Not long ago, we ordered This is Where Atlantis SANK, a book of adventure-inspired poetry and photographs created by Canadian wilderness guide Natalie Gillis.
When we received the small publication in the mail, a shiny sticker featuring the above photo of a satiated polar bear fell from between the pages. (It was basically the author’s business card but in sticker format.)
The extraordinary image has been haunting us ever since. We wanted to learn more so we reached out to Gillis — locating her in Antarctica (no surprise given her love of cold, wild places) — and asked her about the moment she snapped the photo.
T&C: Where were you when you took this image?
Gillis: I was guiding a floe-edge trip with Black Feather during one of the adventure company’s annual spring expeditions. We were on the sea ice between Nunavut’s Baffin and Bylot Islands.
T&C: What caught your eye?
Gillis: I was driving a snowmobile when I saw a splash of blood red in the distance. I veered off my course to investigate and it became clear that a polar bear had caught a seal and was gorging on the carcass. The seal could not have been deconstructed faster.
T&C: What happened next?
Gillis: After witnessing the feeding frenzy, I observed a moment of absolute surrender. I took the photo as the young bear — accomplished and content after what was a massive meal — raised its paw before rolling over to go to sleep.
T&C: The photo was initially shot in colour, but you’re choosing to share it in black and white. Why?
Gillis: Yes, I needed to convert the image to black and white to capture this sense of calm satisfaction. It stood in stark contrast to what had just happened. In the original image the bear is covered in crimson blood, which is splashed across its entire face and torso and which would have been a distraction.
T&C: What do you hope to convey with this image?
Gillis: People constantly have to digest statistics in relation to climate change. The emotion surrounding what’s at stake — beyond the dry calculation of mammal populations, seasonal temperatures and ice quality measurements — can easily get lost in the numbers. We all understand hunger, what it means to satisfy hunger and how it feels afterwards. I hope my photograph brings a relatable dimension to the delicate nature of life and death on the Arctic ice.
Check out our last post featuring the work of Natalie Gillis in Wild and beautiful Muskox Way. You can also look for Gillis on Instagram @natgillisphotography.
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Jack Heinrich commented:
Fascinating column….keep it up T&C
Nat Gillis commented:
Thanks Jack, I’m glad you found it enjoyable. Cheers!
Margo Pfeiff commented:
Wonderful photo! Reads like poetry! The floe edge off Pond Inlet is one of my favourite places on the planet in spring – it often feels and looks like you’re actually on another planet – and this post captures a glimpse of the magical and often surreal atmosphere.
Nat Gillis commented:
Thanks so much for the kind comment Margo!
Stuart Seldon commented:
I had the pleasure of sharing a meal next to Natalie at a recent RCGS Fellows’ dinner. It took me about five minutes to realize I was sitting beside a singularly unique person. What an incredibly talented person she is!
toque & canoe commented:
She’s definitely one of the most inspiring Canadians we know. Thanks for your comment Stuart. We may have been sitting at a table near you! Great RCGS event in Ottawa.