Getting Up Close and Personal with Polar Bears
Published16 August, 2023
Photo credit Martin Gregus Jr. and Tae Hoon Kim
Wildlife photographer and CapU alum Martin Gregus Jr. reveals what it’s like to live with polar bears.
In May, CapU hosted an inspiring TedX event, Co-existence Through Transformative Education, where speakers discussed the importance of rebuilding the balance between all species, the land and the biosphere.
One of the noteworthy speakers was CapU alumnus Martin Gregus Jr., an internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer and cinematographer who has studied animal behaviour in the Arctic and Antarctic for the last five years. Gregus’s photos have starred in National Geographic, Canadian Geographic and BBC Wildlife Magazine, and he’s the recipient of the Natural History Museum’s 2022 People’s Choice Award for Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
In his presentation, Gregus recounted his transformative experience of building relationships with polar bears and why revitalizing our connection to nature is imperative.
In the Arctic, as Gregus took breathtaking photos of polar bears dozing in the fireweed, the polar bears adjusted to his presence and let him glimpse into their private lives. From daily – and sometimes naughty – visitors at his campsite to a mother bear peacefully nursing her cubs in flower-filled meadows, Gregus saw over 100 bears.
“The moment that a polar bear starts nursing her babies in front of you and in front of the camera is something absolutely incredible,” he said in an interview. “It’s the pinnacle of that relationship you build with these animals because, at that point, she’s vulnerable; she’s choosing for you to be there.”
“The first time it happened, my jaw just dropped.”
Each bear had a unique personality that helped him identify and name them. Naming them was important, Gregus said, because he wanted the audience to see them as more than just polar bears. These were individuals with their own lives, other living beings we can relate to.
The connection he built with the bears and the disconnect we experience when we live in concrete cities far removed from nature was a focal point of his TEDx talk. In his key message to the audience, Gregus emphasized that we can’t see what’s at stake and what’s worth protecting when we live in our houses, drive our cars, and don’t go outside to immerse ourselves in the natural world.
In the wilderness, Gregus said it was extraordinary to be connected to nature in its truest form. “You’re there, and you’re walking among the bears; these bears aren’t looking at you as a threat; they’re not looking at you as food; they’re accepting you as equals in this natural landscape,” he said. “That’s something I wish a lot more people could experience because I truly feel that if people had that connection with nature... we’d be more inclined to protect it.”
We’re at a critical point in time and history when it comes to protecting nature. While Gregus’s talk highlighted how polar bears adapt to a changing world, he emphasized that humans are accelerating that change at an unprecedented level.
For many people who are lost in their busy lives in chaotic concrete jungles, it’s easy to feel apathetic about issues like deforestation, urbanization or extinction. Reconnecting to nature can remedy that indifference.
“It’s as simple as going hiking, getting out into the environment and connecting ourselves first in that environment,” he said. “When we step outside, whether in the forests surrounding North Vancouver or the wildflower meadows in the Arctic summer, we give ourselves a chance to see ourselves as a part of nature, not separate from it.”
Find the time to connect to the trees, the birds, and the bears, and remind yourself what’s worth protecting.