A photograph of a mother polar bear in the snow. Her two cubs are seated on her playing.

Credit: Steve Levi

Tender Play was featured in the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: polar bears on the brink

As global temperatures continue to rise, wildlife photographers are striving to capture the unique habits and lifestyles of a species at risk. 

Polar bears have featured heavily in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards over the last decade. These photogenic animals are popular with wildlife photographers, and their increasing struggle to survive serves as an emotional reminder of the planetary emergency we are facing.

Polar bears have come to symbolise the effects of a warming climate and the loss of habitat that is spreading around the natural world.

A look back through some of our favourite images from the last decade shows a species on the frontier of climate change. 


The Challenge - Françoise Gervais

Françoise Gervais's image, taken in 2019, leaves nothing to the imagination. The lone bear stands out, exposed against the black jagged rock of a steep cliff on Baffin Island, Canada. The receding sea ice has forced the bear to hunt for land-based foods, a deviation from its usual diet.

A white polar bear is seen looking tiny agains a sheer cliff of bare black rock.

Credit: Françoise Gervais

Highly Commended 2019, Animals in their Environment

Françoise is a polar expedition leader who takes people on journeys to some of the world's most remote places. She hopes that her work can help her audience to develop deeper interactions with the natural world and inspire them to help conserve it.


The Water Bear - Paul Souders 

Paul Souders wanted to show the aquatic side of polar bears, which he feels are under-represented. He scouted for three days around Hudson Bay, Canada, before finally spotting this young female bear.

A photograph showing melting ice in the sea. A polar bear can be seen just below the waters surface and the sun is glowing red in the distance.

Credit: Paul Souders

Winner 2013, Animals in their Environment

Paul was careful to approach her very slowly, waiting for her to come to him. The bear's inquisitive nature is clear as she watches him from beneath the waves, lit by the midnight Sun.

Sadly, the pinkish hue of the sky is not the result of a setting Sun but rather smoke from forest fires raging further south, threatening the survival of this young bear.


Predatory Steps - Eirik Grønningsæter 

The curiosity of these magnificent creatures was also the focus of Norwegian photographer Eirik Grønningsæter, who captured this unique portrait. Eirik set his camera up on the snow, confident that the curiosity of the bear would lead to some great images.

A photograph of a bear's body, its large paw reaching for the lens of the camera.

Credit: Eirik Grønningsæter

Winner 2010, Animal Portraits

Sure enough, as soon as Eirik retreated to his boat, the bear headed straight for the camera, knocking it with his paws and investigating the strange device. The inquisitiveness of the species is demonstrated in this beautiful image which won the 2010 Animal Portraits category.

Eirik later remarked how the camera was left unscathed by the powerful but gentle animal.


Hitching a Ride - Daisy Gilardini

Daisy Gilardini received a special award in the People's Choice category for her shot of a playful moment between a mother bear and her cub.

A photograph of a young polar bear cub clinging to the back of his mother as she walks through the snow.

Credit: Daisy Gilardini

Finalist 2016, Special Award: People's Choice

Daisy explained that the mother had been resting with her two young cubs before suddenly getting up and dashing downhill through the deep snow. The cub quickly jumped on to hitch a ride.

Polar bear cubs tend to stay with their mother for two and a half to three years while they learn from her how to survive in the Arctic. 


Polar Pas de Deux – Eilo Elvinger

This shot by Eilo Elvinger was the winner of the 2017 Black and White category. The image shows a polar bear and her cub who stopped to investigate the pollution leaking from Eilo's ship.

The paws of two polar bears can be seen standing on the snow. The image is in black and white and the snow is darkened by pollution.

Credit: Eilo Elvinger

Winner 2017, Black and White

Taking the lead from its mother, the young cub leaned in to taste the contaminated snow. Pollution in the Arctic is growing year by year and is making its way into the food web.

Eilo framed her shot in black and white to emphasise the pollution against the clean, white landscape of the Arctic. 


Ice Matters - Anna Henly

This powerful photo by Anna Henly is a stark reminder of the effects of the warming climate on the Arctic. She used her fisheye lens to expand the reach of the frame and create an impression of 'the top predator on top of the planet, with its ice world breaking up'.

A fish-eye photograph of a polar bear standing alone on a small iceberg, surrounded by broken pieces of ice.

Credit: Anna Henly

Winner 2012, World in Our Hands

Her photo was taken at around four in the morning, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, while she watched the bear walk tentatively across the broken ice.

As global temperatures increase, more and more ice is lost each year, reducing the space and time available for bears to hunt and feed. 


Warm Embrace – Debra Garside

Despite the rapidly changing climate and increasingly difficult conditions, dedicated photographers are still able to capture heart-warming moments like this one.

A mother polar bear lies in the snow with her two cubs tucked into her fur for warmth.

Credit: Debra Garside

Finalist 2017, Special Award: People's Choice

Debra Garside endured temperatures as low as -55˚C and high winds to get this shot of a mother bear and her cubs emerging from a winter spent in their den.

After waiting six days for the bears to emerge, she was able to capture this intimate image showing the cubs huddled for warmth within their mother's fur.