Snow, ice, and mother polar bears, oh my! Spring officially starts on March 20th and as we start to say goodbye to winter, it was perfect timing that TheThings was recently granted an icy winter wish to speak to Asgeir Helgestad, a wildlife cameraman who spent six amazing, touching and sometimes heartbreaking years following a mother polar bear, "Frost" and her cubs. Asgeir has spent decades filming and photographing Mother Nature at her breathtaking best and has won countless photography and film awards but he considers his relationship with Frost to be extra special.
The result of this unlikely human-bear friendship of sorts has resulted in the heartwarming and eye-opening film My Journey With A Polar Bear which premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on March 6th (tonight!).
We hope you enjoy this exclusive interview.
TheThings (TH): Asgeir, you are a wildlife cameraman who spent around four years tracking polar bears with one special bear in particular which resulted in the documentary My Journey With A Polar Bear. How did you get started with this exciting career as a wildlife cameraman?
Asgeir Helgestad (AH): I have always loved animals and nature, and I think I just needed to find the right professional to combine those passions and follow my dream. I got my first stills-camera with quality lenses when I was 14 years old, and I can still remember the exciting fresh smell when opening the camera bag.
There were some wildlife photographers in my area, and I think they inspired me to try my hand at photography. I was fortunate to win some honors and recognition very early in my career which inspired me to keep following this dream career of mine.
TH: In the film, we meet a beautiful large polar bear whom you name “Frost” along with her two playful daughters whom you called “Light” and “Lucky.” At one point in the film, you described Frost as a “kind and caring mother.” Can you explain what it’s like to feel a connection with an animal who you have to maintain a significant distance with for your safety?
AH: My connection with Frost came quite naturally. In my interactions with her, even from a distance, I have observed her and have found her to be such a clever and kind bear. When filming her, I don’t try to capture her attention at all. I want to be the “fly on the wall,” filming her behavior quietly. I see how she cares for her cubs, and how she tries to make them feel relaxed and comfortable even though she is clearly facing hardships around her in her environment and with providing food for her family. It is her awareness and thoughtfulness (and yes, her playfulness!) that are key qualities of what a good mother should be.
TH: How soon into meeting Frost did you know that you had the makings of a documentary?
AH: This is actually a 12-year-old idea, original named “Queens without Land,” which originally focused on two different polar bear mothers facing different challenges with climate change in the Arctic. That film never came to be.
When I met Frost and began filming her in 2013, I immediately realized that the old script had to be re-imagined; Frost was the polar bear mother I was looking for to be the sole subject of my film.
TH: You have filmed and photographed many different types of animals over the years but have said that Frost is your most special subject due to the connection that you shared. Can you share what other kinds of animals you have had special connections with while filming/photographing them?
AH: I live in such a gorgeous part of the world, in Norway and partly on Svalbard, so I have worked extensively with most of the species found in those northern-most territories. Those include moose, reindeer, arctic foxes and so many amazing birds.
They all have their charm, but there isn’t the same connection as with a polar bear. Frost is extremely conscious of her surroundings; she knows when I am there filming. You don’t always get that with some of the other species.
TH: In the film, we learn that prior to 1973, hunting polar bears was legal. The skins of the adults were sold to make coats and rugs and the cubs were sold to zoos. Around 30,000 polar bears were killed before 1973 and now the population is finally getting back up to 300 currently. With climate change threatening the bears and fellow arctic wildlife, can you predict their future in the next 10, 20 years?
AH: It’s sad to say that it doesn’t look very bright for the future of polar bears here on Svalbard due to the ice which is retreating. I think their time on this archipelago may be over in 20-30 years, as the winter-ice window during the year gets shorter and shorter. As the ice retreats, it is also quite easy to find them along the ice-shelf. And they reproduce very slowly. In North America and on Greenland, two places with a long tradition for this kind of hunting, it is still legal to kill about 700 polar bears a year, which is a true shame.
TH: What is the best part about being a wildlife cameraman?
AH: The best part about being a wildlife cameraman is, of course, to be out there in the field and be at one for nature. It is such a difference than working in an office! For me, it is also very important to serve as a voice for nature. I get to use my work to communicate on their behalf. We abuse and treat this planet in a way that scares me! I hope my films will make us think twice about that.
TH: A tragic incident occurs at one point in the film when humans temporarily occupy the arctic islands to view the solar eclipse on March 20th, 2015. What are your thoughts on human involvement causing potentially fatal situations for wildlife in their natural habitats?
AH: The damage we, as humans, have caused this planet is astounding. This is our home and we’d better take care of it! And we are for sure not the only ones who live here. We cannot afford to ignore all the other species! In this case, yes, it was not wise to sleep in a tent down on the ice when you have polar bears around (at least not without a guard outside). Polar bears are curious creatures and if you are not careful, you run into potential risks. It is important to approach nature with knowledge, care, and respect.
TH: In the film, we learn how important sea ice is to the entire Arctic food chain. Without sea ice, algae can’t feed properly and this affects the chain all the way up to polar bears and whales who migrate in for the summer. Is there anything that humans/scientists can do to help this issue?
AH: Yes – we can change our behavior and stop using fossil fuels! Stop transporting things all around the globe. We need to act now! Not in ten years when it will be too late. Natural ecosystems, like the arctic ones, are complex and sensitive to our damaging actions. There is a whole web of relations that we, as humans, contribute to. We must take that into consideration to fully understand the harmful effects our actions cause.
TH: Why is climate change awareness so important for the future of the animals that we share this planet with?
AH: Several ecosystems are on the brink of collapse due to habitat destruction accentuated by climate change.
TH: Will you please share your personal favorite moment of the film?
AH: I think my favorite moment in the film is when Frost appears with her new cubs.
TH: Can you also share your favorite moment of the film that either didn’t make the final cut or that went on behind-the-scenes?
AH: I filmed another beautiful polar bear mother with cubs, who were playing on a hillside. She was watching them while they ran up and slid down the hill, over and over again. This was not Frost, which is why she didn’t make it into the final film, which of course focuses only on Frost and her cubs.
There are way too many films in which the producer thinks we don’t see the difference between polar bears. It upsets me when I see how someone fakes the film like this, using all sort of polar bears, males, females etc. and construct stories as if it were one individual. It has been quite unique for me to be able to actually follow Frost for six years now. And I assure you, in My Journey with a Polar Bear, when you see Frost, it is Frost!
TH: Do you often still think of Frost?
AH: I actually filmed her with Snow and Ice just yesterday! The cubs are big and so cute now.
(Writer's note: Asgeir was kind enough to share two photos (below) of Frost and her male and female cub, Snow and Ice that he took just days ago!)
TH: What is the important takeaway message for the audience of this film?
AH: We need to act now! I have seen what is going on, and it keeps me awake at night thinking about this. We will soon pay a price for our actions if we don’t make a real change.
TH: Asgeir, thank you so much for your time in answering these questions! Meeting Frost and her children through this film was a lovely and emotional experience. Thank you for getting this beautiful story and important message out to the world.
If these photos haven't satisfied your need for incredible views into the life of wild animals on frozen terrain, you can check out Asgeir's Instagram for more photos and keep up with where his exciting career as a wildlife cameraman has taken him and will take him next. Asgeir's website also has tons of great info about his work.
Don't forget to watch Asgeir's stunning camera work and see for yourself how delicate life is becoming for those who call Svalbard home in My Journey With A Polar Bear on the Smithsonian Channel on March 6th (tonight!).
Thank you, Asgeir!