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I had been out in a motorised canoe all morning with my Inuit guide looking for Narwhal. We had sighted several of these near mythical creatures surfacing to breathe in a fjord on the north coast of Baffin Island, but were never able to get close to them. The problem was that they come up to breathe once, then slip back beneath the surface for 15-25 minutes before surfacing again, usually somewhere else altogether. I was starting to get frustrated with my inability to capture this "holy grail" of the marine biology world when my guide spotted a family of 3 polar bears (mother and 2 cubs) swimming ashore nearby. We headed in their direction but no sooner were they out of the water than they were scrambling up a steep hillside to the safety of higher ground, and I was only able to get a dozen or so hurried shots. I had barely lowered my camera from my eye when my guide spotted 2 more bears swimming further offshore. As we headed towards them they both turned towards us, and the larger of the two bears reared up almost vertically in the matter to check us out with a somewhat quizzical look.

As we got closer I could see that it was a mature female with a large cub, probably already 2 years old, which was sticking close to her as they swam away from us, frequently turning around in the water to see where we were.

We stayed in close contact with the pair for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than 5 or 10 minutes. On several occasions the bears came within 6 feet of the canoe, offering me one million dollar photo op after another, but never displayed any overt aggression towards us. I figured this was down to them being in the water a good distance offshore, but thought to myself I wouldn't want to get this close on dry land. It had been a truly magical encounter and without doubt my best photographic foray in living memory.

After a while the mother seemed to tire of our attention and started to emanate a strange hissing sound, akin to that a cat makes. I didn't want to disturb them further so we headed off in the opposite direction, 300 good quality digital images to the good, and left them to go about their business in peace.


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