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Bear fiction ?

A lie in the Arctic

in General Rants , Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Update, 14 Jan 2011: Following discussions with various people I’ve come to realise that the bulk of this program was filmed in 2009. I’ve updated the text accordingly. I don’t think it changes my conclusions. If anything it reinforces them.

Like many people I was captivated by the recently widely circulated movie extract of Polar bears destroying the BBC’s expensive and ingenious collected of “spycams”, narrated by Dr Who, er, sorry, David Tennant. With a bit of fiddling with proxies I was able to circumvent the archaic wall around BBC iPlayer and watch the whole movie.  And it was very enjoyable, even more so because I, along with the other 11 people on board the yacht Jonathan IV, spent a few days in the company of two of the stars of the movie, back in August last year. We encountered the “mother with single cub” in Sallyhamna, where the beached fin whale provided many a free lunch to many a bear last summer.


“Our” bears, at Sallyhamna on 15th August 2010. Whale backbone clearly visible


A screengrab from the BBC’s film at the same place, maybe late August ?. The rock to the right of the mother bear is easy to spot in my photo, above the whalebone.

When we were there, it certainly looked like these two would not survive much longer. The mother was very thin and seemed apathetic, not even trying to feed. The cub was tiny. So the “feel good” story coming from the movie that they did actually make it out onto the sea ice was really nice to hear.  Well, to start with it was, but then I started having my doubts. Both the timeline in the movie and some geographical facts raise some serious doubts.

The story of the bear’s escape seems to be too good to be true, for several reasons. First of all, the sea ice conditions.  Although the program was very vague indeed about the actual facts, they seem to imply that the bears left Svalbard in the vicinity of Sallyhamna in late summer. Let’s be generous and say October.  Well, looking at the sea ice extent map for October 2010, and even taking into consideration the fact that the East Greenland sea is the only area where the ice extent at that time was anywhere near the historical mean, it’s still one hell of a long swim for two unwell, under-nourished bears from north west Spitsbergen. Especially as it is likely that the cub had never swum anywhere before.


Sea ice extent map, October 2010. (Source NSIDC)

The sequencing is also pretty strange. We first encounter the two bears fishing for kelp down by the sea at Sallyhamna at about 19:30 minutes into the film. However, there is a clear view of the whale carcass during this sequence, and it is quite evident that this scene was shot after the exposed part had been fully stripped, sometime in August. But there is no mention of this. The scenes of the bear feast on the whale (around 31:00) must have been shot around late July [correction: shot in summer 2009]. Quite a lot later, after the episode with the raid on the goose colony (and where was the cub at this point, anyway ?) and the inspection of the walruses, we get told that the mother picks up the scent of the whale, and heads off towards it.  Well, fine, but the scenes we then see of her and the cub back in Sallyhamna (around 46:00) give me a strong impression of being shot at the same time as the sequence at 19:30. 

Frankly, I’m very skeptical that we’re watching the same animals here. And certainly there must be more than one female & cub bear pair around!  Had a crew somehow monitored the same pair from the time they left their den, through the summer, to the late autumn, well that in itself would be a story worth telling. The fact that they didn’t - and that this female was not tagged in any way - makes me think that they built up a narrative from a collection of unrelated shoots. This is clearly standard for wildlife documentary, but in this case I think it steps over the line. Of course, I could be wrong…but I’m afraid I’m not.

A later shot shows a mother and cub walking out along a peninsula, apparently according the the narrative heading north to find the sea ice. Problem is, as far as I recall, there isn’t anywhere that looks much like that near Sallyhamna.  And finally, when we see the ice rainbow, apparently the mother bear’s cue to take to the waves, and then we see the bears slip into the water (51:21), well, sorry, but this is without a doubt another Sallyhamna clip. All credibility is lost, I can no longer kid myself that there is a truthful story being told here.

OmniGraffle ProfessionalScreenSnapz002.jpg

This is where the action takes place. In August 2010 the sea ice edge was at least 100km north.

So what we end up with is an entertaining fiction with some educative truths mixed in, but largely submerged in sentimental mush. Sure, there’s some remarkable filming, in particular the sequence of the bear stalking the seal under the ice, and sure, the bears are cute, but somehow pretending that starving, stranded bears on Svalbard are a sign that they will adapt to rapid climate change is just dishonest and a disservice to the conservation movement.

Polar bears aren’t built to live on land. Don’t take it from me, take it from experts like Ian Stirling (Polar Bears) or Steven Kazlowski (The Last Polar Bear). Unfortunately, these days it seems like the BBC is more interested in entertainment.

I’m not naive, I don’t expect wildlife documentaries to present a linear narrative, and I completely understand that, realistically and practically, to tell a story which portrays the life of any animal you need to spend as much time in an editing suite as in the wild. But it is usually implicitly if not explicitly made clear that some compromises were necessary. In the case of “Spy on the ice”, too much is glossed over and dressed up as fact.