Kevin Morgans had spent the best part of his Arctic expedition waiting to see a polar bear. So when he finally spotted a mother and her two cubs, he was delighted. However, the photographer’s images showed the depressing reality facing this endangered species.
Morgans is an award-winning wildlife photographer from Birkenhead, England. As part of his job, he’s traveled to some of the most remote locations on Earth in order to capture extraordinary creatures in their natural habitat.
In June 2018 Morgans traveled with fellow photographer Svein Wik to the remote Svalbard archipelago. This Norwegian island group lies in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between the North Pole and Scandinavia. So needless to say, it gets very cold there.
As a result, Svalbard is home to many creatures associated with cooler climates. These include Arctic foxes and reindeer. The islands’ most impressive resident is arguably the polar bear, which has become one of the archipelago’s symbols.
There are thought to be 3,000 polar bears on Svalbard and neighboring archipelago Franz Josef Land. And this number exceeds the human population. However, that doesn’t mean that the animals reign supreme on the islands.
While the worldwide population of polar bears has been under protection since 1973, the animals are still considered to be a threatened species. And although it might be illegal to hunt and disturb polar bears, human activity still continues to affect them in negative ways.
One of the biggest threats facing polar bears today is climate change. The animals rely on sea ice to hunt seals, but increasing global temperatures have meant that this ice is melting more quickly. This sometimes forces the bears onto shore before they’ve built up enough fat to see them through into fall.
So as a result of depleting sea ice, some polar bears are facing starvation. To make matters worse, the animals often have to swim further to find food, meaning they burn off their much-needed fat reserves. And with their natural prey harder to come by, some polar bears are turning to worrying sources in an attempt to find sustenance, as Morgans discovered.
After waiting patiently to spot some polar bears, Morgans must have been delighted when at last he encountered a mother and her two young cubs. But upon witnessing what exactly they were up to, his heart broke.
It seemed that the baby bears had come across one of the many lumps of plastic that now wash up on the beaches of Svalbard. And not only were the cubs toying with the debris, but they were also putting it into their mouths as though they were trying to eat it.
Being a wildlife photographer, Morgans began snapping the scene with his camera. In the resulting images, the black plastic sheeting that the cubs have found stands out against its snowy surroundings. It serves as a stark reminder of humans’ impact on the world and our fellow creatures.
Following his encounter with the polar bears, Morgans shared the disturbing images on Facebook in July 2018. Alongside the pictures, the photographer wrote, “This photo was taken on the northern coastline of Svalbard.”
“It was a bittersweet moment to watch,” Morgans continued. “On one hand, you have a beautiful mother and two cubs. On the other, the curious young cubs are playing/eating plastic pollution which had been washed ashore.”
Summarizing his feelings about what he’d witnessed, Morgans concluded, “This was a really sad situation to see and further highlights how our plastic pollution is affecting wildlife in the Arctic regions. So please people let’s do our bit to help reduce plastic and keep our oceans plastic free.”
Sadly, what Morgans had seen was the evidence of a growing problem in the region. In February 2018 an investigation by the Norwegian Polar Institute concluded that there were probably around 80,000 tonnes of plastic in the Norwegian areas of the Arctic, where the Svalbard islands lie.
It’s a reality that environmentalist Claire Wallerstein is all too aware of. As a member of the Sail Against Plastic organization, Wallerstein recently sailed around Svalbard for more than a week. The aim was to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the Arctic.
In July 2018 Wallerstein told The Independent, “We were very lucky to be invited to take part in this unique expedition and had an amazing time seeing Arctic wildlife, stunning glaciers and experiencing 24-hour sunlight. However, it was also a very sobering experience.”
Wallerstein and her crew were shocked to see the sheer amount of plastic washed up on the once pristine islands of the Arctic. “What we found on the beaches was sadly not so very different from what we find back home,” she revealed.
Describing in more detail what the Sail Against Plastic team had observed, Wallerstein explained, “There was plenty of fishing waste. But the saddest thing was just how much of the waste blighting the Arctic is the same old disposable detritus of our daily lives.”
According to Wallerstein, among the items found by the Sail Against Plastic team were “bottles, cotton bud sticks, cigarette ends, wet wipes, polystyrene, and food packaging.” So, if we’re to turn the tide on plastic pollution, perhaps we all need to do our bit to tackle the problem.