EDIT: This has been a very valuable experience. Thanks so much for your intelligent and thoughtful questions. Be sure to visit us on the website link below to SeaLegacy. You can download our Impact Report and learn more about what we do. Happy and safe holidays to everyone!

We are Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, two biologists, photographers, and co-founders of the conservation group SeaLegacy.org. Our work has been featured in National Geographic Magazine and we’re focusing a lot these days to work on protecting the oceans. Recently, National Geographic published our footage of a starving polar bear that caught the world’s attention. We’re here to answer any and all your questions about the bear and the deeply concerning situation regarding climate change.

Proof: https://i.redd.it/yq4w9yvavw401.jpg https://twitter.com/NatGeo/status/943501579428225025

Comments: 105 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

iddn25 karma

How do you know that it was starving due to lack of food, and not due to something like illness?

nationalgeographic40 karma


We don't and that was stated in the original caption. All we are saying is that if credible scientists are saying that 30% of polar bears are going to disappear by 2050 and they could be extinct in a 100 to 150 years then this is what a starving bear looks like. It is gut-wrenching to watch. These are not just data points falling off a piece of paper. These are great Arctic nomads dying a slow and painful death. PN

900pagebook18 karma

How hard was it seeing some of the extremely hard comments on instagram/Facebook that accused you guys of being killers and just standing there? We all know nothing could be done, but seeing all of that when you’re just doing your job must have been tough.

nationalgeographic36 karma

Thank you. It was difficult to read those comments. Just the way war photographers who take a beating for not rescuing a starving child or for not getting in the middle of a battle, we were being accused of not saving the bear. After the trash can, the bear swam out of sight. We were left there standing numb and saddened. We vowed to share this footage with the world to spark a global debate so it was worth all of the hurtful comments. PN

crazedhatter15 karma

How hard was it to watch that happening live? The video is bad enough...

nationalgeographic24 karma

Good morning! Standing there in complete shock as this poor animal struggled to even get up, was one of the hardest things I have ever witnessed. As an animal lover, watching this kind of suffering was unbearable....no pun intended - PNN

ThusShatZarathustra13 karma

Much of the criticism was aimed at the assertion or implication in the NatGeo article you linked that a lack of ice was the cause of the starvation.

Numerous scientists and journalists have come out since then refuting that claim.

I understand that you guys aren't responsible for writing the actual article, but what amount of input do photographers generally get in the editing process?

Were you sent out to find photos of starving bears? Or was the story and accompanying narrative developed around the photos? How do you deal with the possibility that your photos could be misinterpreted or misconstrued by editors?

nationalgeographic29 karma

You know what has been one of the most shocking aspects of sharing this story? How people not read captions and how media outlets sensationalize and embellish. I was utterly surprised to find media sources that put words in my mouth, twisted what I said, put stuff out of context, etc. CM

ThusShatZarathustra3 karma

Well its certainly refreshing to hear that it wasn't you guys messing up.

Kudos on you all for speaking up about this, you should not be wearing any of this.

nationalgeographic15 karma

I also think that certain outlets took the opportunity to generate controversy. I was shocked by the lack of professionalism and accuracy of the CBC, the National Post and the Toronto Star. CM

nationalgeographic17 karma

Great question. Our original posts were well received and then yes, everyone, including National Geographic altered or embellished our story which started the backlash from other media outlets. Many journalistic organizations do not allow us to proofread before they post. We have to trust their integrity and unfortunately, things get misconstrued. That started the backlash. As a biologist, I am very careful in how I word my captions. PN

Axtrash11 karma


I thought the video was very strong, thank you guys for sharing!

But I also heard in some media that in this case, gobal warming was not what caused this. Can you elaborate on this?

I know that global warming is an issue for polar bears, but I just wondered what's the true story in this case.

nationalgeographic26 karma

Hello; we were completely surprised by how much opposition there is to the idea that climate change is upon us. I suppose many people would not want to change their lifestyles or see their profits (from whatever activities that contribute to climate change or the exploitation of nature) changed. Fear is also a common response to an enormous threat, so people would naturally prefer to deny it than confront it. The vast majority of viewers and comments, however, were positive. I am very proud of the work we are doing with SeaLegacy because if we don't, biodiversity will die in darkness, with no one there to document it. Our job is to shine a light on issues regular reporters are not documenting and to bring those stories to the court of pubic opinion. It is not always positive and there is a tendency to shoot the messenger. We are happy to take the brunt of the criticism as long as we are moving the conversation forward. CM

nationalgeographic12 karma

Thank you. We were very clear from the very first post on our own social media channels that we don't know why this bear was dying. We stated that if we don't do something to reverse climate change, we will see more images like this as polar bears struggle to find food. PN


It is hard to watch. I saw the back leg dragging and the article said it was likely due to muscle atrophy. Was the leg broken or recovering from an injury?

