Fredrik and Melissa live with the polar bears
Fredrik Granath and Melissa Schäfer spend several months every year in the frozen wilderness of the Arctic. They follow the polar bears closely in the world of ice which now is melting away.
– It is not until you stand right in front a polar bear that you understand how big and powerful it is. It has an almost spirit like presence. It feels like it can smell your thoughts and read your mind, says Melissa Schäfer.
Interview by Jessica Bergh. Published in Expressen on October 19, 2019. Expressen is one of the two big Swedish afternoon newspapers, with a reach in print and online of 3 million readers. Photos by Melissa Schäfer. Original article in Swedish can be found here:
The polar bear has became the symbol, the icon of climate change. Reports show the Arctic ice melting at a quickly accelerating speed. Fredrik and Melissa have seen these changes with their own eyes over the years. Now they publish their book “Bortom isbjörnens rike” in Sweden. Next year it is published in the U.S.A., U.K, and throughout Europe. The book tells about their love for the polar bear, the ice and a unique world of ice.
When Fredrik, with a background In advertising and design, discovered Svalbard for the first time 15 years ago he fell in love instantly. What started with a short summer hike slowly quickly grew and changed into expeditions lasting months. Over time he slowly came closer and closer to the greatest predator on Earth, the polar bear. His mission also changed, from only being about the beauty of the Arctic, to its importance for us all.
– Climate change in the Arctic is brutal. It’s impossible to describe it in words or photographs. It’s changing all the time, a new map is drawn every year. It is sad seeing the polar bears losing their habitat because of what we do so far away from them, and seeing them lose the life they’ve had and should have, says Fredrik Granath.
"I thought I would die"
Melissa Schäfer comes from Hamburg in Germany. Already as a little child she had a hand puppet in the shape of a polar bear - the start of a life long love for a creature so far away. When she and Fredrik Granath met it quickly became clear that they would also work together, with Melissa as the photographer. With so many months every year in the field, it is a work that is as much life as it is work.
She tells about her first encounter with a polar bear. How she, frozen to the bone after seven hours of snowmobile driving in the cold Arctic winter, stopped and just tried to be in the moment.
– First I was so scared and thought I would die. At the same time I felt happiness and enormous respect. You’ve seen them on TV but when a polar bear is right in front of you it’s just WOW! That is when you understand how big and powerful they are.
She named her first polar bear Helen.
– It was and will always be a very special moment. She was a special polar bear. We don’t just see a polar bear, but also its personality and that is something we want other people to see.
"They stand outside the door in the morning"
After his many lengthy expeditions living with the polar bears Fredrik has learned how to read their behaviour and different personalities. Crucial knowledge in his line of work, to say the least.
– We are all alone, just the two of us, in a desert of ice. When the bear begins coming close I quickly see what’s on its mind - if it’s just curious and playful, or if it looks at us as breakfast. If the bear shows any signs of aggression we back off and leave it alone. If it simply is curious we often stay and follow it at a safe distance. We want to document them living their lives, as undisturbed by us as possible.
– We are always armed, but everything out there is about the safety of the bear. Shooting a bear in self defence is something that simply can and will not happen, says Fredrik.
During their work on the ice Fredrik and Melissa rarely have any incidents. But it has happened that they have had to fire shots with their flare gun to scare off bears who came too close. And one time Fredrik got the opportunity to check how fast a polar bear can run. Something scientists have had problems doing, for obvious reasons.
– It was a young, playful female who kept coming closer and closer. I backed off many times but she followed me. When I finally decided to leave her she ran after me at close distance, and as I accelerated my snowmobile she did too, and kept pace with me up to 45 km/hr (28 mph), he says.
Camping on the ice
But around the camp there have been more incidents. They often stay in old hunter cabins, built by polar bear hunters around Svalbard in the 1920’s and 30’s.
– The Arctic is a world of ice and snow, and there is very little smell. When we haven’t showered for a week, and make fire and food - we become like a magnet for them. We’ve opened the door in the morning and had them a feet away, staring us straight in the eye.
What do you do then?
– Grab whatever is around and gently hit them in the side of the head. They usually leave then. But the bears are just like us humans - individuals. Some are playful, others shy and careful. And of course some are aggressive, some even psychopaths. Over the years I’ve probably met more than a couple of thousand polar bears up close, and only a handful of them have been extremely aggressive and dangerous, says Fredrik.
The couple try to avoid having to sleep in a tent, although they always have one with them. With a tent camp, one of them has to stay awake to keep an eye out for approaching polar bears, so they sleep in two-hour-shifts. A full night’s sleep take them 16 hours. Using a tripwire alarm system, like some do, is not an option they say.
– The bear walks into the wire and sets off a little explosion to scare it away and wake whoever is sleeping. But in the confusion and fear the bear might just as well run into the tent. And get shot to death, says Melissa.
