ARTICLE

Audun Rikardsen's polar bear 'selfie'... recovered after a year lost in Arctic waters

This polar bear took a 'selfie' with Audun Rikardsen's camera trap on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic, on 28 May 2017. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/16 and ISO800. © Audun Rikardsen

In 2017, Canon Ambassador Audun Rikardsen experienced in quick succession the best and worst moments of his career as a photographer. His camera trap captured a unique picture of a polar bear up-close, hunting seals by a breathing hole in the Arctic ice, only for the camera to fall into the water and disappear into the depths. A year later, Audun came up with an audacious plan to retrieve the lost polar bear 'selfie.'

"It's a really good picture," the Norwegian scientist and photographer says. "Is it my best picture? It's not my favourite. But it's my favourite if you add the story. The story behind the picture is what really makes it, on top of the situation."

A telephoto view of the polar bear approaching the camera trap in an icy Arctic landscape.
From the relative safety of the boat, Audun photographed the polar bear approaching his camera trap. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens with EF Extender 1.4x III at 1/1000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO250. © Audun Rikardsen
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Audun works as a nature photographer and professor of Arctic and marine biology at the University of Tromsø in Norway. In May 2017, he guided a wildlife photography trip to Svalbard, a group of Norwegian islands between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It took two days by boat to reach the Hornsund fjord on Spitsbergen – Svalbard's largest island, and the only permanently populated one. The boat anchored at the fjord ice and the photographers set out to look for seals – and hopefully polar bears.

Audun positioned his camera and motion sensor at the edge of a hole in the ice. He hoped the sensor would trigger the camera when a seal peeped out of the water. Walking away from the hole in the ice, Audun realised he hadn't anchored the camera. It was too late now. Returning to the hole would disturb the seals.

Back on the boat, at 2am, a crew member woke everybody up. Audun ran to the bow and saw a polar bear approaching the hole in the distance. The bear headed for his camera. Audun had always dreamed of this image: a polar bear standing beside a breathing hole, hunting seals. The motion sensor triggered and the camera started shooting. The bear circled, licked the camera, then knocked it into the hole.

A polar bear takes a close look into a breathing hole in the Arctic ice.
The camera kept shooting and captured a whole series of shots of the polar bear at the breathing hole. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen
The polar bear's muzzle almost in contact with the camera.
Closer than you ever want to get to a polar bear... Moments after this shot, the camera was lost in the freezing Arctic waters. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen
A killer whale swims just below the sea’s surface, rays of light breaking through overhead.

The technical feats of wildlife photographer Audun Rikardsen

From mountainside eagles to whales, the photographer and scientist takes us on a journey through his remarkable Arctic photography techniques.

The camera dangled in the water by the sensor cable. The bear took the cable between its teeth and backed away from the hole, pulling the camera out of the water. The cable snapped. The camera sank in water 140 metres deep. Audun couldn't sleep for a long time afterwards.

Audun uses a range of cameras, from the compact Canon PowerShot G1 X to the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. On that day, he took his Canon EOS 6D. It's relatively small and has a silent mode, so he's able to hide the camera to get close to animals, but it maintains excellent picture quality. It also relatively inexpensive – which is important because there's always a risk to equipment in such extreme conditions.

His lens was the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM: "I use that a lot," Audun explains. "It gives you that close-up, intimate feeling with the animal but you can also see the landscape all around – the environment. I use it for big pictures and underwater pictures. It's the perfect lens in that regard. It's also quite flexible because you have the zoom. I don't know if there is any other fisheye lens that has that. You have the standard fisheye at 15mm that fills the whole frame, but you can also use the 8mm, where you see almost 180 degrees. You can be very creative with it, and I love this lens."

Retrieving the camera

A year later, in May 2018, Audun received an offer: same trip, same boat, same location. He took an underwater drone and a skilled technician from his university to pilot it. He walked to the spot where he lost the camera. The ice looked much thinner this time, and there were polar bears all around. He considered quitting several times.

Three men in cold-weather clothing stand at the breathing hole in the ice; one of them is lowering a drone into the hole.
A year later, Audun and his rescue team return to the same spot with an underwater drone. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen
An underwater shot, with the camera's lens and tripod sticking out of the silt just beyond the drone's grabbing arm.
A remarkable shot taken by the underwater drone's own onboard camera, showing the camera and tripod in the freezing waters where it had sat for a year. © Audun Rikardsen

It proved difficult to steer the drone because the water was cloudy and the current strong. On the third attempt, the drone located the camera. Audun and the pilot danced and celebrated – prematurely, it turned out. The arm of the drone clawed the side of the camera, but couldn't hold on to it, like a grabber-machine at a fun fair. The pilot lost control and the drone appeared to be broken. They pulled it out. Seaweed clogged the propellers. Having come so close, Audun felt worse now than a year earlier.

They had time for one more attempt before the boat left. Luck was with them: they found the camera again, and this time the arm of the drone grabbed tight hold of the tripod. Audun screamed now. He felt the biggest burst of adrenaline he had ever felt. The camera hadn't survived the year in freezing water. But Audun immediately put the memory card into distilled freshwater to stop further corrosion.

Audun Rikardsen, smiling broadly, holds the battered camera and tripod.
Audun couldn't hide his delight at recovering the camera, even though he didn't know if he'd be able to retrieve the pictures. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Audun Rikardsen

Back on the mainland, a company that retrieves data in crime cases helped him recover his pictures. After the best and worst moments of his career, this was the most satisfying.

"It's not too unique these days to have a close-up picture of a polar bear," says Audun. "Lots of people do that. But what's unique is the story behind it and what it shows: it shows the polar bear in its most common hunting situation in the Arctic. That polar bear standing at a seal's breathing hole, waiting for the seal to pop up so it can grab it... That kind of picture I've never seen before."

Autor Gary Evans


Audun Rikardsen's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Audun Rikardsen, wearing a warm coat with a hood, holds a Canon camera.

Camera

Canon EOS 6D

A 20.2-megapixel DSLR featuring a full-frame sensor and compact design. Ideal for portrait photography and travel, offering tight control over depth of field and a large choice of wide-angle EF lenses.

Lens

Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM

Offering a choice of a full frame or circular image, this L-series fisheye zoom lens delivers fantastic image quality with a wide angle view. "It's very flexible because you have that zoom," says Audun. "You can be very creative with it."

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