Nothing quite prepares you for the moment you find yourself face to face with a polar bear. In my long career filming nature documentaries, I have encountered grizzly bears in Alaska and silverback mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, one of whom knocked me to the ground when he thought I threatened his family. But that didn’t make it any less frightening when I was stood less than ten metres from a polar bear, perhaps the most dangerous predator in the world.
I was filming Undiscovered Worlds, a BBC documentary airing on Easter Sunday, along with presenter Steve Backshall. We kayaked up the Scoresby Sund in Greenland, the world’s largest fjord, surveying the damage inflicted by climate change, which is melting the region’s ice and destroying habitats for local wildlife.
Most nights, we camped under the stars in canvas tents, wrapping ourselves in layers to fend off the bitter Arctic chill. We were acutely aware of the risk of attack from polar bears - one of the few animals on the planet that will make a point of finding and hunting humans - and took “bear watch” shifts each night.
The sea ice around Greenland is following the same trend seen all across the Arctic, shrinking in size and melting earlier in the year, depriving polar bears of their prime hunting habitat and making their behaviour less predictable. Indeed, paddling as far as we could into this beautiful country, it was clear that the situation was more grave than we had realised, and the fjord - which would usually have been covered with sea ice at that time of year - was a pale imitation of itself.
In normal years, it would have been full of breathing holes for seals, and local Inuits would have been using dog sleds to propel themselves across. Instead, the ice atop the ford had melted earlier in the year than ever recorded, and the point where the ice meets the water had receded disturbingly far up the fjord.
As a result, polar bears are making their way into villages and towns in their desperate hunt for food, and the number of human-bear encounters in the region has shot up, according to Arctic scientists.
A study released last year by the Wildlife Society analysed polar bear attacks between 1870 and 2014, and found the largest number took place between 2010 and 2014, years with dramatically low levels of summer sea ice. Indeed, early in our trip we heard this ourselves from locals, who told us they had seen more bears making their way about town in recent years. One man said he had already seen 50 this year, up from about 10 each year when he was a boy.
The events of the third morning of our trip, then, should not have come as a surprise. It was just after breakfast, and we were packing our equipment and readying ourselves for another tough day on the water. A boat driver shouted out - with perfect calm, I should add - that he saw a polar bear.
It must have been at least a kilometre away at that point, so we had plenty of time to get prepared; we collected our belongings in one place and ensured we didn't have equipment strewn over the camp. My initial reaction was excitement: just days into our trip to Greenland, and we already had the opportunity to view one of these majestic beasts up close.
We assumed the bear would stroll straight past us along the side of the fjord, and we were determined to capture the scene on film. I whipped out the camera and hit the record button. But that theory was quickly abandoned when the bear turned its head and, seeing our group, began to stroll squarely towards us.
Heavy on its paws, he looked fairly relaxed as he paced towards us. My excitement quickly turned to fear. We were absolutely in the polar bear’s domain, and there was nowhere to run; our boat was too far away, and the bear could easily have defeated us in a race.
We had prepared for this eventuality, of course, arming ourselves with flares, guns (to fire over the bear’s head), and bear spray - all handy devices to scare off a polar bear if you ever come across one in the wild. As it continued its powerful stride over the fjord, we first tried the flares, firing them high into the air. The bear was unperturbed. Steve pointed out that it appeared to be yawning: not a sign of boredom, unfortunately, but instead a sign of aggression. He raised his nose into the air, appearing to find the scent of our campsite intoxicating.
Getting a little more desperate, our boat driver tried firing the gun above its head, but the bear barely seemed to notice. He angled the gun downwards and fired at the ice. Briefly, the bear turned and walked away, before appearing to change its mind and stomping back towards us. At its nearest point, it must have been only eight metres away. We were throwing stones, shouting, and banging various instruments, all in a desperate attempt to send the bear away.
Eventually, we struck lucky by throwing stones at the bear’s feet. Slowly (agonisingly so) it twisted around on its feet and walked toward the sea, splashing into the water and swimming away. At no point did he seem intimidated by any of us.
It was certainly a frightening experience. Desperate to include the scene in our film, I spent most of the encounter focused on my camera, which kept my mind away from potential danger. Had I not been filming, the fear could easily have taken over. I was also afraid for the bear: some members of our crew had guns - to use as a last resort - and it would have been an absolute disaster if any harm had come to it.
With documentaries like Undiscovered Worlds and Blue Planet Live reaching millions, it feels like an exciting time for our understanding of the environment. As terrifying as it was, I hope that my heart-pounding encounter reminds viewers of the dire need to protect the Arctic when the episode airs on Easter Sunday.
That said, I hope I won't be squaring up to another polar bear any time soon.
‘Undiscovered Worlds’ is on BBC Two at 8pm on Easter Sunday
As told to Luke Mintz