To the cabins they bring a generator for electricity to charge batteries, and fuel to make food. They collect glacier ice and snow to make water. To stay warm they make a fire in the little oven the cabins usually have, quickly bringing the small space to sauna temperatures. The menu usually contains little else than freeze dried field food.
– Like pasta bolognese. It tastes great the first days, but after a while it gets more difficult to eat. But it’s made quickly, is warm and fills you with the energy you need to work almost around the clock like we do out there, says Melissa Schäfer.
Climate change is real
Out on their expeditions the couple rarely see other humans, only sometimes an occasional small group of tourists on a guided snowmobile day trip. The closest civilization in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main village and one of the most northern settlements in the world.
Up here climate change is very easy to see. Fredrik gives the example of the cargo ship that brings food and supplies to Longyearbyen. When he came to Svalbard first, the ship reached Svalbard from June to October every year. Now it is open water to Longyearbyen and the ship comes all year.
– There are big variations from year to year when you look at how the ice looks during winter, but the long term trend is crystal clear. Areas and routes we traveled before on snowmobile or on foot are now only accessible by boat. The polar bear population is quite stable so far, but very, very close to a tipping point, says Fredrik.
The movement of the polar bears are changing, you can especially see this in the summer. The more ice that disappears, the closer some of them come to Longyearbyen. And others travel with the pack ice north of Svalbard, all the way to Franz Josef Land in Russia to find food, says Fredrik.
The polar bears are completely dependent on sea ice to find food, but at the same time they need access to land to give birth to cubs. When the distance between ice and land increases, bears have problems finding areas to build the dens where they give birth during winter.
According to science the polar bears are still doing well in some regions of the Arctic, but in others climate change is already affecting their condition, reproductive abilities and survival rate.
– The Arctic is the Ground Zero of climate change. It is where we can see the warming climate in the most clear way - ice turns to water. Even a five-year-old can understand that. But what happens in the Arctic affects us all, Fredrik says.
He is tired of hearing people say they can’t do anything, and just blame the politicians and big corporations, instead of making some vital choices on their own.
– No matter what you buy, if it’s an apple or a new car, you give your approval not only to the product, but also how it was produced and the company behind it. We all vote every day with our wallets - and we all have the power to make a change. And of course, vote in elections. People put Trump in office. He didn't do it himself.
"A clear line between us and the bear"
Fredrik's and Melissa’s expeditions add new knowledge to the science that is done about polar bears and the Arctic. Fredrik says that the Norwegian Polar Institute does a lot of research on polar bears around Svalbard. Every year they fly around the islands in a helicopter, sedate the bears and take various samples and measurements. A tattoo inside the bear’s lip makes it possible to identify them if they are caught again a later year, and this gives information about how individual bears develop and move. Also in Canada a lot of research is being done.
Fredrik and Melissa read all scientific information to learn and stay updated about the bears. They also tell us that scientists have fact checked their new book.
– We work in a different way, in the natural environment of the bears and learn a lot about their natural behaviour. But the second you set foot in nature you disturb it in some way. We’re constantly thinking about our own foot prints and ways how to minimise them, says Fredrik.
Because of this he and Melissa have drawn a very clear line between themselves and the bears in order to disturb them as little as possible and not change their behaviour. They strive to make their foot prints worth it, by spreading knowledge about the polar bears and the Arctic.
The couple have just received the award Panda book of the Year by the Swedish World Wildlife Fund for the book they have made about their life on the ice. The next expedition is already being planned. In March it is time to head back to the polar bears once again. Equipment needs to be updated and routes planned. With daily satellite images of ice conditions they make a preliminary plan, but don’t make a final decision until a week or two before departure. Why so late? The answer comes instantly:
– Because the ice is changing so quickly.
The new book "Bortom isbjörnens rike" by Melissa Schäfer and Fredrik Granath has won the prestigious award “Panda Book of the Year“ from the World Wildlife Fund.
The jury says: "First we see the amazing photographs. The seemingly monochrome scenery of the Arctic appears in an incredible variety of color and beauty. But here is also the most important story of our time, about how things we thought were eternal are disappearing. With stylistic elegance, the authors grab the reader already on the first page, and keep their grip throughout the entire book. They tell about their love for the polar bear and at the same time they open our eyes to how quickly the North Pole ice is melting, how a frozen continent is dissolving into water. The book is an exquisite tale in images and text, a burning testimony about a rapidly changing world.”
The award was presented by his majesty King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden at a ceremony at the Ulriksdal Castle in Stockholm on October 11, 2019.
The book is published in Sweden by Bonnier Fakta on October 18, 2019. It will be published in German by GeraNova Bruckmann in September 2020, and in English by Rizzoli in October 2020.