Every September, the people of Kaktovik – a remote Inupiat village in Alaska – hunt and harvest a bowhead whale. This is a centuries-old ritual, but what happens next is a recent phenomenon: dozens of polar bears turn up to devour the remains.
It’s an awesome sight, and it’s put Kaktovik on the map. In the last few years, it hasn’t just been polar bears arriving in ever greater numbers. Tourists have been turning up as well, eager for a rare sighting of these supposedly solitary creatures feasting side by side.
Last year, film-maker Andrew Graham-Brown was among them. He’s the co-director of The Great Polar Bear Feast, a Channel 4 documentary that investigates why more and more polar bears are swapping their native ice for land.
A polar bear investigates the whale bone pile
Graham-Brown spent two months in Kaktovik, living with one of the Inupiat hunters and filming the bears, who have also taken to prowling around the villagers’ houses like urban foxes.
Below, he tells us why it’s so worrying – and how he got so close…
The footage of the polar bears gnawing on the whale bones is remarkable. Wasn’t it dangerous to film?
I would never stray too far from my vehicle because occasionally you’d get charged by a mother protecting her young – and you’ve got to be pretty nippy to get back into the vehicle! But most of the time they’re remarkably placid. They’re a formidable predator but I was able to get within 25 feet, which is pretty amazing.
A feast for all
And I’d always have someone with me because when you’re looking down the lens all you’re doing in concentrating on getting the shot. You become oblivious to what’s going on behind you. And of course if you’ve got a polar bear sneaking up, you need eyes at the back of your head. So I employed a local Kaktovik guy as another pair of eyes.
But it was an unusual situation because the polar bears are quite used to people, and you’re not really prey because there’s so much food from the bone pile.
Charging polar bears aside, what was the biggest logistical challenge?
The cold. There were some days when it was minus 20. That is the biggest challenge both for the equipment and for your own safety. The wind is the killer. When it’s really cold and you’ve got a wind at 35, 40 miles an hour, you can only bear about half an hour and then you have to get back indoors.
But for a wildlife shoot, it wasn’t too bad because I was based in Kaktovik and so at least I had a house to live in. Living in a tent would have been a lot worse!
Why did you want to live with a local?
Because it gave me the opportunity to understand their way of life – and a big part of their identity is whale-hunting. The Inupiats are an incredibly welcoming people in such a remote part of Alaska.
And the polar bears are part of their identity now, too. They take people out on boats and the guides are very knowledgeable about the bears.
Would you recommend it as a tourist attraction?
Oh absolutely – as a way of getting to see polar bears in such numbers. It’s pretty much guaranteed in the first weekend of September when the whale hunt takes place. And they’ve got a good infrastructure for flying in and out of that remote town from Anchorage or Fairbanks, which are the two main cities of Alaska.
And as the documentary reveals, it’s very worrying because climate change is the cause?
Yes, more and more of them are coming because they’ve less and less opportunity to do what polar bears should normally do: hunt out on the ice. Because the ice is breaking up so much earlier every year, polar bears are increasingly having no option other than to turn landward to try and survive through the summer months and early autumn months.
Foraging on land
So our film asks: what does the bone pile represent about the change in polar bear behaviour? It’s not a trivial change. You might only have about 3 or 4% of the polar bear population coming to land 15 years ago. Now it’s 20%, so there’s been a radical shift in that behaviour and you’re now seeing upwards of 80 polar bears.
So was this just an average job for you?
Yes, but you still have to pinch yourself – particularly to work with polar bears. Most of the time polar bears are on wafer-thin ice and next to impossible to actually see because they’re so far out from shore on the ice. You need helicopters to see them.
Where else have you worked?
Mongolia, Costa Rica, on the Mississippi River in America, Africa a lot… I took my family to the Antarctic for five months while I was making a film for the BBC. We sailed down and lived with a penguin colony.
Recently I’ve been filming kangaroos in Australia, which are a lot less challenging than polar bears! It’s called Kangaroo Dundee and it’s about a guy who lives with a mob of kangaroos.
The Great Polar Bear Feast is on Channel 4 on Saturday 5th December at 7pm