Wildlife Photographer Dave Sandford

Photo: Dave Sandford

Inspiring Action: Q&A with Dave Sandford

11 MINS

 

13 Jun 2022

At Polar Bears International, our roots began in photography, and it remains a core part of our identity. Photography is a crucial tool that helps us share the stories of polar bears and their Arctic habitat. With so many skilled photographers and storytellers in the field today, we’ve created a Photography Ambassador Program, partnering with a few talented individuals to help us bring the North to life for our polar bear community. Keep an eye out for their incredible visuals and stories from the field.

We would like to introduce ambassador Dave Sandford, a passionate polar bear lover and conservation photographer based in London, Ontario, Canada. While his professional career chiefly involves sports photography, his love for the craft stems from, and began with, his love for nature and wildlife. Dave is a founding member of the Canadian Conservation Photographers Collective, has been named an ambassador and member of One Blue Ocean’s Creative Collective, and is a contributor to the The Great Lakes Project, Prints for Wildlife, the New Big 5 and Remembering Bears. His work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Wired, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, PetaPixel, and Tech Insider, and on major television networks such as NBC, ABC, CBS, CBC, CTV, and Global TV. We talked with Dave about his life’s work and his passion for the Arctic.

Daniel J. Cox, Jenny Wong, and Dave Sandford

Polar Bears International photography ambassadors Daniel J. Cox, Jenny Wong, and Dave Sandford.

Q: When did you start photographing Arctic wildlife?

My first trip to the Arctic was straight out of university in the summer of 1997. A friend of mine, Cameron Beaty, had been working as a guide with a lodge up North and had recently been promoted to a managerial position. He hired me to take photographs for their brochure and this relatively new thing called the internet. I spent the better part of a month traveling across the Northwest Territories and various parts of what is now Nunavut documenting their lodges, the landscapes, people fishing, and, of course, all kinds of Arctic wildlife. I was beyond excited at the potential of seeing a polar bear for the first time in the wild. However, it wasn’t in the cards. Little did I know at the time that it would be another 19 years until that finally happened.

Q: What drew you to photographing polar bears?

My interest in wildlife developed at a very young age. Bears were always a favorite, specifically polar bears. I have always enjoyed their antics and to this day equate them to real-life cartoon characters–full of personality! My earliest memories of polar bears came from seeing photos in National Geographic. I also recall gathering around the family room on Sunday nights for shows like Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” with Marlin Perkins, Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America,” “The Nature of Things” with David Suzuki, and the BBC. All of these helped instill a love of wildlife and had me thinking at a very young age that maybe one day I could visit those places and create my own images.

I was nine when my parents gave me my first-ever SLR camera and helped me write a letter to Tundra Buggy Tours in Churchill (now Frontiers North Adventures) requesting a brochure so I could go see and photograph polar bears. Unfortunately, the trip was cost prohibitive for a nine-year-old, so I had to save my dream of photographing polar bears for the future.

Close up of a polar bear

Photo: Dave Sandford

Q: What’s your favorite part about photographing polar bears?

My answer to this question has evolved over the years. There’s the obvious: polar bears are big, beautiful, charismatic megafauna. I’ve always been drawn to their antics and to the “fierce predator” side of them that commands great respect. Every time I’m in the presence of polar bears, I can feel that nine-year-old kid inside of me, bursting with happiness and pride.

I’ve also come to realize that my voice and my photographs are so important in helping to tell the story of the challenges polar bears face as our climate warms and the world they know literally melts away from under their paws. I possess a talent and skill set that enables me to be a voice for the voiceless and I take great pride in that.

I also love the people I get to work with, those who help make photographing polar bears so special. The friendships and bonds I have formed with fellow photographers, scientists, researchers, and guides will last a lifetime. 

Spending time in extremely challenging conditions and circumstances, witnessing one of nature’s most magnificent creatures, requires a great deal of teamwork. When you are working and living in tight quarters, dealing with difficult and sometimes dangerous situations, helps you form fast, close bonds—especially when you share a love of polar bears. Wildlife photography isn’t a “one person sport.” It takes a team of people and all kinds of support networks to make these opportunities come to life.

Q: What are some of the challenges of photographing in the Arctic?

Photographing polar bears and the Arctic, in general, provides plenty of challenges: the cost, remoteness, and environmental conditions to name a few. In nature, there are never any guarantees–even less so when it comes to the vastness of the Arctic and the relatively small population of polar bears. 

The logistics of operating in the Arctic and working around polar bears are a huge hurdle. To put it simply, you can’t set out and photograph on your own–there are too many potential dangers that lurk, including the bears themselves. To be successful you need at least one other individual, but more often, it takes a team. The Arctic and its climate provide all kinds of hurdles. You not only need to plan ahead, but you also need to have a Plan B and in many cases a Plan C. You must learn to adapt on the fly.

The Arctic’s harsh environment can take a toll on gear and mechanics, and this means being prepared for the worst. It’s not like you can go down the street to the local shop to pick up spare parts or have something fixed on the spot. 

