Wildlife photographers and TV presenters Jonathan and Angela Scott share their kitbag favourites and discuss their TV show, Big Cat Tales.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."