“IT IS BRUTAL. Almost every winter when you come up there you see a new environment. Huge areas where I travelled on snowmobile ten years ago don’t exist anymore. The ice is disappearing, and it’s happening fast,” Fredrik says, and gives us an example: “Earlier the cargo ship supplied the settlement Longyearbyen with cargo, food and supplies from June to November every year. December to May it was impossible because of ice in the fjords. Now it’s open water around Svalbard all year round.”
Climate change is already beginning to hit Arctic wildlife hard. The polar bears are completely dependent on the sea ice, that is where they find and hunt the seals.
“In summer we see stranded polar bears walking around on land and along the beaches searching for something small to eat more often now. With longer summers without ice, their fat reserves shrink. Many die.”
It becomes increasingly clear that the Svalbard ecosystem, with the polar bear on top, is about to collapse. Scientists predict that the waters around the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean, can be completely free of ice during summer in less than twenty years.
“The polar bear plays a central role in our warming climate. By learning more about these bears we also understand more about what is happening,” Fredrik says, and continues: “It is now we have to do everything we can to stop the warming. Not tomorrow or next year. We don’t have much time if we are to keep the warming at a manageable level. We must work harder and faster and continue raising our voices.”
Melissa says “We do this because it is so important to document what is happening in the Arctic, how an entire continent literally is melting away right in front of us. And we do it because we love life in the Arctic.”
ALMOST ALL PHOTOGRAPHY is done during the winter, when the waters and fjords are frozen, and they can get close to the bears. Their expeditions are extremely well planned - a small mistake can cost them their lives. Food, equipment and supplies - they bring everything they need to live all alone in freezing temperatures. The life out there is the simplest imaginable - they stay in the old trapper huts that still stand around Svalbard, most of them built around a hundred years ago by polar bear hunters.
“It’s cozy! There is a bunkbed and a little stove. That’s all. But you can heat it up to sauna temperatures in half an hour!” Melissa says enthusiastically.
The isolation, being completely surrendered to your own ability to survive under these harsh circumstances frightened Melissa at first. But not anymore.
"Sometimes the silence on the sea ice is deafening. When that silence is interrupted by the sound of four large paws crushing the snow crust, you know you are alive"
“NOW I FEEL FREE. I am never as much myself as when we’re out there. We’re longing to get back all the time when we’re not there.”
The more polar bears they meet, the more they learn about the individual bears, and the deeper the fascination for these powerful giants grows.
But polar bears demand respect. A grown up bear can measure more than three meters when it stands on its hind legs and it’s a predator who doesn’t hesitate to kill you when given the chance. So the question is inevitable - how do they handle the dangers?
“You learn how to read the bears’ signals. Quite quickly we can figure out if a specific bear looks at us as food or if it’s just curious. And we back off as soon as we smell danger or a fear for life. Usually we travel by snowmobile, so we can get away quickly,” says Melissa. “The most important thing is to not disturb them or change their behaviour.”
THE DANGEROUS SITUATIONS usually happen around their camp, or cabin. The bears smell food and flesh, and come to investigate their possibilities.
“One morning when we opened the door, we had a bear right there. You could touch it. We have been in many similar situations, but you learn how to handle it,” says Fredrik, who, like Melissa, prefer talking about what privilege it is being able to live in the polar bear’s world.
“When you face a polar bear… it is a feeling that can not be described. You get so filled by its presence and how incredibly powerful and beautiful this animal is.”
“It is almost spirit like. When a polar bear looks you straight in the eye, time stops. It’s like it can read your mind.”
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 will be 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.
"When a polar bear looks you straight in the eye, time stops. It’s like it can read your mind"
Interview by Charlotte Permell.
Published in WWF Magasin September 2019, Världsnaturfonden WWF Sverige
Photos by Melissa Schäfer (unless otherwise noted).
We meet Melissa Schäfer and Fredrik Granath, photographer and author behind the new book “Bortom isbjörnens rike”, winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s Panda book of the Year 2020 Award.
Photo by Anders G Warne • andersgwarne.se
NANUK IS HAPPY and runs around their feet. A white, fluffy Samoyed dog who takes your thoughts to the Arctic. Her name was of course obvious - nanuk, or nanook, is the inuit name for the polar bear.
And polar bears are constantly in the minds of Melissa Schäfer and Fredrik Granath, photographer and author who have the vast pack-ice around Svalbard as their place of work.
“I went to Svalbard the first time some fifteen years ago, simply out of curiosity. I quickly fell in love with this amazing place and made a book about the Arctic and its beauty”, Fredrik says.
“Vanishing World” was a tremendous success, translated to ten languages and sold in over 40 countries. Fredrik left a career in advertising and design to continue working as a producer of photography and film in the Arctic.
Melissa Schäfer was born in Hamburg, Germany. She started with photography at young age, and also had a burning passion for polar bears and the Arctic since she was very little.
“I always thought polar bears were magnificent and beautiful, but never thought I would see one in real life,” says Melissa.
Her love for photography led her to an Instagram account with photos from the Arctic. It was Fredrik.
“His photos were different. I was deeply fascinated and wrote to him,” she says. He answered, and they found each other instantly. After a few months of intense messaging Melissa visited Fredrik in Stockholm. Four days together were enough for life changing decision. Melissa went back to Hamburg, quit her job and moved to Fredrik. Together they went to Svalbard.
“At home people said ‘this will not work.’ But here we are, four years later,“ Melissa says with a big smile. “The one big love changes everything,” Fredrik adds.
They have their base in Huddinge, south of Stockholm in Sweden, with their precious Nanuk. But they spend the cold winter months in the Svalbard archipelago, far away from all human contact. That is where they live with the polar bears and document their lives.
“The polar bears are generous and share their lives with us. We are witnesses and try to learn from them”, Fredrik says.
Now, four years and many expeditions later the couple’s first book is ready. “Bortom isbjörnens rike” (rough translation “Beyond the kingdom of the polar bear”) is an epic tribute to the frozen world of the Arctic, and of course to the creature on top of the Arctic food chain. Melissa and Fredrik have spent so much time on Svalbard that they have gotten to know some bears on an individual level and that opens for new knowledge about their different personalities. But more than anything, the book is a document about about an accelerating change, a testimony about a frozen world dissolving into water.