Polar Bear Week

interview with nigel marven

what is the most remarkable thing about polar bears you discovered during the trip?

“The endurance of mother polar bears is remarkable. They come onto land around November to create a birthing den, spending the whole Arctic winter holed up in there before giving birth around December. They nurse the cubs for several weeks, finally emerging in March. At this point they haven’t eaten for months, and have to continue nursing the babies whilst trekking miles across the tundra to reach sea ice, where they can finally hunt for food. We filmed polar bear mothers and cubs in March, just as they left their dens after the long winter, and it was amazing to see these big animals roaming around so powerfully, knowing about the fast they had just endured.”

how did you cope with the harsh conditions?

“The first polar bear shoot we did, in March, was the coldest. One day it was –35 degrees Celsius. That’s so cold that boiling water freezes instantly if you throw it in the air –I conducted that experiment on camera! On the coldest days, we had to try and keep every patch of bare skin covered to avoid frostbite. I didn’t want to have my face completely obscured on camera, so I would remove my face mask between takes. In some shots you can see my cheeks turning white as the outer layer of skin froze –that was pretty painful, but it soon eased when we got back to base at night.

“Even in summer it was cold inside the Arctic Circle. But when I was watching such incredible animals I soon forgot about any physical discomfort! Also, having spent so much time in the Arctic, Antarctic and the Falkland Islands over the last year, I’m getting accustomed to the cold.”

what other challenges did you encounter?

“It was tricky to reach the more remote locations. We used trains, planes and automobiles, as well as skidoos, snowshoes, mountain bikes, helicopters, quad bikes and speedboats. Off Igloolik island, deep inside the Arctic Circle, we had to skidoo across the frozen sea to reach our base camp, but since it was summer the sea ice had to started to thaw –we had to have complete faith in our guides that we wouldn’t plunge through an ice hole at any moment! Once at camp we had to use a boat to reach walrus drifting on sea ice. We were searching for hours in a boat with no radio, food, water, first-aid kit, flares or heating. And the batteries on the GPS died while we were out there too!”

you’ve studied a wide range of animals throughout your career. which has been the most memorable?

“As a reptile fan, getting alongside Komodo dragons in Indonesia a few years ago was very special. But I’ve got a new contender for favourite moment –on one of my Arctic trips this year, I was privileged enough to get the opportunity to dive alongside beluga whales in Churchill River. These white whales are up to 20 feet long, and they were incredibly playful and inquisitive. They’re amongst the most vocal of all whales, and under the water I could hear all their songs, squeaks and whistles. I was totally immersed in their world; I was swimming with them in the freezing river for over an hour, but it seemed like only a few minutes. It was so mind-blowing.”

have there been any close shaves with any of the predators you have encountered?

“There was some pretty hairy moments on my last trip to Churchill. Bear expert Dennis Campayre was watching my back when I was on the ground with fighting male bears, and when I was just ten metres away from a bear sleeping on the ice. The adult bears were not a problem, but on a few occasions curious three year-olds forced us to fire harmless but noisy cracker shells into the air to frighten them away. On one occasion we had to quickly take the camera off the tripod and run to the safety of our vehicle. The bear then picked up the very expensive tripod legs and attempted to run away with them!

“Further north, I was on an ice floe with two hefty male walrus when one of them bared his tusks at me –but far worse was when it ‘parped’! The smell was so terrible it made my eyes water!” what sets your films apart from the other nature programmes on television?

“Although I’m known most for my enthusiasm for reptiles, I love all wildlife, and am enthusiastic and passionate about the whole animal kingdom. In the series, you get to see a huge variety of animals, from tiny birds to massive mammals. I also like completely immersing myself in the environments in which I find myself, so this series will give a real feeling for what it is like to spend a great deal of time in the Arctic.”

you are regularly away from your home for long periods. how do you cope being away from your family?

“Wherever possible, my family join me on location. My wife, Gill, came to the Falkland Islands to see penguins with me earlier this year –that was for a different project –and my dad came to Churchill in November to see bears with me.”

having spent so long in the canadian arctic and south georgia, you must have witnessed some of the effects of climate change. is this an issue close to your heart?

“Of course –this issue should be close to everybody’s heart. It’s extremely complicated though. The final programme in the series covers the effects of climate change. To say that polar bears are on the edge of extinction is scaremongering: certainly in the far north of their range, they are doing OK for now. But if sea ice completely disappears, then polar bears and beluga whales will be lost forever. However, as I say in the film, the warming of our planet could well stop or even go into reverse before that tragedy happens.”

polar bear week with nigel marven

This brand new series charts another icy adventure for intrepid zoologist Nigel Marven as he explores the wildlife of the spectacular Canadian Arctic. From spring through to autumn, Nigel’s expedition takes him from the icy wastes of the far north, across seemingly endless tundra to the vast boreal forest in the south.

The five-part series follows the fortunes of a range of animals as they attempt to triumph in the face of extreme conditions. From polar bear cubs fresh out of their birthing den, to an Arctic wolf’s breathtaking attack on a herd of musk oxen, the series shows northern nature at its rawest. While polar bears are the main stars of the show, other animals featured include walrus, Arctic foxes, beluga whales, grey owls, harp seals and moose.

On tonight’s opening programme, it is springtime in the Canadian Arctic and Nigel starts his nine-month quest to explore the realm of the polar bear. He takes a dogsled ride from Churchill to see Arctic foxes and caribou; braves temperatures of –30 degrees Celsius to witness the jaw-dropping majesty of the Northern Lights at Wapusk National Park; and follows a polar bear mother and two cubs across the tundra. He also takes a helicopter trip out onto sea ice to come face-to-face with day-old harp seal pups and their mothers. This, however, is just the start of Nigel’s adventures on ice.

Tuesday’s instalment sees Nigel return to Churchill where the Arctic foxes have had nine tiny cubs, and beluga whales are arriving in the river. The first polar bears of summer are also arriving and Nigel is delighted to encounter one swimming at sea. With the weather getting ever warmer, Nigel is able to venture further north and visits Cambridge Bay where he witnesses a breathtaking wolf attack on a herd of musk oxen. Then, in the Inuit community of Igloolik in the far north of the country, he hops across ice floes in search of walrus, eventually sharing a berg with two massive males.

On Wednesday, summer arrives properly in the Canadian Arctic. In icy Igloolik, Nigel watches bowhead whales and dives from an iceberg to swim with walrus. In Churchill, he catches up with the nine fox cubs; attempts to catch a speeding lemming; and dives with beluga whales in the freezing river. In the boreal forest to the south, the great grey owl chicks are climbing the trees.

As autumn comes to the wilderness in this week’s final episode on Friday, Nigel witnesses a flurry of polar bear activity in Igloolik as the predators wait patiently for some walrus to show up. In the south, more bears patrol Churchill town, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can hunt at sea. Nigel uses a ‘tundra buggy’ to get around, as large males play-fight in the middle of a snowstorm. Elsewhere, a helicopter trip to a remote peninsula allows Nigel to get on the ground with adult bears for the very first time.

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1