Photographer Tells Amazing Story Behind Photo of Polar Bear Mom Nursing Two Cubs

I first encountered the award-winning photographer Florian Schulz in 2010, when he was presenting his film Visions of the Arctic at the New York Times building in Manhattan with the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Earthjustice. I was awed by the footage that he captured with his wife and collaborator, Emil Herrera Schulz. Their work clearly illustrates the stunning natural beauty and majesty of life in a region that has been threatened by industrialization and climate change.


In 2012, he released the book To the Arctic, a panoramic photoessay that is the official companion book to the Warner Brothers IMAX film To The Arctic, which followed the lives of a mother polar bear and her two seven-month-old cubs as they try to survive in the rapidly changing place they call home.

I had a chance to talk with Florian about his experience in the Arctic, his current project and the poignant image that has been nominated for Por El Planeta, the first international conservation photography competition, sponsored by National Georgraphic.

Reynard Loki: Over the last several years, you've spent a great deal of time in the Arctic. What draws you to this place?

Florian Schulz: For me it's about going to a place that is fairly unknown and getting a chance to look at the world from a different perspective. For example, most of the world goes through different seasons, but in the Arctic there is a really long winter with lots of darkness and then it turns around and there is all this sunlight as the sun never sets. With this change, there is an influx of life and a place that seemed like a barren frozen wasteland suddenly flourishes with life and you witness a tremendous amount of animals, including millions of migratory birds and hundreds of thousands of caribou. What is also intriguing to me is how well Arctic animals have adapted to their environment. For humans, the freezing cold is devastating but polar bears and seals and birds deal with it just fine. For them, the problem is when the temperature become too warm.

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RL: While the Arctic has an abundance of well-adapted wildlife, there is also the tragedy of animals not being able to survive because of the melting ice. Polar bears cannot find food and there have even been reports that some bears have resorted to cannibalism, which some experts say may be a result of food stress, when their preferred prey—seals—is unavailable, something that has been linked to melting ice. A mother polar bear swam over 400 miles in nine days in search of food; scientists blame global warming. Is this something that concerns you?

FS: Absolutely. In my short time I have seen dramatic changes in the Arctic in different areas. For example, along the coast in Alaska you can see how the permafrost is just melting away; it looks like the icing on a cake that disintegrates as whole hillsides just slide away into the Arctic Ocean. I have seen polar bears swim and come to land and they are extremely thin and malnourished because they have to swim hundreds of miles to find food. So you do see these changes. Of course, we love polar bears, and without the sea ice they cannot hunt for seals. But the problems are even bigger with the tiny animals like the zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain, which are key to the entire ecosystem. Warming temperatures and ocean acidification are having a major impact overall.

RL: The Arctic is in many ways ground zero for climate change as the events there are so stunning and impact the rest of the global climate in terms of temperature and sea level rise. If you could ask climate negotiators at the upcoming UN climate meeting in Paris later this year one question or tell them one thing based on your personal experience in the Arctic, what would it be?

FS: I would ask for reason. Because the science is obvious. There are of course the deniers, but it is a fact that we are facing dramatic change. The Arctic shows the signs of the changing climate faster because the temperatures are rising twice as fast there. But it's only one sign of what's happening across the entire world. We have seen many major storms, floods, droughts—basically weather going to extreme and the Arctic is more of an indicator of what will happen, so it gives us a chance to listen up now. My big hope is that reason will take on more of a stand because I think we all know what's going on. We are being bribed by the resource industries like oil and gas who want to keep doing business as usual. We cannot go on doing business as usual, using the same resources, using the same kind of transportation and pretending that everything is going to be fine because it won't.

RL: There are concerns that the melting ice will permit more trade routes and tourism throughout the Arctic. Did you witness any evidence of tourism when you were there? Was there plastic garbage floating in the water?

FS: I've been in many different parts along remote coastlines and it's shocking how much plastic one finds, but I wouldn't say that in the areas of Arctic that I have been, in Alaska or Spitsbergen or in Canada, that I would see specifically a lot of plastic. The issue with the shipping routes is definitely a major problem because through the Aleutians, the shipping routes will increase going through the Bering Sea and possibly the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Because there's very little infrastructure, if there is a disaster, you cannot react very easily to an oil spill or if a ship gets into a storm.

