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"Drop-dead gorgeous & potentially deadly"

Posted March 22, 2012 @ 7:05pm | by TravelWild

This summer, nature photographer and science writer Wayne Lynch will join TravelWild’s expedition to Spitsbergen to see polar bears and other Arctic wildlife. He and scientist Andrew Derocher have just produced a new book, Polar Bears, A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior, published by John Hopkins University Press.

Says Derocher in his author bio:

There’s no doubt that I’m a polar bearaholic but then most people are fascinated by this species. I’ve yet to hear a person say “I don’t like polar bears.” Far from it. People are intrigued by the ice bear for reasons I’ve grappled with for years. As I outline in this book, I think it’s tied to their massive size, remoteness, and their dazzling fur. Any animal that makes a living in such a harsh environment is interesting but being drop-dead gorgeous and potentially deadly seems to spark our interest. Many cultures have deep ties with bears and this likely stems from the fact that humans often compete directly with bears for food and habitat. Dealing with bears is probably coded in our DNA.

There’s no question that a warming planet threatens polar bears and the ecosystem they depend on but this book is more a celebration of polar bears than a requiem. Ultimately, I was convinced to write this book because I feel that we only care about things we know about, so hopefully this book will engage readers and more people will commit to ensuring the polar bear has a future.

In a review of this coffee table-style book, Canadian journalist Ed Struzik entices,

Tracing the origins of the animal from its genetic roots in the Irish brown bear, Derocher takes us on an evolutionary journey that explains why an adult polar bear’s skin is black when it is pink at birth, why the bears eschew meat in favour of fat and why they’re considered marine mammals instead of terrestrial ones.

BBC’s Frozen Planet has finally begun its much anticipated premier in the US, on the Discovery Channel, Sundays at 8 PM. All over the internet reviewers are marveling at the series. This Sunday features the second in the seven-part series and several journalists have documented the arduous videography.

In gathering footage from locations where temperatures can hover around 60 degrees below zero (let’s not forget those hurricane force winds), the crew took great precautions.

[Producer Vanessa] Berlowitz took the crew, many of whom she had worked with on Planet Earth, to the Norwegian wilderness for a two-week training period before leaving for the Arctic. With 24-hour darkness and temperatures hovering at minus 13 degrees, they engaged in such activities as “advanced snowmobile driving at night, in blizzards,” and simulating snowmobile crashes, since outside help wouldn’t arrive for days if they experienced any actual emergencies during filming.

The crew also took up rifle training—“in the dark, with a blizzard”—to protect themselves from polar bear attacks, as well as crevice and avalanche rescue procedures.

The bitter climate required wearing up to 10 layers at once, so wardrobe included everything from fine, thin silk thermals, to wools and fleeces of varying thicknesses, to the heaviest possible, industrial strength goose down.

Even with all these precautions, [a] polar bear incident was not the crew’s only close call. Flying low over the Greenland ice sheet to get a dramatic shot of waterfalls and glaciers, Berlowitz sensed her helicopter being pulled downward, then starting to spin.

“There was a massive downdraft sucking us down,” she says. “It was like looking into hell’s mouth, because all I could see was this abyss—this kind of vertical black hole with water plummeting down—and I felt like that was my moment of reckoning. It was a strange feeling, because I thought, very simply, ‘This is it. The end.’ There was no panic. Just a feeling that we’d overstepped it.”

The crew used husky dogs, both for transporting gear and protection.

You’d think polar bears—at up to 8.2 feet in length and weighing up to 1,800 pounds, the world’s largest land carnivores—wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Not so apparently.

The team who created Frozen Planet—the upcoming Discovery Channel/BBC series from the makers of Planet Earth—learned that if one is to travel through polar bear territory, it’s best to bring along dogs. Lots of dogs.

To film several of the Arctic scenes from the series, Frozen Planet filmmakers worked alongside 38 native sled dogs. The dogs (huskies) became trusted companions, helping the film crew transport gear through some of the planet’s most inhospitable locales, as well as providing round-the-clock protection against polar bear attacks.

“Inuit have long known that polar bears and dogs do not get on, and utilize their huskies as polar bear deterrents,” said Vanessa Berlowitz, series producer for Frozen Planet.

“I watched an unbelievable encounter where a polar bear went up on his back legs and looked like he was going to pounce on (one of the sled dogs) Bollom,” recalled Berlowitz. “Bollom then got on HIS back legs, barked right in the polar bear’s face, and the bear cowered and ran away!”

The huskies impressed the entire film crew. Said Berlowitz, “Huskies are really tough; they will sleep outdoors even in the coldest Inuit settlements because they overheat inside. They have some of the thickest fur of any mammal and can withstand really low temperatures.”


If Frozen Planet piques your interest, stay tuned for a new Imax film, scheduled for release in mid-April. To the Arctic offers beautiful videography and more polar seduction.

If you’re more than an armchair traveler, contact TravelWild today to grab one of the last spots on this summer’s expedition to Spitsbergen with Wayne Lynch, birding expert Chris Leahy, expedition leader Dennis Mense, and bear biologist Gary Alt.  Bon Voyage!

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