Spying on polar bears

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman talks with John Downer, director of the new documentary ?Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice'. Downer used high-tech spy cameras to capture polar bears as never seen before.


Marco Werman: Now who wouldn't want to watch a playful Polar Bear destroying a camera disguised as a snowball? It's must see video at theworld.org. It's one of the scenes you'll see in a documentary called Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice, which recently aired on the BBC in Britain. It was filmed in the arctic using high-tech spy cams to get up close and very personal with the Polar Bears. The documentary is due to air in the US on the Animal Planet and Discovery Channels later this year. John Downer directed the program. He told me about the spy cameras which had names like snowball cam and blizzard cam.

John Downer: Blizzard cam can go up to 40 miles an hour. It really can zip around on ice, and it also carried on board a thing called snowball cam which was totally spherical. Had no visible moving parts but could roll, under control, even uphill to get different angles on the Polar Bears. And there was also snow cam which is a, it's got big tundra wheels and four wheel drive, almost indestructible.

Werman: Mm.

Downer: Although some of these bears weigh three quarters of a ton, very difficult to make anything totally indestructible when subjected to that kind of weight.

Werman: Right and they did not escape the notice of the bears, not surprisingly. I'd like to listen to some sound from the program. It'll be a little hard to hear the narrator but he's saying this is where snow cam met its demise at the paws of a bored young male.

[Program audio: Snow cam met its demise under the paws of a bored young male. Blizzard cam nearly met its match with the most playful bear it ever encountered.]

Werman: So John, I want to know how much these cameras cost and how many did you go through with the Polar Bears?

Downer: Well the one device that never made it to the end was uh snow cam, and uh, what you heard there was um, the sound of it pulverizing it basically into a pancake. As I said they weigh three quarters of a ton, nothing could withstand that. Now the camera and the device, that was getting on for about 100,000 U.S. dollars.

Werman: Wow.

Downer: I mean they were expensive devices.

Werman: And where do you operate the cameras? Is it remotely, are you nearby? And how do you retrieve the footage?

Downer: There are several types of spy cams. Some are left and they film on their own. They actually are triggered by the bears themselves. And at the start of the film there's a most remarkable sequence where we left out our spy cams hoping to be there when a mother and a cub came out of the den. In the end the weather was so bad we couldn't even get out the huts. But the mother and the cub did the filming themselves. They actually triggered the cameras, and because of their curiosity they were actually changing angles and doing everything a great cinematographer would do. And the other devices could be operated from a distance. Usually either on land or from an icebreaker.

Werman: I mean there's some novel use of spy cams with this project and you got some really entertaining footage of the Polar Bears, but uh, what did you learn scientifically? I mean what were you able to capture on film and how is that being understood?

Downer: The film, although you know, there's lots of great fun moments in it, the whole point was really to lift the lid on this incredible predator and almost everything we filmed, because we were filming very close, was showing us things we'd never seen before. We covered the story of a mother and one cub who was left on the island of Svalbard when the ice retreated.

Werman: Mm-hm.

Downer: And what we discovered on the ones left behind on the island, how adaptable and extraordinary they are at making the most of any food opportunities. There's not much there but they were, you know, finding barnacle goose eggs, they were looking for arctic terns. They were even eating grass and diving for seaweed, and what we saw was the beginnings of what might become more prevalent. It was one of the longest periods without ice is Svalbard's history. As the summer ice disappears, it disappears every year; it's the length of time it goes. And we're starting to see how the bears are adapting their behavior to cope. They can go a long time without food. They can find other ways of eating but in the end they need the ice to catch the seals which they depend on, and they can't survive without ice.

Werman: John Downer directed Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice for the BBC. It'll be airing on Animal Planet and Discovery here in the U.S. later this year. But in the meantime you've got to check out, you've got to check out the amazing videos on our website at theworld.org. John thanks so much.

Downer: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.