RL: What was the most dangerous moment during your Arctic travels?

FS: I was camping on the ocean ice in polar bear country for weeks at a time and that was dangerous. Polar bears came to our tent and we had to scare them away by shouting or by even firing a flare gun into the air. But one of the most dangerous moments that I lived through was at the edge of the lead, a narrow crack in the ice. I was laying on the ice photographing a bird, a black guillemot and when I was moving my tripod suddenly I realized I was poking through the ice. It would've been very easy for me to fall through if one of these little sheets of ice were to break off and with the water temperature at 30° I would've drowned very quickly. So it wasn't the polar bears, but photographing these birds that almost killed me and in hindsight that was actually quite scary. I was just not thinking—I was in artist mode just obsessed with this image that I wanted to capture.

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RL: You took this powerful and poignant image of a polar bear mother nursing her two cubs, which has been nominated for the Por El Planeta Award. Can you describe how you came across this scene and taking the photograph?

FS: So imagine that polar bears are really ocean animals especially on the ocean ice. That's why they are called Ursus maritimus, the sea bear. They really live out on the ocean ice most of the year. In the winter of course it's frozen, but later in the year the ice falls apart and disintegrates more and more. So this mother was actually out on a little ice floe in the Arctic Ocean trying to hunt seals because that was the last area where there was still sea ice remaining. This mother stayed around our boat and we got a real insight into her life. It was absolutely amazing how well she took care of her young. During this time however, big male polar bears were in the area and they were trying to actually hunt her cubs and so she always needed to be on the lookout. I actually witnessed one big male sneak up on them and surprise them and they had to run for their lives. This photograph for me was so touching because it was that moment of relaxation when this mother gives everything to her cubs. She has taken care of them for all those many months, and skipping all the different dangers, providing food for them and then actually leading them away from that male and actually confronting that male polar bear, fighting against him so he wouldn't eat her cubs. And this was her moment of peace, giving milk to her babies. For me it was wonderful to see their bond. As an artist I look for these little details of the perfect symmetry, that Zen moment. In this photograph, it really comes together in that one single moment: An expression of that mother's devotion to her cubs.

RL: If you win this award, you said that part of the prize will help fund your current Arctic project, which is about conservation. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

FS: My current project is basically to document the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Obama said that he would like to protect large portions of the refuge from mining and drilling. I've moved into film and have been documenting it last year for five months and this year already for another two. In many areas along the coast there are polar bears that are really depending on these areas, but the oil industry is interested in drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. It would affect all this polar bear habitat. The nice thing about the Por El Planeta contest is that all of the proceeds from the registration process will be donated to conservation initiatives, with fifty percent of the proceeds going to an initiative related to the photograph that wins the People’s Choice Award, which in my case would be polar bears.

To vote for Florian's photograph and help polar bears, click here.

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RL: So you are moving more into film for this new project?

FS: Yes, we are shooting in cinema quality the big caribou migrations, the landscapes, the auroras and the overall beauty of the Arctic refuge. There is some photography as well but right now we are really focusing on creating the highest quality footage available. We will be doing aerial shots and showing the broad range of wildlife, from the birds to the bears to the caribou and of course the landscapes: There is a wealth of wildflowers in the Arctic plains, bumblebees and many things that people wouldn't expect of the Arctic. My goal is to give the public the possibility to see what the Arctic refuge is all about because some politicians have called it a barren wasteland or a flat white nothingness. So for example we were just filming musk ox and seeing how they were using the land, surviving in these freezing temperatures, giving birth to calves and going about their ancient rituals such as fighting amongst the bulls. So basically I want to show people what this place is all about so that they can make up their own minds about how they feel about it.

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RL: You mentioned that you love going places where humans have had little impact. What other places are on your list?

FS: I'm actually finishing up a book which is called The Wild Edge, which will come out this fall. That is looking at the last large, beautiful intact ecosystems along the western seaboard between Baja California and the Arctic. So from the gray whale migration from Baja to Alaska to bird migrations, I'm highlighting those areas that are still wild and scenic, like the coastline of British Columbia, southeast Alaska and the Aleutians. I am always trying to go to places where the ecosystems are still fairly intact, where the landscape still belongs to animas, because that's what I think is worth preserving the most.

All photographs © Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com

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