From Fear to Triumph - How to Dive with Polar Bears

 A Real-Life Adventure By Amos Nachoum

POLAR BEAR FAMILY LOOKING AT AMOS NACHOUM AS HE PHOTOGRAPHS THEM FROM BELOW IN OPEN OCEAN. "MY WHOLE LIFE IS 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 ... IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

4000 People Have Summited Mount Everest

12 People Have Walked on the Moon 

5 People
Have Ever Been Diving with Polar Bears 

"THE ENEMY OF FEAR IS KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE." IMAGE : Courtesy of ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY & "AMOS" A DOCUMENTARY BY YONATAN NIR & DANI MENKIN

Abandoned to a Polar Bear, The First Attempt 

THE TREMENDOUS PAWS OF THE POLAR BEAR WERE JUST OVER HEAD, CLOSE ENOUGH FOR A "HANDSHAKE". IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

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 beast 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. 

 Close to Death - Then Tranquility 

 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 (33 feet) . 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 tilted 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. 

My Team was No Where to be Found, and the Bear was Still Lurking

But, I had to reach the surface as well, my team was still nowhere to be found, and the bear was still lurking… 

Rising to the surface, I kept my eyes peeled for anything that looked like the bear, but all that met me 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 in longest fifteen minutes of my life.

THE BEAR AND I WERE BOTH STILL IN THE WATER, BUT WHERE WAS THE BEAR? AND WHERE WAS MY TEAM? IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY & BIGANIMALS.COM

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 must return. If the bear wanted to hurt me, it would have - there was no way that I was 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 is 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…  

The Enemy of All Fear is Knowledge and Experience  

For the ten years before this experience, my mantra had been: "The enemy of all fear is knowledge and experience." That thought led me twice a year, to observe and photograph polar bears hunting, nursing, and mating. I traveled to Canada, Svalbard, Norway, and Russia

AFTER ALMOST BEING KILLED ONCE, AMOS NACHOUM SPENT THE NEXT TEN YEARS STUDYING POLAR BEAR BEHAVIOR IN PREPARATION FOR HIS SECOND DIVE INTO ARCTIC WATERS TO PHOTOGRAPH THEM. IMAGE: COURTESY OF WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY AND BIGANIMALS Global Expeditions.

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.

UNDERSTANDING THE ANIMAL IS THE KEY TO GREAT WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY - BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, UNDERSTANDING AND RESPECTING ALSO HELPS KEEP BOTH PHOTOGRAPHER AND THE ANIMAL SAFE. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM, WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER, AND FOUNDER OF BIGANIMALS GLOBAL EXPEDITIONS.

I Had Learned Much About Polar Bear Behavior 

After years of story pitching to TV stations across the world by Yoni and his production team,  in the summer of 2015, Yoni was able to raise enough funding for our adventure. During the five years that had passed, I had learned much about Polar bear behavior. Yoni believed in me, and so did a man named Adam Ravetch, a leading high Artic filmmaker who had 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 of the northernmost towns in Canada, met Adam, and finished all our shopping.

LAST STOP BEFORE CAMP AND THE SUPPLIES ARE READY, SO ARE FILM MAKER YONATAN (YONI) NIR AND PRODUCER DANI MENKIN. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM.

We were set to fly the next day again, but it was cloudy and rainy. The bush pilot told us that we had to cancel or wait to leave until the weather was clear. 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. Then set off for the three-hour flight in our single-engine plane toward Ellesmere Island, with all our gear, including generator, compressor, tanks and 2000 liter (528 gallons) 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 men, we also carried with us other people's thoughts, fears, and judgments about our expedition.  

"THERE WAS NOTHING AROUND US BUT MOSS COVERED ROCKS, BLOWING WIND AND CRASHING WAVES ..." THE CAMP ON ELLESMERE ISLAND, NUNAVUT, CANADA FOR THE POLAR BEAR DIVING MISSION. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM

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. seal and caribou skins fillered their tent, as well as dozens of National Geographic magazines. Their family had led all but a few of the trips that resulted in major stories. We spoke only of the bears. 

THE RIGHT TEAM. TOP ROW: L TO R: JUNIOR KALUCAK (SON OF JOE KALUCAK), PATRICK KALUCAK (BROTHER OF JOE KALUCAK), BILLY KALUCAK (SON OF JOE) DANI MENKIN (CO-PRODUCER)), YONANTAN NIR (PRODUCER & DIRECTOR) BOTTOM ROW: L TO R: AMOS NACHOUM, JOE KALUCAK (GRANDSON OF JOE), JOE KALUCAK (INUIT TOP GUIDE & TRIBE LEADER), ADAM RAVETCH (EXTRAORDINARY ARCTIC FILM MAKER & AWARD WINNER.