In addition, polar bears are one of the world’s largest predators and polar bear safety is not to be taken lightly. As a photographer, you are focused on the task at hand and, if you are alone, you can’t properly be “bear aware,” which means you must rely on others to be your eyes and ears. You must also have proper protection, including carrying deterrents like bear spray as well as your own firearm. 

Like polar bears, I prefer cold climates but, in extreme cold, proper clothing is essential. Yet it seems that no matter how advanced the gear gets, one area seems to consistently fall short: gloves. To work the buttons, knobs, and dials efficiently on a camera, you need both warmth and dexterity in a glove. I have yet to find that perfect combination. 

The biggest barrier is the cost of photographing in remote locations. As a nine-year-old my weekly allowance didn’t cover those things and that challenge still exists for me. I’m always searching for ways to help fund these expeditions, be it sponsorships, partnerships, private donors, and or outfits that work in the Arctic and require photography.

Two male polar bears sparring

Photo: Dave Sandford

Q: How has the Arctic (and the polar bears’ habitat) changed since you began documenting the ecosystem through photography?

When I look back on my experience and time spent in the Arctic regions, I certainly have seen changes with my own eyes since my trip in 1997. But these changes to date have been subtle simply because I haven’t spent time across decades in the Arctic. I’ve had a first-hand look at the rate at which glaciers are slipping into the ocean and it’s sobering. Similarly, returning to locations in the summer months where, in the past, the sea ice was reliable and is now almost nonexistent has been a scary sight.  

I’ve worked with many researchers who have spent much longer periods of time in the Arctic, and I’ve also had the honor of meeting Indigenous people who have lived their entire lives in the North. I’ve been told first-hand about changing weather patterns, sea ice conditions, hunting struggles, and have seen photographs of the places I’ve been and what they looked like in previous decades. In some locations, permafrost no longer remains frozen year-round. Without permafrost, the fragile Arctic ecosystem–an extensive network of wetlands and lakes–is broken down. The extensive melting of permafrost contributes to a warming climate by emitting methane into the atmosphere, and the land becomes more prone to erosion. There are some areas along the coast of the Arctic Ocean that are eroding at alarming rates. 

Q: How did you become involved with Polar Bears International?

While working for an expedition company in the High Arctic I had the good fortune of working with and befriending Dr. Jody Reimer, or “Bear Jordan,” as I affectionately call her. (Jody completed her PhD under Dr. Mark Lewis and Dr. Andrew Derocher, with her work focused on modeling polar bear populations in the context of climate change scenarios.)

Although I was still quite green to the professional world of polar bears, Jody recognized the undying passion I had for polar bears and the Arctic. Jody had done some work with Polar Bears International and said to me that she thought I would be a good fit and, when the time was right, she would make the connection. In early 2017 Jody did just that. To my good fortune, I was invited to Polar Bears International’s inaugural fundraising gala in February of 2017. Since then, we have maintained a relationship that has only continued to grow stronger with each passing year. To now be a part of the introductory Polar Bears International Photography Ambassador Program is truly one of the greatest honors I could have. I am forever grateful to Jody for introducing me to the Polar Bears International family. 

Dave Sandford stranded in Sisimiut

Stranded in Sisimiut.

Q: Do you have any favorite moments or funny stories from the field to share?

Let me tell you about the time I was stranded in Greenland! I was working on an expedition ship that was exploring the Canadian Arctic. We had just crossed the Davis Strait and arrived at our first destination in Greenland, a small city called Sisimiut on the southwest coast. 

Our small expedition vessel docked at port early in the morning and, after leading a small group of folks on a photography tour, I made my way to a small café. The last zodiac was scheduled for 1 p.m. but as I started walking back to port at 12:20, I saw no trace of my colleagues, zodiacs, or the ship! Instantly my stomach swirled about, my heart raced, and I started running with my 50-pound backpack. When I reached the pier, I could see a small dot out on the horizon. I pulled out one of my telephoto lenses, shot a frame, and zoomed in on the back of the camera to confirm my worst fear. I had been left behind in Greenland! 

Many would think: not a bad place to be stranded and I would normally agree. However, what I haven’t told you is that when I went to the café, I discovered I had left my wallet in my cabin. So, there I was left stranded on a dock in a foreign country with no ID, no credit card, not a penny to my name–and bad weather moving in.

Thankfully, there was an Italian ship at the dock. I don’t speak Italian and they didn't speak English. But through visuals and Google Translate I got my message across. One of their staff ran to the bridge to send the distress call on my behalf and about 10 minutes later I heard the faint crackle of a voice over my radio, “Sandford. Are you on the dock? Stay put, we are coming to get you!” 

Because of a nasty weather system that had been closing in, the ship couldn’t return to port so they launched a zodiac. The ordeal back to the ship–in gale-force winds, rain, and three-meter swells—took close to four hours and I think shaved a year or two off my life. I couldn’t wear my backpack as it is a safety hazard, yet if I put it on the floor of the zodiac my equipment would have been drenched or broken. I was also greatly underdressed. To this day I can recall how cold I was and how my quads burned from the semi-squatting position I had to maintain in order to protect my gear and prevent myself from being flipped out of the boat. But in the end, I was rescued thanks to some quick thinking, the kindness of strangers, and some amazing friends. Stranded in Sisimiut, lucky me!