Presented by Gordon Buchanan with Jason Roberts
Directed by Saritha Wilkinson
Produced by Ted Oakes
Originaly aired simultaneously on BBC2 & BBC HD on 7th, 8th & 10th January 2013
A Polar Bear Family and Me is a three part documentary following the trials of life faced by mature mother Lyra and her latest cubs Miki and Luca.
The series follows wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan on his quest to get to know more about Polar Bears and how they raise their young. He traveled to the international territory of Svalbard and was working alongside representatives of Norwegian Polar Bear researchers. Gordon is well known in the UK for his work on Spring Watch, Autumn Watch and of course the sister series to this, The Bear Family and Me.
Gordon’s skills as a wildlife cameraman are put to use but as in The Bear Family and Me Gordon is also in front of the camera and narrates the series. His gentle Scottish tones mix his own thoughts and observations with natural history information.
This series is clearly intended to highlight the danger these impressive animals are facing in this period of climate change. Part of what he was interested in looking at was how bears are coping from their Southerly range to their Northerly range. For this reason he doesn’t stay solely with the central family of bears.
There are mild spoilers from here down, as there are three episodes you might want to return after watching them all as it is easy to scroll too far.
(edit 22/12/2015 – updated the links to iPlayer, I can only confirm Episodes 1 & 2 are currently working – if you are outside the UK you may not be able to watch the Episodes)
Polar Bear females don’t eat for six months, having put on a lot of body weight. The female stays in her den and the cubs are born under the snow and suckled there until they are strong enough to go outside.
Guided by Polar Bear expert Jason Roberts, Gordon sets up his camera near a Polar Bear den that has recently opened, no foot prints lead to or from the den, so the female and her cubs have yet to emerge. After some time watching they are rewarded with views of a lone cub.
We come to know this cub as Miki, named by Jason, his brother Luca and their mother Lyra. Lyra is 17 years old and has raised several cubs. This is the hottest Spring she will have seen and there isn’t as much sea ice as there have been in previous years.
Gordon has also brought a plastic and metal camera hide to film hunting Polar Bears as close as possible in safety. On the second day of the expedition a large female takes great interest in Gordon and ignores the hard to catch seals to attempt to catch Gordon. Polar Bears will hunt and kill humans. In 2011 Horatio Chapple, a British student, was killed by a Polar Bear in Svalbard.
Lyra and the cubs were tranquilised so that Lyra could have a tracking collar fitted ands the health of all three bears assessed. Both cubs were found to be male.
Gordon returns to find Lyra after some searching, again the skilled eyes of Jason are a huge assistance. Shortly after spotting her they see Miki but Luca isn’t in view.
The sea ice has retreated further and there is much less hunting area than ever on record. This reduction limits every part of Polar Bear life because this is not only where they hunt but also where they interact and breed.
Following Lyra we see quite how important it is to maintain the bond between mother and cubs. While hunting mother bears continue to suckle their young as well as teaching them what is good to eat.
Lyra is seen eating a walrus that she hasn’t killed. Polar Bears prefer fresh kills but are able to survive on carrion and at times are forced to do so.
Another bear, Eva, however is seen in the icier North not only getting her own fresh kills but also stealing fresh meat from other bears. We also meet Freida, a very fat female and the victim of Eva’s theft, she is thought to possibly be pregnant.
Lyra’s collar isn’t working properly and the weather is turning, even though this has been a very mild year time is running out for Gordon to film Lyra. When found she has lost quite a lot of weight but Lyra has still been suckling Miki so he is still well fed.
Polar bears are adapted to hunt seals on ice. The sea ice is disappearing rapidly, threatening their future. Unlike their closest relatives, Brown Bears, they are not omnivores. Polar Bears can digest vegetation but they cannot survive on this alone, a high meat content is required in their diet.