nationalgeographic9 karma

Hi; it is impossible to tell. We asked several polar bear scientists and their response was that it could have happened in any number of ways. Maybe it got injured when large blocks of ice crash against each other; maybe it was a fight with another bear or a walrus; maybe it was a bullet, or maybe it was atrophy because of starvation. When bears get stuck on land, it is hard for them to find food. They are resilient animals who can survive for several months without food, but they cannot survive forever without hunting. We simply don't know what happened to him. CM

nationalgeographic9 karma

We really do know. I asked a scientist and he said that it was likely from atrophied muscles due to starvation. Muscles eventually stop working. It could have been an injury from countless things. There have been a lot of guesses. My one wish is that a vet will return to the area to perform a necropsy. PN

life_is_political8 karma

Have you read the commentary from the local Inuit bear watchers? They have a very different narrative than the articles I have read.


nationalgeographic3 karma

I have read it. You can read my comments about it in a previous response. CM

SmarchHare7 karma

I have a question for people who saw this and thought it was out of the ordinary: How exactly do you think the average polar bear life ends? Curled up peacefully in a nursing home? Revenge murder by a pack of seals?

nationalgeographic7 karma

Great question although this bear did not have any breeding scars on his face. I suspect he was a very large male but probably less than 10 to 12 years old. PN

themightycow6 karma

How many obese healthy polar bears did you see on the trip? Was this the only sick and dying bear to be seen? Why is a warming trend in the climate concerning when things seem to be as good as ever for polar bears? I heard that sea ice should be thin so seals can get through the ice.

nationalgeographic9 karma

We spent quite a bit of time in the Arctic and we saw bears in various states. Without a doubt, where there is healthy sea ice, bears tend to thrive. Bears stuck on land tend to do less well. We saw fat, healthy bears but we also saw skinny bears and a couple of dead bears. Bears are survivors. They are amazingly resistant to harsh conditions but they cannot go on forever without food. If they fail to build their fat reserves when the sea ice is healthy, they are likely to suffer when they have to fast. A couple of bad hunting seasons can be disastrous, especially for pregnant females or females with cubs. -CM

I_Choose_Oblivion6 karma

Did you anticipate the heated public reaction from sharing the footage of the dying polar bear, and going forward, will this impact how or what you share in the field with these public concerns in mind?

nationalgeographic11 karma

We anticipated a strong public reaction and our intention was to promote healthy debate, as that is always an important part of building constituencies that support public policy. We were completely surprised, however, by the level of discord, anger and opposition to climate change in general. It was particularly hurtful to experience the rudeness, bile and gaslighting from certain sectors who tried to turn things around and make us into the bad guys. That said, in the end, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and I am certain this will help us move the conversation one step closer to where it needs to be. Climate change is urgent and we intend to continue pushing as hard as we can. CM

nationalgeographic6 karma

The initial reaction was very favorable and supportive and then mainstream media sources started to embellish and alter the story like they sometimes do. The National Post and the Toronto Star in particular were way out of line. That started the backlash. - PN

Priwu5 karma

If you don't mind my asking, do you always manage to stay emotionally detached during the filming process, especially when it involves something so clearly heart wrenching? If no, what do you do to deal with it?

I just wanted to thank you guys, and so many like you, who work in such harsh conditions to make knowledge about the state of the natural world so much more accessible to the layman. It's a good thing this footage has been the subject of debate, because it'll bring about more public interest. Thanks!

nationalgeographic7 karma

The problem was that we are incredibly attached. I am a crier when it comes to nature and this was one of the hardest things I have watched. But, we have to capture the moment to share with the world. Thank you for all you do. - PN

bearcubwolfcub4 karma

Hey guys, I’m sorry you had to capture that moment in time. It was devastating to see on video. I would imagine being there filming it, not being able to help, was horrific.

My question: how has this impacted your efforts on bringing awareness or taking action against climate change? How has it impacted your efforts for animals?

nationalgeographic4 karma

Great question and thank you for your heartfelt comments. It was brutal to watch. After the trash can, he swam out of sight. We left him in peace but we will keep the issue alive with his sacrifice. Apparently the video has reached over 2 Billion people and was the most viewed video in NG history. None of that matters other than we are proud that a massive conversation has begun. PN

juliancolton3 karma

Thank you both for your vital conservation work, and for the poignant, haunting, and beautiful (sometimes all at once) visual content that you create.

