This story appears in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Not too long ago I was the guide on a wildlife-photography trip to Svalbard, an archipelago halfway between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole. After two days of travel on a small passenger ship along the harsh and icy coast, we reached Hornsund fjord on the southern tip of Spitsbergen island. Wildlife is abundant in this remote and fragile area, and we were looking for seals and polar bears.
When we anchored the boat at the fjord ice, we spotted several seals resting on the ice, but no polar bears. I thought I’d try to get a picture of a seal as it came up for breath at a hole in the ice. I placed my camera and a motion sensor near the edge of a hole. The plan was that the motion sensor would fire the camera when the seal poked its head into the air. The image would capture the seal with the cold and hostile environment behind it.
On the way back to the ship, I wondered whether I should have anchored the camera, just in case. But returning to the hole would have disturbed the seals further and possibly prevented me from getting the shot. I decided not to do it.
Then, at two in the morning, a crew member woke us up. He had spotted a polar bear approaching in the distance under the midnight sun. We ran to the bow of the boat to see what would happen. At first the bear walked toward the boat. Then it turned and headed directly for my camera. I had long dreamed of taking a picture of a polar bear while it waited beside a breathing hole, hoping to grab a seal. I knew it would be a difficult photo to get, but here I could see it happening right in front of me, a dream very close to coming true.
The motion sensor reacted to the bear’s movement, triggering the camera to start taking pictures. The bear circled the camera, gently sniffing and even licking it. Then the bear knocked the sensor onto the ice, grabbed the tripod, and tipped it and the camera into the hole. The camera hung from the sensor’s cable. I prayed that it would stay that way so I could at least rescue the memory card containing the images.
The bear must have heard me. It took the sensor’s cable in its mouth and started backing away from the hole, pulling the camera out.
Then the cable broke. My camera and the memory card with all those impossible-to-get close-ups of the polar bear disappeared more than 450 feet beneath the ice.
That was the worst moment in my photography career. I did not sleep well for a long time afterward. I was so angry with myself. I couldn’t let it go. I started playing with the crazy idea of rescuing the camera. I tried to find someone who would help me find it, but my colleagues in polar research told me that the camera had most likely sunk into the soft mud commonly found in front of glaciers. I almost gave up.
A year later I was asked to join a similar trip to the same spot on the same boat. I obtained permission to bring a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and a colleague to pilot it. We would try to find the camera. If we didn’t succeed, I would know I had at least tried. Maybe I would then be able to stop thinking about that camera. I hate to give up.
When we arrived back at Hornsund fjord, we were given only four hours for the operation due to the paying customers on board. There was a lot more fjord ice in front of the glacier than there had been on the previous trip, and we wondered whether it would be safe to walk so far from the boat. As I knew well, polar bears could be nearby. We decided to risk it. The ice was so thin that it bent beneath us. We almost turned back several times, but then we managed to find a safe route to where my camera had disappeared one year earlier. Now we just had to find it.
We ran into technical difficulties almost immediately and had to pull the ROV out of the water twice. The water was murky, so we couldn’t see to steer the ROV, and the tidal current was causing it to drift from the site. Our only chance of finding the camera was by landing the ROV on top of it, which seemed like a long shot.
Then, like a miracle, on the third try the ROV found the camera. We shouted and danced around on the ice.
Our celebration was premature. When we tried to grab the camera, the ROV’s cable became tangled. The claw on the ROV’s arm was less than an inch from the camera—close but not close enough to grab it. We could hear the arm scratch against the camera’s sides.
Then we lost control of the ROV. The pilot was sure it was broken. I was even more frustrated than I had been the year before. I wondered if it would have been better if we had never found the camera at all.
We retrieved the ROV and saw that the propellers were jammed with seaweed. We had just enough time for one more try. Amazingly we managed to place the ROV on the camera a second time. This time the claw clamped securely onto the tripod. We got the camera up on the ice, and I screamed as loudly as I could.
The camera was corroded, but I managed to get the memory card out. I immediately put it into distilled freshwater to prevent further corrosion. I kept it there until I returned to the mainland. Then I contacted a company that retrieves lost electronic data in crime cases. They managed to retrieve all 149 of my photos.
It was amazing to see them. I saw the polar bear breathing. I saw it licking the lens until the lens became blurry. I saw it prod the lens with its massive, furry white paw. And, at the end, I saw the looming edge of the breathing hole.
Retrieving that camera is by far the most satisfying accomplishment of my photography career. I have never experienced such a massive burst of adrenaline as I did when we pulled that camera out of the water and onto the ice.
Audun Rikardsen is a nature photographer as well as a professor of freshwater and marine biology at UiT—The Arctic University of Norway. This is his first story for National Geographic.