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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ice Breaker

Acclaimed nature photographer Daniel J. Cox spends five weeks aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship in search of polar bears

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A view from the bow of the Polar Sea icebreaker at night with the Northern Lights just above the horizon. A spotlight from the ship helps guide it through the ice.

A polar bear stands for a better view of the helicopter.
Last fall, Daniel J. Cox found himself on a very large boat in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. His purpose for being there was largely the same one that has driven him throughout his 25-year career as a photographer. A longtime supporter of many environmental causes and groups, Cox, who’s perhaps best known for his work with polar bears, has used his imagery to report on the natural world with the express goal of furthering conservation. This time around, he was documenting a project for Polar Bears International (PBI) highlighting scientists who study polar bears that are living on the Arctic ice pack.

A mother polar bear and her two cubs navigate the newly forming and unstable ice in the Chukchi Sea.
Often, Cox’s travels have taken him to the harsh polar regions, but this journey would be different for him and for the 39 other scientists, camerapersons, Coast Guard personnel and others aboard the ship. Until this expedition, all polar bear studies had been based from land with scientists working out of a small village or town in Canada or Alaska and typically getting out to just 50 miles from the coast. So for the first time, researchers were able to study polar bear ecology as it relates to the changing ice conditions in the southern Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Aided by the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea and the National Science Foundation, scientists from the University of Wyoming and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, spent five weeks collecting data from the sea ice and the polar bears that call this area home. In one case, they tracked a polar bear that had swum some 400 miles out to sea.

For Cox, the expedition represents a shift in the way he’s used to working on more than one level. As a nature photographer, he normally works alone, but this project was a total team effort in which he worked alongside a crew from National Geographic and with Coast Guard media. He was limited in terms of how much equipment he could bring on the helicopter that would go out to survey the landscape and track the polar bears. He also only would have a couple of opportunities to ride in that helicopter.

A scientist holds an ice core recently drilled from the Arctic Ocean icepack.
“I knew I’d have to share,” Cox says. “When you work with these guys, every ounce of weight costs money in terms of fuel. Another 180-pound guy cuts flying time down by as much as 30 minutes to an hour. You’re a detriment to their science, so I knew I’d have to be extremely flexible. There’s no room in these situations for feeling like you’re more important than someone else. I was happy to get to go along and be there. I knew that I wanted to document these guys, but I went into the shoot knowing that what I wanted might not even happen. I got out on the ice twice in a five-week period. If you do this kind of work, you have to understand that it’s not about you, it’s about the team.”

So when Cox wasn’t on the ice, which was most of the time, he documented the work taking place on the ship. In one of his favorite images, a surgeon from the University of Wyoming demonstrates how to collect and freeze a muscle-tissue sample taken from a polar bear’s hind leg. Ultimately, the tissue sample would be analyzed for monitoring and better understanding if and how climate change is affecting the bears. Another one of his favorites shows a couple of scientists checking a device used to collect water samples from the Arctic Ocean. They’re studying ocean microbes and trying to figure out how less sea ice affects plankton, algae and other forms at the bottom of the food chain.

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