I know many people who deny the influence or even existence of man-made climate change. When I've referred them to this story to demonstrate the adverse effects of warming poles, they invariably demand to know how we can definitively prove that this particular bear's demise was the result of human activity. How do you typically respond in such debates? Do you think that these people genuinely believe AGW is a political hoax, or that they simply can't come to terms with the fact that our activity on Earth has created such tragic scenes as the one you've captured here? And in the interest of fairness, what can we "climate hawks" learn from people who are skeptical of the mainstream consensus?

nationalgeographic6 karma

Great question. You simply stick to the science and the math. Predictions (scientists often under-predict) are that 30 percent of polar bears are going to disappear by 2050 and could become extinct by 2150. Show them the nasa graph of carbon and the warming Earth. They just can't come to terms. It is must less painful to deny than to have to deal with AGW. I wish it wasn't real either but it is and we must all join in efforts to protect our one home. PN

RadBadTad3 karma

I read reports that you guys were standing there crying while filming the scene. Is that accurate?

I have also seen supposed experts discuss the video saying that the bear is likely not starving exclusively because of climate change's effect on the bear's hunting environment, but that it is likely also sick with something that is causing it to be unable to hunt and get around as it should, likely some sort of bear cancer. Does that seem likely?

nationalgeographic8 karma

Good questions. Yes, the team was overcome with emotion. It is not like the team was standing there balling but we had to work through our emotions and yes there were a lot of sniffles. We never said that it was because of climate change. If you go to the original post we say that we cannot conclude that climate change is the cause but we want people to know what a starving bear looks like. Is this a glimpse into the future? PN

RadBadTad2 karma

Thanks for your reply. I haven't been able to bring myself to look at the footage myself, because I get too worked up just from the thumbnails and conversation around it. I'm sorry if I implied that you reported something inaccurately, that wasn't my intention, I was just trying to clarify some of the third-party conversation and speculation that I've heard regarding the footage.

nationalgeographic6 karma

No worries at all. We are used to that question now and welcome the opportunity to clarify. - PN

Sahil_1232 karma

My question is a little too generic: How do the wildlife photographers ensure their safety while being around an unknown ecosystem?

I would like to thank you guys for highlighting the intensity of this issue.

nationalgeographic4 karma

Good question. We research our subject widely and proceed with caution. Animals are constantly communicating their level of comfort and fear and if you pay attention and remain respectful, it generally creates less tension. As a photographer, if you allow animals to dictate the encounter and if you move slowly, animals tend to relax and if you are lucky, they allow you into their world. CM

ginayang2 karma

How did you get into biology and then ultimately wildlife photography?

nationalgeographic3 karma

I have always loved wildlife so I went to University and got a degree and became a biologist in the Northwest Territories. Then, I realized I could bridge the gap between good science and a global audience by becoming a photographer for a magazine like Nat Geo. Now we run a non-profit called SeaLegacy. Visit sealegacy.org to learn more about our campaigns. There is a time for unbiased journalism and there is time for strategic photographic global campaigns. Ironically, I was just given an Honorary Doctorate from UVIC from the work we are doing with our cameras. PN

djdelight2 karma

2 questions from me:

  1. Any further sighting of the polar bear and whether he survived or died?

  2. Before my next question I want to make it clear; I am 100% believer that we are impacting our planet and that we can certainly do more to ensure the longevity and livelihoods of animals such as polar bears. That said, however, how can you be 100% certain the polar bear’s condition was a result of climate change? Could it be disease related and therefore nothing to do with the climate?

nationalgeographic4 karma

  1. We didn't see the polar bear again after he swam away. He looked more at ease in the water.
  2. Thank you. We need more people to realize the facts. We were clear from the very beginning, when this story first came out, that we don't know why this particular bear was starving. It is, for us, a very strong foreshadowing of what is to come for future generations of polar bears if we don't reverse the effects of climate change. - PN

parastop2 karma

How do we defeat people like the evil koch brothers from ruining our planet? I’m very worried

nationalgeographic8 karma

I recently read about something called the "Overtron window". In short, that is the window of political discourse that the public is willing to accept. It appears that in the past couple of decades, certain individuals and organizations, like the ones you mention, who clearly have special interests, have invested millions of dollars to move that window to the extreme right. We are now in a public discourse place where it is ok for the US government to dismantle monuments, overthrow protections, etc. Our job, as communicators and as an educated public is to move that window to the center again. We do that by debating, discussing and being rational. The more we talk about the kind of policies that we find acceptable, the better. CM

RadBadTad1 karma

Googling the Obertron Window doesn't seem to come up with anything unfortunately.

StrictScrutiny2 karma

It's "Overton window." Weird name; easy typo to make.

