Wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan has previously filmed a series The Bear Family & Me, recording 3 seasons of a black bear family, and in this sort-of sequel he follows a family of polar bears, which the crew have given names because obviously it’s easier to remember. The family we follow are a mother polar bear, Lyra, and her two cubs Miki and Luca.
Polar bear cubs are incredibly cute, and we got lots of “AWWWWWWWWW” moments throughout this series.
Miki putting his paw in his mouth, Miki and Luca playing in the snow, Luca having some snowflakes on his nose, Miki and Luca sleeping, Miki standing up on his back legs, Miki facing off a seagull, a pair of cubs of another mother polar bear, Ava, splashing in the sea. We see the inside of Lyra’s den (after she and her cubs have left it of course) and it has polar bear hairs that have become stuck and then frosted so to us they appear to resemble jewel-like Christmas decorations. Among the other polar bears we meet is Frieda. She is inquisitive, which the programme points out is a general trait for polar bears. For one thing, in that environment anything can be a potential meal, for another the Arctic is a mainly featureless land so anything unusual sparks interest in them. But even as polar bears go Frieda is fearless. The old cliché of bears being just as scared of humans as we are of them apparently has some truth in it, but in Frieda’s case she comes straight to the boat and sticks her head in the porthole.
Throughout the series we saw shots of gorgeous snowy landscape, marble-like glaciers, purple skies and blue ocean. The Arctic is truly an awe-inspiring place. But as Gordon pointed out, it is a cold, harsh, brutal environment. Similarly, adult polar bears are very beautiful, majestic creatures. But as the opening narration states they are “the world’s biggest and most dangerous carnivore”. The crew have many encounters with them which they have to retreat from filming as the bears start walking towards them seeing them as potential food.
In an effort to film a polar bear close up Gordon Buchanan gets in “The Ice Cube”, which is a box of plastic and metal, rather like those shark proof cages where the diver stays in when put underwater as protection from the shark. While in the Ice Box there is a scary scene where a polar bear sees and has the scent of Gordon in the box and tries to get in, clawing and biting at it, finding a gap, but eventually she gives up after finding it’s too difficult to get in, and it’s not worth wasting precious energy that they have to conserve.
We also get to see how hard life is for polar bears. Mother polar bears go without food for six months so they can make a den and birth and suckle their young until they are strong enough to leave to look for food with her. Of the polar bear family we meet here Luca, the smaller cub, dies at some point between spring and summer, probably having drowned during one of the long water crossings in open ocean between islands. Lyra starts looking shockingly thin in autumn and she and Miki have to resort to eating hillside moss and seaweed, which polar bears do eat now and again but not as a staple diet. Miki looks healthier because Lyra is still giving him her milk, but we see her refuse to suckle him later as she can’t give much more. They find evidence that Lyra has been trying to eat plastic fishing floats that are washed up on the shore, which shows that she must be starving.
There is a reason why things are particularly dangerous for polar bears now. Whether you believe in global warming or not, there has been significant climate change with the Arctic getting warmer. Last year was the warmest winter since records began, and ice is melting months earlier than usual. Because there is so little ice it leaves less room for them to walk on, and it also makes it harder to find their main diet, seals, which rest on the ice. While other species of bear eat plants as much as meat, the polar bear has over millions of years evolved to live in the Arctic, and if the climate changes at the rate it is they won’t be able to readapt to it and may even become extinct. The programme shows that a lot of polar bears have moved further north where there is more sea ice, some of them coming for miles. We see another mother polar bear, Ava, who has two healthy cubs and food seems so plentiful here that some kills are left behind. The crew find themselves surrounded by 13 bears! But there is every chance that this far north might become warmer too. For the family we have been following, we see Lyra and Miki on an island still getting by against all odds, and get an update at the end that says Lyra made her way towards a whale carcass which other polar bears have been feeding on which should provide her with enough food for the winter, and while they can’t tell if Miki is with her or not (as he isn’t tagged like Lyra is) Gordon says he would like to believe he had made it too, and I’m sure he speaks for all of us watching when he says that.
I haven’t seen The Bear Family & Me, but just on this series Gordon Buchanan was very good. He makes a lot of things very easy to understand for the viewer “An egg to a polar bear is like us eating a peanut” and the change in temperature becoming less like the Arctic and more like “a wet afternoon on the west coast of Scotland” (he comes from the west coast of Scotland himself). As someone who has worked with animals myself, I liked that he stated a few times that each polar bear has a different personality. It sounds like a really obvious thing to say, but when you work with or are studying animals you are often amazed at just how different each individual is. I didn’t find some of his jokes funny, like “Some polar bears’ favourite song is the wartime classic ‘Whale Meat Again'”. Even those people that write the corny old jokes on Penguin chocolate wrappers would think twice about that one. But he made the points he wanted to make clearly and concisely, and he certainly put himself through a lot to make the programme, one time going out in a small boat through choppy waves and strong winds, the boat at one point looked like it was flying off into the air like a rocket and almost tipped over so they had to go back. Many of the audience watching at home couldn’t help but get emotionally involved with this particular polar bear family, so you could tell why he did from following them for a year, and we were able to follow their story through his eyes.