Photograph by Norbert Rosing
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A pair of polar bears swim in the waters of Wager Bay in Nunavut, Canada.
Photograph by Norbert Rosing

A Photographer Becomes A Godfather…To a Polar Bear

Norbert Rosing has been photographing polar bears for 25 years. In 1989, he captured his first polar bear images in Churchill, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. He was there to photograph the beauty of the Arctic, but he wasn’t looking for polar bears in particular. When he crossed paths with one, however, its beauty struck him. In his words, he “got stuck.”

“I was driving on a gravel road with my cheap car and all of the sudden a big bear walked towards me. The appearance and the look of the polar bear just drove into my heart and I was sitting there with an open mouth. The bear walked towards a freshly frozen lake, dove underneath the thin ice, broke through it, and shook his head against the sunlight. A magical scene, I had never seen a picture like this anywhere before and my plan to watch and photograph polar bears started. It became an addiction.”

Rosing didn’t photograph any polar bears on that trip, but he returned to Churchill the following year and began documenting polar bears in earnest.

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A sleeping polar bear cub, Hudson Bay, Canada. The December 2000 National Geographic Magazine cover photo from Rosing’s story “Bear Beginnings: New Life on the Ice.”

Eleven years later, he published his first National Geographic magazine cover story, “Bear Beginnings: New Life on the Ice.” It showed polar bear mothers spending time with their coys (cubs of the year) after birth and hibernation. “For many years, I had tried to photograph this very intimate part of life of polar bears with as much respect and awareness as possible,” Rosing says, “and when I was able to present this story to my editor, I felt unbelievably blessed.”

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Polar bear triplets play by the side of their mother, Wapusk National Park, northeast Manitoba, Canada From Rosing’s National Geographic magazine cover story “Bear Beginnings: New Life on the Ice.”

Now, 14 years later, Rosing has a coy of his own to care about. This April, he became the godfather of one of the twin polar bear cubs at the Tierpark Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, Germany. “I gave my nickname to my adopted polar bear cub. ‘Nobby’ is his name as long as he is little—after that his name will be ‘Norbert.’ The zoo was accepting applications for godparent-sponsors for the twin cubs. When Rosing saw an article about the opportunity to name and support a cub he applied “just for the fun of it.” A few days later he was chosen.

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Polar bear twins Nella and Nobby play at the Tierpark Hellabrunn Zoo, Munich, Germany, 2014.

Having spent his life observing polar bears in the wild, Rosing has a nuanced view about polar bears living in captivity. He says he sees zoos as an important part of the current ecosystem for endangered wildlife. “I’m a wilderness lover. Zoos are not so much my favorite places, but I see how necessary it is these days to have well-managed zoos to keep many endangered species alive. Many species would not exist any more on earth without the protection of zoos.”

A polar bear’s natural habitat is the Arctic—a unique terrain that many of us will never see in person. The beauty of that landscape is what first drew Rosing to specialize in the area. “The light was magical. The pristineness of the country took my breath away,” he says. It’s also a landscape in transformation. Rosing explains multiyear ice, which serves as the “stable platform” for arctic creatures, is melting more quickly than the younger, thinner ice, which melts and refreezes every year. He explains that “the ice cover today is not as thick and not as dense as the multiyear ice.” As a result, “many bears have to swim much longer distances now to reach land when the ice is receding. Some bears just drown. Others get very hungry, and cannibalism among polar bears happens more frequently. I photographed it twice myself already. It’s a very sad story.”

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A Polar bear and her cub cross an ice field at twilight, Canada.

The situation is daunting. And as a symbolic relative of a polar bear, Rosing has even more stake in the outcome. Nobby, who is well taken care of at Tierpark Hellabrunn, may not feel the impacts of climate change as strongly as his counterparts in the wild, but Rosing hopes that Nobby’s life will spur consideration about the state of Polar bears everywhere.

“I hope that he will live a happy zoo polar bear life as long as possible. . . His mother and father both have always been zoo polar bears. None of them will ever see an iceberg drifting; they will never catch a seal. But millions of people will see him, admire him, and ask about his ancestors way up there. Maybe they will ask: ‘How can we protect them?’ If people do that, Nobby’s life makes a lot of sense.”

To see more of Norbert Rosing’s work, visit his website.