A photographer’s dream: up close with brown bears

By Chris Bray October 13, 2016
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When AG photographer Chris Bray visited Alaska’s Geographic Harbour, he stumbled upon a serene spot where brown bears are unperturbed by the nearby click of a camera’s shutter.

“ALL THOSE DOTS – are they all bears?!” Sailing our little boat through a crack in the rocks towards the remote and uninhabited Geographic Harbour in Alaska, we could already count half a dozen dark blobs marauding around on the shore. Through binoculars we could see them clearly: brown bears – huge boars as well as sows and little spring cubs – all splashing around together in the tidal river delta catching salmon.

Inexplicably, right beside the bears was a tiny huddle of half a dozen people sitting on camping chairs watching them – we couldn’t believe it.

A brown bear with a freshly caught salmon. (Photo credit: Chris Bray Photography)

Having just sailed through the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and Alaska in the Arctic the year before, my wife Jess and I were used to polar bears and carried our healthy respect (and quite frankly, fear) for those predators with us into these warmer climates. Taking a few months off from running our photography tours around the world, we were just sailing our little 29-foot junk-rigged sailboat Teleport down through the Aleutian Islands and along the Alaskan coastline looking for things to photograph. And now we’d hit the jackpot.

The brown bears did not seem to mind the photographers’ presence, and largely ignored them completely. (Photo credit: Chris Bray Photography)

Anchoring up, we grabbed our camera gear and rowed our little inflatable dingy as close as we dared and snapped some awesome photos – but the idea of actually stepping out amongst all these bears seemed a little suicidal. Yet somehow, that little group of onlookers didn’t seem to care, and to our amazement, neither did the bears. We watched as one bear strode right in front of the group, passing less than 5m from them – without so much as a glance in their direction.

There was only one other boat in the bay, a fancy-looking powerboat – and in the evening, we saw a launch head ashore to collect the bear-viewers. Curious to learn how they did it, we rowed out to intercept them and they invited us to join them ashore the next morning.

A brown bear jumps through the water. (Photo credit: Chris Bray Photography)

That next day was one of the most incredible photography and wildlife experiences of my life – in fact, one of the best experiences of my life, full-stop.

Being able to quietly sit there all day while surrounded by a dozen brown bears as they caught salmon and played with each other was extraordinary. Several times, bears running down fish in the shallows body-slammed into the river to emerge with a salmon so close to us that we almost got splashed. We took back-lit photos of bears shaking water from their coat, others with surprised-looking salmon in their mouths, bears standing up and fighting each other, panning shots, full frame face shots and more. 

Too close for my telephoto lens at times, I occasionally swapped to my wide, which made me appreciate the stunning scenery around us too: the purple fireweed flowers and the multicolored, ash-draped mountains from an epic eruption back in 1912. I nestled my GoPro camera on a rock in the river, and two little cubs wandered right up to it and licked it. Bald eagles nest in the area too, and every time one flew over, all the seagulls hanging around for salmon scraps took flight. We even saw a wolf! 

Photography heaven.

A brown bear cub licks Bray’s GoPro camera. (Photo credit: Chris Bray Photography)

It turned out the operator – a bit of a local legend – has been running these  exclusive, private bear-viewing holidays around Geographic Harbour for about 20 years and thanks to his comprehensive briefings, has never once had an incident with a bear. Usually booked out years in advance, he flies guests in by float plane who then stay onboard for several days enjoying this wonderfully unhurried experience, complete with a private chef and almost no one else around. Compared to the overcrowded, bureaucratic and tightly scheduled viewing-platform experience of the more popular bear-viewing places like Brooks Falls, this place is simply magic.

Two brown bear cubs in the water. (Photo credit: Chris Bray Photography)

A family of brown bears. (Photo credit: Chris Bray Photography)

Ever since we found this place back in 2013, we’ve been running sold-out photography tours to Alaska every August, ending the two-week experience of spotting puffins, whales, glaciers seals and more with three unforgettable days in the Geographic Harbour with the bears in the middle of their salmon catching season. We love it, and every year as we step ashore amongst the bears with our little group of eight guests, we still have to pinch ourselves to make sure we’re not dreaming.