THE POLAR BEAR DIVING EXPEDITION CAMP AT ELLESMERE ISLAND, IN THE CANADIAN ARCTIC. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

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 socket and wrenches from the boat to use as extra weight), I was finally ready to go. 

"HUNTING" FOR POLAR BEAR WITH MY LENS. THE BEAR SWIM FROM ISLAND TO ISLAND SEARCHING FOR FOOD. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

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. 

IN OPEN WATER WITH POLAR BEARS. A MOTHER AND CUB PASSED OVER MY HEAD WITHIN THREE METERS (10-FEET) IMAGE:©AMOS NAUCHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

I made sure the lighting was right and then slipped into the water with Adam, precisely in the path of the bears, but still 50-meters (164 feet) 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 (10 feet) to continue filming.

When they passed by us, they were less than three meters (10 feet) 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.  

LESS THAN THREE METERS ( 10-FEET) AWAY FROM ME IN THE WATER, THE MOTHER POLAR BEAR PUT HER LEG AROUND HER CUB TO PROTECT IT. IMAGE: ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

Out of the water, Adam and I embraced - our brotherhood forever cemented by the joy, happiness, and the intense challenge we had just faced. 

But we didn't get as much on film as we had liked. Days four and five had 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. 

JOE KALUDJACK, OUR INUIT GUIDE AND VETERAN OF NUMEROUS NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPEDITIONS, SPOTTED A POLAR BEAR MOTHER, AND TWO CUBS ( A RARE SIGHT) HEADED INTO THE WATER. IMAGE: ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY AND BIGANIMALS GLOBAL EXPEDITIONS.

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 sped up the boat, and we searched with binoculars until we saw our mother bear with 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 all 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.

MOTHER BEAR AND CUB KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON ME AS THEY SWIM OVER MY HEAD IN OPEN WATER. IMAGE: ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

"Help me with my tank," I said to Adam, "I am ready." 

Joe started the engine. 

We followed the three bears as they set off to the water toward a different island. We turned to be closer to the land mass the family was aiming for.

At 70-meter (230 feet) ahead of the (bear) family,  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. The three bears kept swimming. We didn't move or close the distance between the bear family and us. We let them decide where they wanted to go. 
  
Everything was peaceful around us. 

THE POLAR BEAR FAMILY, A MOTHER AND TWO CUBS, PASSED ALMOST DIRECTLY OVER OUR HEADS. AMOS CONTINUED TO FILM. IMAGE: BY ©ADAM RAVETCH

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 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. We submerged to five meters. I raised the camera to start filming; I could clearly see the mother and her cubs through the Artic blue water. But then I stopped. I was eye to eye with three polar bears - I needed an open eye view of this amazing moment. 

ONE CURIOUS POLAR BEAR CUB DIVED DOWN TO GET A BETTER LOOK AT US, THEN WENT BACK TO ITS FAMILY. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM

But the adventure wasn't over yet. Once I had my camera re-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 its family. The three swam away in formation. 

THE POLAR BEAR FAMILY SWAM AWAY IN FORMATION. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM, PHOTOGRAPHY, FOUNDER OF BIGANIMALS GLOBAL EXPEDITIONS

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 and the later one two years ago was mainly having a solid team with patience and respect to the Apex predator, as well as ten more years of experience - the enemy of all fears is knowledge and experience. 

THE LAST LOOK AS THE POLAR BEAR FAMILY SWAM AWAY. IMAGE: ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

For a preview of the documentary take a look at this video.  

For future assignment and expedition contact - BigAnimals.com  

FILM MAKER YONATAN NIR, AMOS NACHOUM, DANI MENKIN, AND ADAM RaCVETCH, THE DOCUMENTARY TEAM. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY

WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER AND HOLDER OF THE DREAM, AMOS NACHOUM, WITH CO-PRODUCER, ADAM RAVETCH AND INUIT TRIBE LEADER & TOP GUIDE JOE KALUCACK, WHO PROVIDED KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, AND HELP TO THIS AND NUMEROUS ARCTIC EXPEDITIONS, CELEBRATE THE SAFE AND HARMONIOUS CONCLUSION OF DIVING WITH POLAR BEARS. IMAGE: COURTESY OF ©AMOS NACHOUM PHOTOGRAPHY.

About Amos Nachoum: Amos is an internationally awarded marine and wildlife photographer, a dedicated conservationist and champion of the Earth's last remaining wild places and species. He has led numerous National Geographic expeditions; his work, including his underwater photography and films, has been seen in over 500 publications and on TV in North America, Europe, Israel, Japan and elsewhere. Amos is the founder (1995) and president of BigAnimals Global Expeditions, taking small groups of 4-6 clients to observe, photograph,  and responsibly interact with whales, Polar bears, sharks, dolphins and more. Amos believes that interaction builds understanding and respect for our fragile environment - and that is the secret to its preservation. We do too. 


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