The inlets of Svalbard, Norway, were entirely free of sea ice during the summer of 2014, despite having been mostly frozen year-round for all of recorded history. A Canadian family had hired me to guide them through the storied archipelago's twisted inlets in search of polar bears, and we spent days weaving amongst the thin fingers of land without so much as a single sighting. The icy platform that provided them with the means to hunt for seals had melted away, and with it, any sign of them.
After days of searching in our little Zodiac, we finally spotted a solitary bear sleeping peacefully on the hillsides of Bjørnsund. I pulled up to the shore, and we quietly bobbed on gentle waves with cameras in hand, watching and waiting for it to resume its day. As the minutes stretched into an hour, I had a terrible realization. Gesturing for the family to stay put, I exited the boat and cautiously worked my way up the hill to where the bear lay. I clapped my hands, but there was no response. I spoke aloud, and still no movement. I knelt next to it, delicately laid my hand on its motionless torso, and confirmed my fears – it was dead.
Laying next to it was a second bear, hidden from the view of the boat. Both were very young, four years old at most, and emaciated – their bony skeletons creating unsettling peaks and valleys beneath once beautiful, shiny fur, now dull in death. Polar bear cubs are the most vulnerable to climate change. Hunting seals without sea ice requires advanced strategies only known to a handful of older, wiser bears, and this pair had likely starved due to inexperience. I was moved to tears, overcome by the tragedy of innocent lives lost as a consequence of our actions. We took some photographs, then returned to our vessel, demoralized and dejected.
Promoting stewardship for the natural world and its inhabitants has always been my primary motivation – it fueled my transition from biologist to photographer and inspired my career at National Geographic, where I spent eighteen years and completed twenty assignments. Shooting for the yellow magazine was a dream come true, and working alongside dozens of incredible photographers whom I admired and respected had been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Yet despite several stories that resulted in key wins for conservation, I had been growing concerned about the state of the planet and was keen for a way to respond more rapidly to developing issues.
@NatGeo had recently developed a social media audience tens of millions strong, and my following was rapidly growing thanks to a National Geographic Society initiative that allowed photographers to feature our content on their account. An article for the magazine required a year (sometimes two) in the field to capture ten exceptional images and an in-depth, heavily-researched narrative crafted by a talented writer, all of which quickly faded from the spotlight when the next issue hit the shelves. By comparison, I was suddenly able to reach an equivalent audience on Instagram every day simply by uploading photographs paired with bite-sized anecdotes that detailed issues I cared about. The impact of these posts was mind-boggling – within hours, they would receive hundreds of thousands of likes and tens of thousands of comments.
Cristina and I had been debating whether social media could be a vehicle for conservation wins. She had already demonstrated that small-scale initiatives could move the needle with RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition), a program developed at the International League of Conservation Photographers, her nonprofit organization. Groups of the world's best conservation and wildlife photographers were recruited to capture powerful images and stories that she would amplify using her expert understanding of the media. It was a winning strategy, one that recorded massive victories such as the halt of mountaintop removal mining in Fernie, BC's Flathead River Valley, an initiative on which she had gained the support of US Senator John Kerry and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer.
We were both seasoned storytellers, capable of fighting for the issues that required immediate attention independent of for-profit publication stakeholders. Better yet, our online presence had grown exponentially, providing us with both a platform and an audience. After stalling for months, unsure of the best way forward, my emotional encounter with the dead bear cubs in Svalbard provided the sense of urgency we needed to take that first step into the unknown, and SeaLegacy was born.
Our mission is the same today as it was then: expose important, often-overlooked conservation matters to an international court of public opinion, create connections between local issues and their global counterparts, and amplify movements by galvanizing passionate, like-minded individuals. We founded SeaLegacy on the principle that science-backed storytelling would motivate conservation and instantly learned there was a demand for our approach. We have had many exciting wins in the years since our launch, including our death net campaign, which led to legislation phasing out driftnets in California, our orca campaign, which resulted in a respite from oil development for Norway's Lofoten region, and our commercial trophy hunting campaign, which helped permanently protect the seawolves of British Columbia's Kitlope Conservancy. Recently, we have grown to a point where we can afford to empower other hard-working but underfunded nonprofits with grant money.
What started as the daydream of two wildlife photographers is now an organization that reinvests millions annually into conservation causes worldwide. I am especially proud of our Tide community: small-dollar supporters whose enthusiasm for and commitment to our mission is unmatched. They are truly the backbone of our operation.
It has been seven years since I wept over the bodies of those cubs. In retrospect, they played a pivotal role in our movement. I would trade this world in which the innocent must suffer for progress to follow in a heartbeat if I could, but there is only one path towards a sustainable future for our planet, and it is a difficult one. I am thankful for everyone that has joined us in any capacity, great or small. We must continue to grow our cause and support each other because the path is easier when we walk it together.
Subscribe for free to Born Wild
Subscribe with Facebook
By subscribing, you agree to share your email address with Paul Nicklen Photography to receive their original content, including promotions. Unsubscribe at any time. Facebook will also use your information subject to the Bulletin Terms and Policies
Paul, this is such powerful account showing how imagery can engage. Thanks for all that you, Cristina and the rest of the Sea Legacy crew do. I'm thrilled we're both part of the Bulletin.com experiment. I'd love to do a #SustainWhat video interview and…
I am so so grateful for all you do. Please please please could you turn your attention (and massive following) to the plight of old-growth logging in BC, and particularly in the Fairy Creek area on Vancouver Island. There is only 2.7% of BC's old growt…
Inside the Fight for Old-Growth Forests at British Columbia’s Fairy Creek
Thank you for the work you and your team are doing - incredible, so needed and a reminder that all of us tart somewhere to inspire change. This story motivates me - to remember that if an issue touches and impacts YOU, then there are dozens more who fe…