It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The truth in that can be seen in the footage of a polar bear that ignited concern over the inevitable effects of climate change. But, like most things in this world, there is more to this picture than meets the eye.
Paul Nicklen is a photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist from Canada who has been documenting nature for 20 years. Working as a photographer for National Geographic, Paul has been able to travel all over the world capturing wildlife. He has won numerous awards for his work, such as the BBC Wildlife Photographer Of The Year and the National Geographic Fellowship. While filming in August, Paul saw the most heartbreaking thing he had ever seen.
Nicklen is the co-founder of a non-profit organization called SeaLegacy, which is an organization formed by photographers, filmmakers, and storytellers, with the goal of raising awareness and funds towards the protection of our oceans. They frequently visit places like Antarctica and the Baltic Sea to record the wildlife and how climate change is affecting it. On their last journey, Nicklen caught something that would disturb the entire world.
This past year, the SeaLegacy team took off to the Arctic. This region is of particular importance because it seems to be warming twice as fast as any other place in the world! Nicklen has filmed the effects of climate change himself. He has seen receding glaciers, the struggling populations, and the communities that have been affected by the rise in sea levels. They also visited islands in the upper parts of Canada – a place close to Nicklen’s heart.
Nicklen grew up on Baffin Island, in an Inuit community. During his time spent there, he learned lots of things from the Inuit people. The Inuits don’t just survive in the conditions, they thrive in the Arctic, and love it. Due to the experiences Nicklen possessed, he grew to be passionate for the polar regions of the world. Now, back in the Arctic, his view of things would change once again.
On this particular day, the team was shooting close to Nicklen’s home. They were on the plains of Somerset Island, scouting for wildlife. Since it was late August, it was summertime, and there was no snow on the ground. After traveling for the entire day, it was time to start heading back to their camp. Since they had no footage for the day, they thought they were going back empty-handed, but they were wrong.
While filming from an abandoned fishing camp, they spotted an adult male polar bear. It was obvious that the bear was hungry and looking for food. He was searching through rusted bins and even took a bite out of an abandoned snowmobile seat. Although it wasn’t unusual for the bear to be scavenging, since it was the summer, there was something extremely wrong with this bear.
Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, and their diet mostly consists of seals. An adult male typically weighs around 1,200 pounds and will eat between 100-200 pounds of food a week to stay healthy. Since most of their food is abundant in the winter, polar bears are the only bear that doesn’t hibernate. It’s normal for them to struggle for sustenance during the summer, but what the SeaLegacy team saw wasn’t normal.
It was clear that the polar bear was starving to death. It had a thin frame, and its bones could be seen through its skin. His atrophied muscles showed the team that he had been in this condition for quite an extended period of time. He was lacking so much energy that he moved slowly, looking for food; food that would probably not be enough nourishment. Nicklen and the team were appalled.
“My entire @SeaLegacy team was pushing through their tears and emotions while documenting this dying polar bear,” Nicklen wrote on his Instagram when he shared the footage of the bear. “It’s a soul-crushing scene that still haunts me, but I know we need to share both the beautiful and the heartbreaking if we are going to break down the walls of apathy.” His message went straight to the hearts of his followers.
Nicklen’s video, which was posted on his Instagram feed, and on National Geographic’s official page, had received more than 3.5 million views. The mainstream media soon got wind of it, and hundreds of articles were written about the polar bear and climate change. While most people agreed with how Nicklen felt, some people actually started blaming him and his team.
“You could have helped him instead of filming, with as many tears as you have you could have given him some food and water,” wrote a commenter on Instagram. It’s just not as easy as that. First off, it’s illegal in Canada to feed the wildlife. And even if they were to give him some food, it would only have sustained him for a short time. His death was inevitable. But that wasn’t the only thing people were saying.
Some experts and journalists say they don’t believe that climate change necessarily had anything to do with the bear’s condition. A wildlife biologist, Jeff W. Higdon, who worked in the Canadian Arctic for over ten years, believes it was something else, such as bone cancer or another disease. People from the area where Nicklen grew up also voiced their objections.
Leo Ikakhik, from Nunavut, the Canadian territory where the Baffin and Somerset Islands are located, has been monitoring the polar bears. He doesn’t think that the bear’s condition is anything unusual. “These things happen,” he told CBC. “Mother Nature is going to do part of that. You know, it’s just part of the cycle.” Some people also objected to the methods that were used in making the video viral.
Nicklen’s video was accompanied by sad, dramatic music – which was obviously meant to pull at the heartstrings of viewers. Even though the footage was shot in August, it was shared in December. Skeptics believe he did this to show that the Arctic region was devoid of ice during the winter, which would be catastrophic. Also, many people don’t agree with the sensational way it was portrayed, but Nicklen’s team continues to claim it was for a good cause.
Even though the photographer admits that he didn’t have proof that the bear’s condition was caused by climate change, he wanted people to see what a starving bear looked like. “We are a visual species,” he said in an interview. “He should have been a dominant bear. Why he was dying, I don’t know.” No matter the cause, it’s important to acknowledge the existence of climate change, and the effect it does have and will have on our planet.