summer and the bears would have to swim from ice pack to ice pack. My hope was to encounter a mother with at least one cub to highlight animal behavior. So, on August 10th, 2015, Dani, Yoni and I arrived in a northernmost town in Canada and met Adam. We were set to fly again the next day on a Twin Otter small plane. It was cloudy and rainy, and for good safety reasons, the bush pilot told us that we couldn’t leave until the weather was clear. The wait was tense. We were so close to the adventure after so long. But still a three hour flight away from where the Inuit party was waiting for us. When finally there was a break in the clouds, we speedily loaded up the small plane and set off to our location in the single engine plane.
We were all quiet during the flight. Not only because it was sooo 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. We were four very determined men, however we also carried with us other peoples' thoughts, fears, and judgements about our expedition.
Our camp was on a secluded beach. There was nothing around us except for moss covered rocks, blowing winds, crashing waves, and endless horizon. After a dinner of scrambled eggs and strong coffee we went to sleep, only to wake to a stormy, grey sky. Rain was coming so we spent the rest of the day in preparation and visiting with the Inuit family that accepted our quest to dive with and photograph the bears. Their tent was filled with seal and caribou skins, as well as dozens of National Geographic magazines. 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, so our goal was to find a mother and her cub or two.
Day two had similar weather, but on the third day we were finally able to get out on the water. I was tense and sharply focused – all I could think about was getting my gear in order. My main concern was achieving perfect buoyancy. Due to a lack of lead weights, I had to borrow socket wrenches from the boat to use as extra weight. After jumping in six times to test my weights and buoyancy, 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 wanted a mother who would hopefully stay by her cub.
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 camera setting was right and then slipped into the water with Adam. Right in their path, we waited on the surface for the bears to approach us. As they got within 10 meters of us, two veered to the side only to avoid us on the surface of the water. We immediately submerged to about three meters and continued filming. When they passed over us, they were less than two meters away. And this time, instead of a large male reaching for me, I got to see a mother bear wrap her leg around her cub to protect it. It was a such a tender moment, and it was only something we could have seen from our vantage point under 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. But we didn’t get as much on film as we had liked, and with days four and five having the same rainy and cloudy weather as the first day, tensions were running high among the producers Yonatan and Dani. We only had two days left and we had to get more footage.
Day six was our last day and it 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 break onboard, we got a call on the radio that Patrick had spotted some other bears – “Nanuk, nanuk” he called. Joe sped up the boat, we dropped our lunch sandwiches and scrambled over our drinks in a rush to grab binoculars and search intensely. Finally, we saw her and her two cubs. Yes two cubs! They were probably 16-18 months old, standing on a small island. We all understood that because of the high mortality rates these days among bears due to limited food supply, 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, cruising around only when we had to. I was going back in to face the bears, 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 swimming toward a different island. We made a big turn to be closer to that land mass the bear family was swimming towards. Adam and I slipped into the water and waved to Joe to move the boat away and leave us alone. We were in the water, waiting for the family 300 feet in front of us to hopefully swim to us. They kept swimming and we didn’t move, silently treading water. We let the family decide where they wanted to go.
Everything was peaceful around us. The sun was out and our visibility in water 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 towards us, but by this time my legs were starting to go numb in the 8C 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. At this moment I signalled Adam to submerge and together in harmony, we submerged to seven meters. I raised the camera to adjust the sight through the viewfinder. I could clearly see the mother and her cubs through the Arctic water. I held my breath to avoid bubbles in the frame.
I locked my eyes to the eyes of all three polar bears.
But the adventure wasn’t over yet. Once I had my camera repositioned, one of the youngsters dove towards where Adam and I were filming. It came within two meters of me 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.