Most of us know polar bears as snow & ice animals. Why did you choose to follow polar bears through the summer? What was your motivation for the change of season?
I've been making bear and walrus films for the last 15 years, and a couple of years ago I went to a location in the fall, with polar bears, and it was just extraordinary to see them in quite a different terrain, not on the ice. That location started me thinking about covering the bear from the time the ice breaks up to the time that the ice re-freezes again. So that was the beginning of the motivation to cover a different season for the bear.
Why did you choose this bear population?
We wanted to bring attention to this sub-population of bears. There's sort of this blanket impression that "bears are in trouble" and that's not completely accurate…everyone thinks there's just one population of polar bears.
The big message here is that this is the most southerly population of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay, and these animals have been on land longer than ever before. And this last season was the longest ice-free season for them. 20 years ago if I'd visited this location in November the bears would've already been gone onto the ice. So we wanted to focus on this most southerly population, to show that they're most at risk in this current warming time.
Why did you choose to tell the story from the teenage bear's perspective?
We wanted to give people more of a sense of how polar bears really live and the risks they face because of the longer ice-free period. So we followed the young animals because they are really the ones most at risk.
I think what's really amazing is this notion that bears can pass down their knowledge from one generation to the next. Just like we do – we learn from our parents and our grandparents and we're very proud of our roots, and our identity has a lot to do with where we came from. I was interested in the idea that bears have a similar culture. So we followed a juvenile male who just left his mother for the first time – that happens at around three years old, which is the equivalent of being a teenager in human terms. And we focused primarily on that age group because they're the ones with the least experience, and the ones most at risk because of that inexperience. It's an even more perilous time for the young bears, because with ever longer summers, mothers themselves don't have a lot of experience. So they're unable to pass on survival skills.
Mother bear with cubs
Our sub-characters are the mother and her two cubs – what we're doing there is staring into the past of our main protagonist, our juvenile bear. It's a way to show what he went through and the training he got, and both these sets of animals are at risk.
The way you've told the story – one really senses that the bear is struggling.
One moment that I love in the film is when the bear has been on land for awhile, he's been bitten by mosquitoes, and ultimately he can't eat and he doesn't have food. And he sees the mother and the cubs in the distance. The mother is about to go on this walk to figure out how to find food to feed her two cubs, and our juvenile bear makes an active decision to follow her. And if he'd never made that decision, chances are he might never have found food. So that was kind of cool because he's going on whatever experience he has – he doesn't have experience in a warming world, but his experience was probably that he had a pretty good mother. So he's going to follow another mother. He's using whatever experience he does have, and he decides to trust the wisdom of a mother.
You've been filming with polar bears for many years, but given you filmed in a different season, was their anything novel that you experienced?
In my time in the Arctic I've heard stories of these bears that will sometimes come to the cliffs and will actually climb up them to forage. I filmed that – to actually be present and see the bear, where if he made the wrong move he could fall and plummet hundreds of feet in to the water. I've never witnessed it, because one of the things the scientists think is that again, up until now, the younger animals have had longer periods on the ice where they can get access to seals, so by being forced to land even earlier, they're actually compromised and malnourished, so they may be forced to attempt a climb like that.
Close up with a bear
How were you able to get so close to the bears?
Bears are like people, they have different personalities. Some are mean and aggressive and nasty and don't want you around, and some tolerate a closer distance.
I'm constantly trying to put the audience side by side with the polar bear so I knew I had to get within three feet of these animals. There were different camera techniques that we used to achieve that, but almost always we were working on ground level with the animals. There's a fine line where you have to manage a tense situation – you don't want them to come and investigate you – you don't want to put them or yourself in harm's way. At the same time you want to put the audience right there, not looking from afar.
One difficult scene was in the fall with the chasing that was going on with the mother and two cubs and the juvenile. The reason we played up that young male cub as a bold, courageous cub is because that's exactly what he was doing. And one of the problems when we were out there was, not that we were getting so close, it was that the bold cub was curious enough to come to us, and the big worry there is that the mother would follow.
Do polar bears really make all those sounds?
Yeah, not a lot of people have recorded their vocalizations, but definitely a mother with cubs, is constantly huffing and hissing at them, and they use a lot of vocalizations to order them around. I'd heard it in the early days when I first camped on the ice. I remember one night when a bear was pushing on our tent and – of course that's potentially dangerous – a bear coming into the tent. Outside we heard all these roars. It turns out it that it was the mother yelling at her cubs to get away from the tent. There's a bear language for sure, they're not silent. You can hear that in the scene where the two big sub-adults are wrestling and when the mother and cubs are playing peek-a-boo, watching them. The cubs are really curious and she's really yelling and huffing and telling them to stay back.
