Ice Breaker

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

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.

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 polar bear stands for a better view of the helicopter.

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.

A mother polar bear and her two cubs navigate the newly forming and unstable ice in the Chukchi 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.

“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.”

A scientist holds an ice core recently drilled from the Arctic Ocean icepack.

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.

A pteropod, commonly called a sea angel, captured from the Arctic Ocean.

Like the work depicted, these images may not be as gripping or emotionally appealing as those iconic shots of cuddly polar bears, but Cox thinks they’re every bit as valuable because they add to the bigger picture of how the scientific community is working and finding new methods to conduct its research. This also was a chance for him to get back to his photojournalist roots in an era when that kind of work seems to be declining. A lot of the work Cox does for PBI, of which he’s an advisory council member, is to document projects like this expedition. Gone are the days when he could solely focus on and make his living from taking pictures of wild animals. So Cox is adapting his skills and branching out into new areas while keeping to his fundamental role as a visual storyteller.

“Part of the reason I got involved with PBI was because they work with an animal that I really care about,” he explains. “All my life, as an individual photographer, I’ve worked alone. Now, I’m really part of their team and I can still do some of the journalism that I want to do. If I had just gone on that trip to get polar bear pictures, I would have been disappointed. So I’m learning to do other things and I’m enjoying this new direction. It’s challenging and very rewarding.”

A helicopter returns the polar bear capture team to the icebreaker.

Cox was able to add to his polar bear portfolio, too, while having an experience completely new to him after more than 20 years of taking polar bear pictures. His first time capturing a bear on this trip was during an evening reconnaissance mission with one of the scientists. After 30 minutes, a bear appeared, and as the chopper banked, flying around to her front at some 200 feet from the ground, she charged the helicopter. Cox got off four or five frames of her starting the charge. After about 20 or 30 feet, she shot up, standing on her back legs and looking straight at them. The scientist he was with said the bear had probably never seen a helicopter before then.

While some of the bears observed on the trip seemed fairly healthy, the team found considerably less sea ice than expected, and they were often navigating in rather thin ice that had recently formed. There were times when they found a polar bear but couldn’t get to it because the ice was too thin for a helicopter to land. The conditions made it difficult to recapture bears that were originally captured the previous spring and check out how they were faring. These bears were originally captured near the Alaska coast, but many had moved hundreds of miles out into the middle of the Chukchi Sea.

A female polar bear makes her way over to the icebreaker to investigate Cox and the rest of the crew.

Less than a decade ago, the ice pack was just a few miles offshore. If a bear on land decided to go back out into the ice, it didn’t have far to swim. Now, the conditions are very different, with bears sometimes swimming hundreds of miles to find ice. One of the major concerns about polar bears is about whether or not they’ll find adequate food as the ice pack moves farther offshore. Some data implies that the seals and other animals they rely on spend most of their time near the shallower waters by the coast. As the ice retreats farther out to sea, it’s questionable whether there will be enough prey for the bears to survive. One of the major conclusions drawn from this trip was about polar bear behavior. A theory suggests there are two different kinds of polar bears—those that stayed on land and watched the ice retreat and those that clung to the ice and rode out into the ocean. What they actually found is that bears move freely between the land and the ice.

Witnessing what scientists go through to make these kinds of discoveries firsthand was exciting for Cox. “I was amazed by the dedication of these scientists,” he says. “They’re not like typical wildlife photographers who often venture out on their own, leaving their families to go off and shoot. One of the things that was so inspiring was how well the scientists worked together. I had heard that sometimes you get these really eccentric and egotistical personalities, but this was really a cohesive crew. I can’t think of anything I’ve worked on that was more fulfilling than documenting this work.”

To see more of Daniel J. Cox’s work, go to Visit Polar Bears International at