My terrifying face-off with a polar bear – and its lesson for all of us
The number of human-bear encounters has shot up in recent years, according to Arctic scientists
Nothing prepares you for the moment you find yourself face to-face with a polar bear.
In my long career filming nature documentaries, I have encountered grizzly bears in Alaska and silverback mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, one of whom knocked me to the ground when he thought I threatened his family.
But that didn’t make it any less frightening when I stood 2.5m from a polar bear, perhaps the most dangerous predator in the world.
I was filming Undiscovered Worlds, a BBC documentary, along with presenter Steve Backshall.
We kayaked up the Scoresby Sund fjord in Greenland, surveying the damage inflicted by climate change, which is melting the region’s ice and destroying habitats for local wildlife.
We camped under the stars in canvas tents, wrapping ourselves in layers to fend off the bitter Arctic chill.
We were aware of the risk of attack from polar bears – one of the few animals that will make a point of hunting humans – and took “bear watch” shifts each night.The sea ice around Greenland is following the same trend seen all across the Arctic, shrinking in size and melting earlier in the year, depriving polar bears of their hunting habitat and making their behaviour less predictable.
Paddling into this beautiful country, it was clear that the situation was more grave than we realised, and the fjord, which would usually have been covered with sea ice at that time of year, was a pale imitation of itself.As a result, polar bears are making their way into villages and towns in their desperate hunt for food, and the number of human-bear encounters has shot up, according to Arctic scientists.A study released last year by the Wildlife Society analysed polar bear attacks between 1870 and 2014, and found the largest number took place between 2010 and 2014, years with dramatically low levels of summer sea ice.We heard this ourselves from locals, who told us they had seen more bears making their way about town in recent years.The events of the third morning of our trip, then, should not have come as a surprise.Just after breakfast, a boat driver shouted that he saw a polar bear.It was a kilometre away at that point, so we had plenty of time to prepare.
My initial reaction was excitement: just days into our trip and we already had the opportunity to view one of these majestic beasts up close.
We assumed the bear would stroll past us, so I whipped out the camera and hit record. But the bear turned its head and, seeing our group, began to stroll squarely towards us.
Heavy on its paws, he looked relaxed, but my excitement quickly turned to fear. We were in the bear’s domain, and there was nowhere to run; our boat was too far away, and the bear would easily defeat us in a race.
We had prepared for this eventuality, of course, arming ourselves with flares, guns (to fire over the bear’s head) and bear spray.
As it continued its powerful stride we tried the flares, firing them high into the air. The bear was unperturbed.
Steve pointed out it appeared to be yawning: not a sign of boredom, unfortunately, but aggression.
Our boat driver fired the gun above its head, but it barely noticed so he fired at the ice.
Briefly, the bear turned before changing its mind and stomping back towards us.
At its nearest point, it was 2.5m away.
We were throwing stones and shouting in a desperate attempt to send the bear away.
Eventually, we struck lucky by throwing stones at the bear’s feet. Slowly it turned around and walked towards the sea, splashing into the water before swimming away.
It was a frightening experience, but desperate to film the scene, I had spent the encounter focused on my camera, which stopped the fear from taking over.
I was also afraid for the bear: some members of our crew had guns – to use as a last resort – and it would have been a disaster if any harm had come to it.
With documentaries like Undiscovered Worlds and Blue Planet Live reaching millions, it feels like an exciting time for our understanding of the environment.
As terrifying as it was, I hope my heart-pounding encounter reminds viewers of the dire need to protect the Arctic.
That said, I hope I won’t be squaring up to another polar bear any time soon.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)