Last Wednsday I watched the 2 hour special documentary “Polar Bears – Edge of Existence”. The program was produced by Animal Planet and wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan. I was very excited about the program. Ever since Cathy and I spent 5 days photographing the polar bears in Churchill we have had a great interest in these massive carnivores of the north. In recent years Gordon Buchanan has become a bit of a celebrity filmmaker due to his daring exploits while filming dangerous animals close up. One website referred to him as the Indiana Jones of wildlife filmmakers.
Buchanan’s stated intent was to integrate himself with a female polar bear and cubs and follow them for a year to learn more about the ways of the polar bear and about their struggles for survival. There is no question that Animal Planet spared little expense in funding this documentary. A ship and crew made several visits to Svalbard off the coast of Norway over the course of a year.
One of the things that I have been taught over the years by wildlife photographers and naturalists is to keep your distance from the animal you are observing. The more invisible you are, the more likely you will capture authentic behaviors. One of the things that bothered me about “Edge of Existence” is that Buchanan appeared to intentionally provoke the polar bears at times. This was never more true than when they brought out the “ice cube”. The cube was a massive polycarbonate and steel enclosure that contained Buchanan. It’s only purpose was to lure a polar bear close up and film him as he attempted to extract the tasty morsel inside. Try as I might, I could not think of a valid scientific reason for using the “Cube”. And it certainly had nothing to do with integrating himself with Lyra and her cubs Miki and Luca. To see for yourself the encounter between Buchanan and the polar bear check out this YouTube video.
There is no question that polar bears are fascinating creatures and that Gordon Buchanan is an excellent filmmaker. The first time that we see Miki pop her head up out of the den is a real “aww” moment. The photography is good but we see very little polar bear behavior. And there seemed to be an excess of close up shots of Buchanan peering through the viewfinder of his camera offering up pithy comments in his Scottish brogue such as “Look at that one, aww, very, very cute”, “That is wonderful”, “Gosh” or “Incredible”. The film seemed to be as much about him as it was about polar bears.
At the current time there are no scheduled re-showings of “Edge” on Animal Planet. If you are interested in polar bears I highly encourage you to visit Polar Bears International at http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/. They have tons of detailed information available on their website.