How did you manage to get underwater footage of the polar bear?
In the swimming sequences I basically swam with the polar bears, it was one technique to get really close. In those cases I had to jump in the water to keep ahead of their trajectory where they were swimming towards and wait for them to come.
I really wanted to show the polar bears as magnificent marine mammals – their Latin name translates to Sea Bear…their ability to dive and swim and hold their breath. But also to demonstrate that they can't stay in the water forever, they've got to get out.
Which is more dangerous to film in the water, polar bears or walrus?
Well, we were worried about the polar bears grabbing us underwater, they have hook-like claws, but the walrus were a bigger concern, because once you're down there the people on the surface don't really know what's going on. The walruses are 1000 or 1200 kilos and unlike polar bears they can swim very fast. There's a scene where we were demonstrating how the mothers are very protective and holding the baby in their fore flippers – to get that shot it meant being in the middle of a herd. When I first went to the Arctic the local Innu told me if I saw a walrus pop up in the water to get out because they can hold you against your will and knock your head off with a smack of their tusks …these animals can do a lot of damage. They're very gregarious and they're not necessarily trying to hurt you, they just run into you because they're big. We were always trying to be immersed and I always say that I want to be in the "belly of the herd," I want to be in the middle of the action.
Is there any indication that this bear population is moving further north, as a result of climate change?
Three Canadian scientists – Ian Stirling, Andrew Derocher, Nick Lunn – all agree that this Western Hudson Bay population is in trouble and that if the current warming trend continues they wouldn't make it. So it's not that they'd move further north, but that they wouldn't make it. They know this because what they've done for decades is tag these animals and they know that they will always come back to the same place... this is their range. It isn't that easy for them to just move somewhere else - to a place that they don't know. There are about 19 other sub-populations in the world (most of them in Canada), so it's not all of the bears who will be affected by climate change. I always hope that they will be able to figure it out. It took 100,000 years for their ancestors, the grizzly bear, to adapt to becoming seal-eating and fat-eating, marine-mammals. And so now what happens if in 20 years there's no more ice? Can they switch quickly back to becoming brown bears?
Our bear has got to make this journey for four more years, and find seals for four more years, in order to reach reproductive age. There are no guarantees for the future of this population, but at least our guy made it, and that made me feel a bit hopeful.
What did you hope to learn from the collar camera?
I've stuck cameras on a walrus, and on a bowhead whale. So I approached Nick Lunn to see if he was interested – it would be the first time that anyone had put a camera on a polar bear. The bear wore the camera for two weeks. The scientists wanted to learn more about the mother/cub relationship, because they don't know a lot about their detailed behavior, because they tend to spend the summers further in land. And they discovered that they were eating a lot of berries. They thought they might eat some berries in summer, but since there's no energy benefit from it no one thought they'd spend a lot of time doing it. But Nick said he was surprised by how many berries they were eating – he hasn't fully analyzed the results yet. So it is still a mystery as to why they do it.
In some of the footage we see the bears find caribou antlers. The carcass was mostly clean, but they carried the antlers around for several days and would often gnaw on them. I think it speaks to the fact that polar bears are incredibly curious and persistent. And I think it suits them, especially in a warming world, where they need to figure out how to find some food, and they never give up.
One of the rigs filmmakers used to capture unique footage for this film.
Is it harder to film in the Arctic during winter or summer?
The mosquitoes were terrible in the summer… the cold brings on a challenge that is very difficult on equipment. In November, to get some of the scenes where the ice was re-forming, and the water was full of that mushy ice, it was hard to keep the cameras warm enough to be operating. And it's difficult to operate at 31 degrees below. But there are great advantages too. You don't have to bring fresh water when you camp. I'm usually out there for 4 to 6 weeks at a time, so when you're camping you have fresh water just by melting snow. You can also easily travel. You've got snowmobiles, sleds, dog teams, and you don't have to go up around the hills and mountains and that kind of thing. You can build an igloo, so you don't have to bring a tent with you. So there's an efficiency in the winter and you just have to figure out how to keep your cameras running. When it gets hot you have to deal with all those other things – your food can go bad quickly, you've got to cart around water, or camp next to a stream. Plus, it's safer to work in the winter because the bears are out on the ice hunting seals, and you don't have to worry as much. But in the summer when they're hungry and they're not sleeping they'll come to your camp, when you are trying to sleep….not fun.