Last week’s meeting: Walking with Bear by renowned wildlife photographer Andy Skillen

Last week’s meeting: Walking with Bear by renowned wildlife photographer Andy Skillen


Andy is a very experienced ‘cameraman’ having worked on various BBC and National Geographic wildlife films. He showed us some of his impressive work from Congo and West Africa about forest elephants which is due to be aired in two years’ time.


But it was bears – grizzly and polar bears – that his talk focussed on. His talk was highly entertaining, peppered with amusing anecdotes, interesting tips and wildlife behaviour facts, superb images and footage, and probably a first for us – a track from Disney’s Jungle Book.


Andy told us that if you want to get good wildlife shots you first have to have done your research on the animals you are going to shoot. Knowing their behaviour will inform you so you can anticipate what the animal is going to do, and in the case of grizzly and polar bears enable you to stay out of harm’s way.


His first study of a grizzly bear was one which he called a ‘teenager’ which decided that it would ‘check him out’. Bears will threaten you first by putting their heads down to reveal the hump on their back. They will then proceed to advance towards you, which is exactly what this ‘teenager’ did. As it got closer Andy stood up and shouted at it which made it veer off and sulk at a distance.


Grizzlies can of course be very dangerous as their claws are like butchers’ knives. Andy showed footage from a remote camera which a large grizzly became curious about. It came up to the camera and sniffed it, tried to bite it, took a selfie and a very scary shot of its claws. You would not want to mess with this bear.


Of all the years he has spent filming and photographing bears only one or two occasions were firearms every used to deter the bears, and these were shots into the ground – no bears were harmed during any of his bears expeditions or this talk. But you do have to be always on your guard.


In the second half he focused on a trip six years ago to Baffin Island in Canada to search for polar bears with newly born cubs. This was a research project to find suitable places to film and photograph mother and cubs. They travelled across Baffin island’s snowy expanse in search of their quarry on snow mobiles. Though the snow looked perfectly flat and even it was like travelling on cobbles as underneath was frozen ocean waves – four hours solid travelling like this was not pleasant, and he did this for several weeks.


They found many polar bears tracks but never any sign of cubs. After more than two weeks they came across tracks of a polar bear which had ‘swishes’ in the snow – these were tell tale signs that a mother was walking with cubs between her fore and hind quarters. There was hope.


By day 25 of his search he finally came across a mother polar bear with two cubs. For the next 48 hours he was falling over mothers and cubs and he had successfully found what he was looking for.


He now organises trips to Baffin Island to photograph polar bear mothers with cubs. There will be one trip in 2024 if anyone wants to go.


He ended his talk with a sad story of a lion he had photographed in Zambia. This was for a commission from a company that wanted a portrait of a ‘majestic’ lion. The portrait was superb. Some months after taking the image the lion was shot by a hunter and its stuffed head is probably on the hunter’s wall. This affected Andy and he now does talks to camera clubs to convey how wonderful the natural world is but he does not charge a fee – all he wants are donations to the wildlife charities that he features on his website.

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Oxford Photographic Society