A mother polar bear and her young triplet cubs

Photo: Daniel J. Cox

Photographing Moms and Cubs in Wapusk

A Q&A with Daniel J. Cox

7 MINS

 

28 Mar 2022

Photographer Daniel J. Cox of Natural Exposures has been photographing polar bears since 1987 and is passionately committed to their conservation. Every year, he generously donates still images and video footage to Polar Bears International for use in our outreach efforts as part of our Arctic Documentary Project.

In this Q&A with Dan, we spoke with him about his recent trip to Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada to photograph polar bear moms and new cubs after they have emerged from their snow dens in spring.

Q: How long were you in Wapusk National Park? What makes the location so special for nature photographers at this time of year?

A: I was there for two weeks this season. I would have stayed longer but I had another assignment taking me to India.

Wapusk National Park is like no other place in the world. It’s the only place where you have relatively consistent opportunities to see mother polar bears coming from their dens with brand new baby cubs. Not only are the bears here but Wat’chee Lodge makes it accessible and comfortable.

Wat’chee Lodge is owned and run by the Spence family, including brothers Mike and Morris. It’s been in the family for many years. Having their expertise on where to see the bears made my job fairly easy. The original building, which is now part of a much larger structure, was constructed in the early ‘60s for the military. Mike and Morris's father began trapping in the area in the early ‘70s. During his time on the land, he saw lots of polar bears. As he aged, he gave up his trapline. Eventually the Morris boys got their father’s permission to start what they referred to as the “crazy idea” of bringing tourists out to see the bears.

This area within Wapusk is well known as a popular place for mother polar bears to den and start their families. Polar bear biologists studied bear behavior here clear back in the early ‘60s. A tower still remains that biologists used as a blind, giving them safety from bears and weather. So, it's been known as a very special place for quite some time.

Polar bear mother and her triplet cubs walk through the snow

Q: What was a typical day like for you?

A: Working with the folks at Wat’chee Lodge Is actually quite relaxing. Not all my wildlife assignments are like this. Our day would begin around 8 a.m. with a great breakfast. Mo, the lodge chef, has upped the culinary game dramatically since I was last here in 2008. After a great breakfast I had time to gradually get my camera gear prepared, get properly dressed, and be ready to go.

Morris tracks the polar bears. He’s a giant of man who speaks so softly you can barely hear him. That is, until he finds a bear and his voice crackles across the radio. When that call comes in, Morris sets out on his snow machine before our specialized tracked van follows. We would sometimes wait in the lodge waiting for Morris to radio he had found a mother and cubs. Unfortunately finding a family of bears is not an easy task. Morris can spend hours tracking and looking for signs of a den or tracks heading to the sea ice. I would like to say we photographed moms and cubs each day but that wasn’t the case. Seeing a family of bears happens approximately, on average, one day for every 3-5 days of searching. But that’s part of the reason this place is so special. You don't get to see mother polar bears with brand new perfectly white cubs anywhere else in the world with relative consistency.

Q: Did the weather present a challenge for your camera gear—or for your safety?

A: Camera gear is not as much of a problem as it used to be. I’m using a new system from Olympus that is virtually impervious to weather. I used no covers or protection of any kind. The biggest issue I had was the temperatures we experienced that ranged from 7° to -30°F. Super cold temps drain camera batteries quickly. But that’s relatively easy to fix by keeping one set of batteries in your pocket, next to your body, and switching them out if needed. Putting the cold batteries back into your pocket eventually revives them, thus giving you a new set to continually rotate if needed.

The cold temperatures aren't really a problem if you're dressed properly. It's all about layers, good boots, and a good glove system. Having grown up in northern Minnesota all my early years gave me an appreciation for the beauty of cold climates.

Mother polar bear and her three triplet cubs lay in the protection of the trees

Q: What were some of the highlights from the trip? Do you have a favorite experience?

A: Without a doubt it was the couple of days we were able to work with a mother polar bear and triplet cubs. Seeing such a large family was inspiring. The one downside is one of the cubs was definitely a little runt. But he did hold his own when snuggling up to mom and getting in to nurse.

Q: This wasn’t your first time seeing moms with their new cubs. How did this year compare with previous years?

A: It was pretty similar to the prior two years I’ve been to the denning area. I spoke with Dr. Nick Lund, a polar bear biologist who works with the polar bears in this area, and he felt it was a very successful year as far as numbers of families he saw. So that's good news. I trust Nick's observations better than my own since he's been working there for at least a decade. Maybe longer.

Q: You have photographed quite a few moms and cubs during the autumn gathering of polar bears near Churchill, Manitoba, when the cubs are about eight months old. What is it like seeing moms and cubs out in the world together for the first time compared with when the cubs are older? Is their behavior different?

A: Probably the most notable difference is how incredibly white the new cubs are. When they come out of the den they are as white as the cleanest snow I’ve ever seen. As bears get older, especially the ones in the Churchill region, their fur takes on a darker tone. Living on land for part of their life and being exposed to dirt, vegetation, and other potential staining agents darkens the otherwise pure white we think of when we think of polar bears.

A mother polar bear and her three triplet cubs relax and play

Q: The denning period is the most vulnerable time in a polar bear’s life. Why is it important to document moms and cubs during this time?

A: Without a doubt baby animals evoke an emotional response from almost all humans. We as a species seem to be programed to appreciate babies of all kinds. Of course, there are exceptions but in general most humans appreciate seeing any creature’s new start in life. It’s that emotional connection I hope to trigger in people seeing my images. Photos and videos can bring attention to issues people may not be thinking about. When somebody sees a still or video image of these incredibly beautiful animals it makes them want to know more. That opens the door for the discussion about climate change and what must be done to protect these amazing creatures.

Q: What role does photography play in conservation? Why are you so committed to the Arctic Documentary Project?

A: Photography has always been a powerful tool in making the viewer aware of certain issues. Not all of us are able to go to the Arctic and even fewer are able to visit a place so special as this denning area. So as a photographer it's my job to bring the images back to the public. Unfortunately, it's the cute and the beautiful that grab most of the attention. Baby polar bears in a family unit fit that description to a tee and thus evoke the most emotion. Emotion can lead to action. And action is what we need to save these animals and in turn ourselves from a warming climate. I said before, if people don't know, they don't care. My job is to make them care.