Young brown bear with a pink or humpy salmon, Geographic harbour, Katmai Alaska. Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR and AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II, 1/1250 s, f/5.6 at ISO 4500. EV +.7. Manual mode. Jobu Jr3 Gimbal head. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography
Katmai Bear Tour Report
Alaska never fails to amaze and surprise each year. This year was very different from anything I have ever seen in all of my years of leading groups there. This year there were major challenges with the weather, specifically weather changes that effected the bears and our photo opportunities. Being boat based and able to relocate and stay overnight right in front of the action was a huge advantage for us.
Brown bear backlit by the very last rays of daylight, Geographic Harbor, Katmai Alaska. Nikon D4 with Sigma 50-500mm APO DG OS HSM @ 460mm, 1/1250 s at f8 ISO 500, handheld, manual metering, - EV. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography. This warm golden edge glow is created at a certain spot at Geographic that will give you this amazing backlight effect right before the sun disappears below the mountains.
As usual at Hallo Bay we had lots of excellent opportunities for bears with cubs the first week. This was not a surprise since Hallo in July is usually consistently good for bears and bears with cubs. On the second tour though we had almost no chances with cubs. This was disappointing for some in the second group as they were hoping to photograph bears with cubs while some in the first group had enough of cubs by the end of the second day. Some guides I spoke with felt that this sudden change in numbers had something to do with an unusually good, maybe all time, Salmon berry season. The unusual berry abundance and the overly warm weather may have caused the bears to move away from the coastal area and seek higher, cooler, berry feeding grounds.
The biggest challenge this year really was without a doubt the weather. The first group had 5 days of full sun and completely cloudless skies, the second had almost nothing but clouds, fog and rain! Our guide with 30 years of experience in Alaska told me he had never seen weather like that before. Full sun in Alaska is really harsh for photography and even worse it creates issues with the bear's activity level since they overheat easily. On the other hand rain and fog on the other hand are great for the bears but it can really makes photography a challenge, my ISO sensitivity never went below 1600 on the second tour!
Young brown bear and mother, Geographic harbor, Katmai Alaska. Nikon D800E, AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR and AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II, 1/800 s, f/5.6 at ISO 250. Manual mode. Jobu Jr3 Gimbal head. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography. Brown bear interaction is always fascinating. As soon as this cub noticed it's mother laid down to take a break, it ran over to play. I knew this ahead of time and was able to tell our group that we were about to have a great opportunity. Mother and cub interaction changes when they lose cubs. Melissa (this bear has a name) started out with 3 cubs in June but by the time we arrived in July there was only this single cub left. In this case the mother will accept the role of a play partner that it would never accept with 2 or more cubs.
Brown bear cub portrait, Hallo Bay Alaska. Nikon D800E with Sigma 50-500mm APO DG OS HSM @ 340mm, 1/1000 s at f8 ISO 720, handheld, manual metering. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography. There are not many times where the bears move too close but it does happen. Not only is it not the safest situation but its almost impossible to keep your own shadow off of the bears. This situation made me glad I carried a backup 50-500 all day.
Young brown bear with a spawned-out pink salmon, Geographic harbour, Katmai Alaska. Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR, 1/500 s, f/4 at ISO 5000. EV +.7. Manual mode. Tripod and Jobu Jr3 Gimbal head. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography. This pink salmon female is at its last and final stage of life having already spawned upstream and will not live another season. Due to the poor condition these spawned-out fish are not ideal for photos but sometimes they still have lots of character if they are not in too bad of shape. Trips too late in the season, September for example, usually only have these spawned-out or worse, completely dead salmon to photograph.
Thanks to all of this year's tour participants. I feel lucky to have such incredible opportunities and to share all of the amazing experiences with friends and colleagues. If you were not able to join us this year, you should join us for 2014. I normally have lots of repeat clients each year, this year we had someone on a 3rd trip and another on a 4th tour!
Brown bear nursing, Hallo bay, Katmai Alaska. Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR and AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II, 1/800 s, f/8 at ISO 640. EV +.7. Manual mode. Jobu Jr3 Gimbal head. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography. This mother bear with dark and light cubs was one of the best bears that I have ever had the pleasure to photograph. It always seemed so confident, calm and at ease in it's environment.
For more images and information on 2014 bear tour follow this link: http://www.robertotoole.com/workshop/brown-bears/
If you would like to join my tour in 2014 please email me to be placed on the registration list.
Please let me know right away if you have any questions or would like register for next year.
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