Weather was getting against the expedition and Lyra is still in the Southerly part of the range of Polar Bears. So little food was available she had resorted to trying to eat fishing floats that had washed up on an island. Miki needs milk for another year, feeding Miki is causing Lyra to starve. For obvious reasons Polar Bears cannot be fed in the wild, they simply cannot be encouraged to approach humans.
Hunting almost wiped out Polar Bears in the region until it was outlawed. The bears have recovered well over the past thirty years, only to face the melting of the sea ice.
Gordon left Lyra and Miki as Winter was arriving, uncertain what the future held.
Post Series update and my opinion on some of the criticism I have seen on the internet follows, this includes heavy spoilers, do not read further until you have seen all three episodes.
Post Series Update
On 11th January 2013 Lyra’s collar gave a confirmed reading. She was in an area where a large whale carcass was known to be situated. She was close to a good food source. There was no siting so it cannot be confirmed but if Miki is still with his mother there will be enough food for them both.
If the Norwegian researchers see Lyra in Spring they will let Ted know and he will update the Facebook page.
Ted Oakes has more recently Produced a Operation Snow Tiger currently airing on BBC2 (final episode Sunday 16th June 2013) which hopefully will enjoy similar world-wide popularity this look into the life of Lyra has enjoyed.
Criticism of the series
There have been a few things I’ve read on the internet that read as though the people writing them have watched a different series to the one I saw. One professional review in UK press was almost comical in its inaccuracy it was clearly the writer’s intention to be negative from the start. One reply to that review even suggested Gordon wanted to find Lyra dead, quite unbelievable.
However a few people have raised a genuine concern about Lyra and particularly the cubs being tranquilised and Gordon handling the cubs. Producer Ted Oakes answered some questions on Twitter but in Ted’s own words from the Facebook page for this series:
“Some people were concerned to see the biologists capturing Lyra and her cubs, taking samples and placing a collar on Lyra. Here’s a bit of explanation as to why this occurs and for those with concerns. Norway employs biologist to study Svalbard’s polar bear population as part of a long-term study programme. This is extremely important research which is helping Norway understand the health of it’s polar bear population and the critical habitats that these bears need to survive. The research techniques they use have evolved over many decades and involve tranquilising female bears from a helicopter, taking blood and fat samples and placing tracking collars to follow their movements. Approximately 20 bears were studied in this way in 2012 by the Norwegian Government out of a Svalbard population of several thousand bears. Protocols for these activities have been established over decades so as not harm bears and the biologists are extremely careful and caring towards the animals. I lay terms, it doesn’t look nice but it is important for the survival polar bears. The BBC was given special permission to film the biologists working with Lyra, and they allowed Gordon to briefly help them move the cubs which were sedated to keep them calm. As film-makers we thought it was essential for the audience to see this important aspect of Norway’s research programme. Similar research methods are carried out across the entire arctic and the only way to learn the detail about the many threats facing these bears. Norway has a particularly progressive policy towards it’s polar bears. They have banned polar bear hunting and for a small nation put many financial resources towards trying to understand the threats to them. The work of biologists does no harm to the bears, but rather it is the main way by which they can be helped as a population.”
Personally I fully understand that is is essential to the study of Polar Bears and their conservation. I didn’t find the sequence worrying at all, similar studies are carried out on other endagered species and this is reputable natural science at work.
Gordon also came in for criticism of his use of the ‘Ice Cube’ but as I have stated above, these animals will hunt and kill people. Granted he could have set up a white hide to conceal him from view but in the terrain in question I don’t think this would have been much use. Had the bears scented him he would have been too much at risk.
And finally, I have read criticism that Gordon uses athropomorphic language about the Polar Bears. Indeed he does, he uses human emotive speech to discuss these wonderful animals. Given that one of the intentions of this series is to get people to think more about the lives of animals that are at risk. This isn’t a purely natural history series. It is entertainment and it is a plea for people to listen. Such emotive approach is useful in this case.
Many thanks to Ted Oakes for his kind permission for me to include images from the series in this review.
Good luck Lyra & Miki.