A polar bear lies curled up asleep on an iceberg jutting diagonally out of the sea, with clouds in the distance.

'Ice bed' fought off competition from 24 other images to become Wildlife Photographer of the Year 59 People's Choice. Image © Nima Sarikhani.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year 59 People’s Choice winner announced

Nima Sarikhani’s stunning picture of a sleeping polar bear has triumphed in the 2023 Wildlife Photographer of the Year 59 People's Choice Award.

Titled ‘Ice Bed’, Nima’s photo was crowned champion following a contest in which a record 75,000 people voted.

Taken off the Svalbard archipelago, the image shows a male polar bear who has just laid down to sleep on a small iceberg.

Nima spent three days searching for polar bears aboard an expedition vessel but had been thwarted by thick fog around the Norwegian islands. Fortunately, his luck was about to change when, on coming across an area of sea ice, the ship encountered a pair of bears – one younger and one older male.

Shortly before midnight, the younger male decided to rest. Under the light of the midnight sun, the bear used its powerful arms to claw out a bed on a small iceberg before drifting off to sleep.

Nima says: ‘I am so honoured to have won this year's People’s Choice award for Wildlife Photography of the Year, the most prestigious wildlife photography competition. This photograph has stirred strong emotions in many of those who have seen it.’

‘Whilst climate change is the biggest challenge we face, I hope that this photograph also inspires hope. There is still time to fix the mess we have caused.’

A polar bear walks along a stony shore in front of an icy body of water, and further in the distance snowy mountains rise.

Svalbard's polar bears are part of the wider Barents Sea population. Image © Kris Grabiec/Shutterstock

On the edge of the world

Sitting high in the Arctic Ocean, the islands of Svalbard are among the most isolated in the world.

It’s home to one of the world’s 19 populations of polar bears. In total, there are thought to be around 3,000 bears in the Barents Sea population, most of which split their time between Svalbard and Russia’s Arctic islands.

These bears walk between the different islands over sea ice, which is vital for their way of life. For thousands of years, these animals have used the ice as a platform to hunt prey such as seals and walruses.

However, the stability the bears have enjoyed is melting away. Svalbard has warmed by 3-5⁰C since the 1970s, and at the same time sea ice thickness and extent has decreased dramatically.

Dr Jon Aars researches Svalbard’s polar bears with the Norwegian Polar Institute. He explains how this loss of sea ice is affecting these animals.

‘The period with sea ice over shallower water in much of the area is now much shorter than it was a few decades ago,’ Jon says. ‘While the bears that follow sea ice may still be able to hunt year-round, this is increasingly over deeper waters which may be less productive.’

‘The loss of sea ice also affects other aspects of their lifestyle. For example, the bears often no longer reach areas in the east that have traditionally been important for building dens. Instead, the bears are now often found hundreds of kilometres closer to the north pole, where the sea ice tends to be.’

While the scientists aren’t completely certain, it also appears that a lack of ice means the bears are now having to swim much longer distances across the ocean. This is energetically costly, and while the bears appear to be coping at the moment, it’s not sure how long they can keep this up for.

A lack of ice also means a lack of opportunities to meet other bears, which is affecting the genetics of the Barents Sea population.

‘The loss of sea ice has reduced the genetic diversity of Svalbard’s resident polar bears,’ Jon says. ‘With fewer bears travelling across the ice between islands, there aren’t as many opportunities for different groups to mix. This is leading to increased inbreeding among resident bears.’

A grey furry reindeer stands on a snowy snope.

Svalbard's reindeer have been benefitting from warmer temperatures on the archipelago. Image © Risto Raunio/Shutterstock. 

Finding new foods

Of the thousands of bears in the Barents Sea population, around 300 live on or around the islands of Svalbard fulltime. These bears continue to live in the same habitat their parents and grandparents lived in, venturing out onto the ice to hunt seals before returning home.

However, with less ice these bears have been spending less time away from home. Tracking data reveals the polar bears are spending more time on land than they did 30 years ago, which is affecting what they eat.

‘While seal continues to make up a large part of their diet at the moment, they are increasingly eating the eggs of birds like eider duck and geese,’ Jon says.

‘In some years, almost all the eggs in some colonies are gone. This wasn’t a problem a few decades ago, so it’s likely to be because the bears are spending more time on land.’

There are also increasing reports of polar bear hunting reindeer. Rather than ambushing their prey as they do with seals, some bears have been chasing down the reindeer.

‘I’m surprised to see the bears successfully hunting reindeer,’ Jon says. ‘It’s a very different way of hunting to when they’re out on the ice.’

‘Despite it appearing that they’re being hunted more, Svalbard’s reindeer are still thriving. Longer warm temperatures are giving them more plants to eat, so their population is on the rise.’

‘We’re working to see if the increasing population of reindeer can compensate the polar bears for their difficulty in hunting seals from the ice.’

Though the population of Svalbard’s polar bears remains stable for now, the rapidly changing conditions of the Arctic mean this won’t last forever. If temperatures continue to rise, it may soon lead to conditions where these iconic animals can no longer cope

A brown pond turtle looks up with its mouth open as a dragonfly sits on its nose.

'The Happy Turtle' was Highly Commended by the judges. Image © Tzahi Finkelstein.

Visit the exhibition

The poignant picture of the polar bear is one of almost 50,000 entries from 95 countries to Wildlife Photographer of the Year 59, which highlight the wonder of the natural world and our precarious relationship with it.   

Dr Douglas Gurr, the Director of the Natural History Museum, says: ‘Nima’s breathtaking and poignant image allows us to see the beauty and fragility of our planet.’

‘His thought-provoking image is a stark reminder of the integral bond between an animal and its habitat and serves as a visual representation of the detrimental impacts of climate warming and habitat loss.’

Four other images from the contest were Highly Commended, including Tzahi Finkelstein’s ‘The Happy Turtle’ and Daniel Dencescu’s ‘Starling Murmuration’.

You can see Nima’s winning People's Choice image alongside these four Highly Commended photos on display in our Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in South Kensington until 30 June 2024.