THE GREAT POLAR BEAR FEAST
AGB Films / Renegade Pictures.
A 90 minute SPECIAL FOR Channel 4 / PBS / BBC WORLDWIDE
The Great Polar Bear Feast is the astonishing story of an annual phenomenon that occurs in early September on the north slope of the American Arctic. Every year, up to 80 polar bears gather on the frozen shores of Barter Island, near the village of Kaktovik, to feast on the hunter-harvested Bowhead Whale remains. This extraordinary gathering is highly unusual because polar bears are known as solitary predators, rarely if ever moving in a group.
Kaktovik is a small Inupiat Whale hunting community. Perched on the edge of the world, it’s inaccessible by road and locked in by frozen sea ice for six months of the year. But for the month of September, it becomes the centre of polar bear studies as scientists and wildlife photographers flock to the tiny town to observe the bears’ unusual behaviour. And with more and more polar bears turning up year on year, scientists are determined to find out why this is happening. How do the bears know to come to this remote island and at exactly this time of year? And what is happening in the region of the Southern Beaufort Sea that is seeing so many Polar Bears desert the ice for land?
We witness what happens to the inhabitants of Kaktovik when the whale bones are picked bare and large numbers of polar bears head for the town of Kaktovik.
The film has access to the pioneering work of Dr Todd Atwood, the lead polar bear scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. His published research estimates that there has been a staggering 40 percent decline in the South Beaufort Sea population in the last 10 years alone. Is climate change the reason of this alarming statistic?
GRIERSON AWARD Short Listed: Best Science and Natural History
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.
Andrew 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.
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, living 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 the remote town, from Anchorage or Fairbanks, Alaska’s two main cities.
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.
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.
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 South and lived with a Penguin Colony.
CLARE WEBB, RADIO TIMES
Co-Director / Cameraman / Executive Producer: Andrew Graham-Brown
Executive Producer: Alan Hayling