RadBadTad1 karma

Oh perfect! Thanks very much.

nationalgeographic3 karma

Thanks for correcting....Overtron it is! CM


So, then I think the real question here is what is the best way for people that are over burdened by life (kids, jobs, whatever) to speak up and make sure our government knows we won’t stand for this? I mean, I’d love to storm Capitol Hill right now over this tax disaster but, you know, I’m here at my job today and can’t leave until EOD or I’ll lose my job.

nationalgeographic4 karma

Such a great question and I completely understand how the pace of modern life make it hard to be involved. I think voting for people who are willing to put the environment as one of their top issues is very important. Reducing the amount of meat we eat also helps (becoming vegetarian will reduce your carbon footprint by half!). Reducing consumption of energy by lowering thermostat, water heater, etc. Walking more and driving less. Talking to your kids about the environment and making environmental consciousness part of the fabric of your family are also great ways of contributing. Thanks for caring! Every one of us matters and every action helps. CM

almondparfitt1 karma

Hi, could you share how you plan your photography work based on your conservation efforts? Wondering what factors go into what you decide to cover and when. Thanks for your work.

nationalgeographic7 karma

Hi, we always rely on the advice of scientists and conservation experts who work on issues at a more local level. It is very important to have local players that will continue pushing for policies after we finish documenting. We work in places and issues where there is a strong policy process or a campaign underway, so that we can inject the kind of momentum that helps tip the scales. We also prefer to work in places where our added value is urgently needed and/or where no one else is working. CM

Shadowpuppy0071 karma

How do we get Canada to change their legislation on being able to feed polar bears? Obviously there is a risk but we also have a duty to help them considering that we're destroying their habitats.

nationalgeographic3 karma

We are trying to change legislation so their habitat is protected so they can find their own food. If we are at the point of feeding polar bears then most of the Arctic ecosystem will be collapsing. Most species in the Arctic require ice. From copepods (lifecycle is tied to ice) to bowhead whales (which feed on copepods) all involve sea ice. If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem. PN

daparplayer1 karma

What were your thoughts when you left the area where the polar bear was struggling? I personally would have felt dreadful, like i could have done something, despite there really being nothing I could do. I understand you couldn't legally help the poor thing, but being that close, experiencing its struggle, then leaving it must have been hard.

And thank you for doing this. It's truly an eye-opening bit of footage.

nationalgeographic3 karma

It did feel dreadful....watching him swim away and knowing he was suffering was one of the worst experiences of our lives. Watching the effects of climate change on Arctic wildlife is like watching a tsunami in slow motion. It is difficult to elicit an emotional connection to a data point on a graph. What we wanted was for this bear's suffering not to be in vain. We don't know why he was starving but we do know that as the Arctic continues to warm (twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth) many more bears, and other Arctic wildlife that depends on sea ice, like walrus and seals, will also suffer. That is what we are trying to prevent. CM

Me_ADC_Me_SMASH1 karma

Hey I'm glad you give us an opportunity to interact with you!

I'm trying to reflect on what makes people react in different cultures.

To your knowledge, what subjects engage western people most?

I'm not going to beat around the bush: it's obvious a lot of people feel more empathy towards a dog being beaten to death or maybe a polar bear starving than watching millions of people suffering, even if the causes are similar (war, unsustainable consumption etc)

In your experience, are polar bears the best way to make people talk about environmental change/damage in the west? You're in a much better position to know!

nationalgeographic3 karma

Hi. I actually find that it is easier to create an emotional connection with the stories of people. In general, however, building empathy requires that we put ourselves "in the shoes" of another being and we tend to care about the fate of fellow humans because we understand suffering on the same human scale. Charismatic wildlife, like polar bears, generally get a better reaction than insects or non-fuzzy critters. Our job is to create that type of empathy for entire ecosystems that support not just wildlife, but the welfare of humans as well. Tough job! Thanks for your questions. CM

Snowbank_Lake1 karma

What are some other species we should be paying closer attention to as far as our impact on their habitats?

nationalgeographic3 karma

The polar regions are being affected greatly, and penguins in Antarctica have experienced a couple of mass mortality events. Coral reefs are also under great stress and last year we lost 30% of all reefs. Plastic and pollutants in our oceans are having a very serious impact on whales and other marine mammals and then there is the trade of ivory. Not only elephants and rhinos being greatly impacted, other ivory-bearing wildlife, like narwhals are also being killed for their tusks in the Arctic. The list goes on and on. One that we can have an immediate and positive impact on is wild fish. Tuna, wild salmon, and sharks should be at the top of our list of concerns. CM

internetmallcop1 karma

Thank you both for doing this AMA.

How has the attention from that video impacted your activation efforts, for better and worse?

nationalgeographic4 karma

Thank you for the question. The global attention this video received has only inspired us to do even more and work harder. We took the conversation beyond our usual circles of influence and the powerful impact of visual storytelling was reinforced for us. The attention underscored the how important the climate change conversation is. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position and we will continue to so. I would say our activation efforts have changed for the better - PN

mr-photo1 karma

Hey guys.. thanks for bringing this powerful footage to light to showcase the issues climate change is having on the north.

My question is a little different, but I was just curious as to what kind of camera gear you used to capture this footage? Thanks.

nationalgeographic4 karma

The video was shot on a RED 8K. The stills were shot on a Sony A-9. Long lenses were the Canon 600mm. PN

SempeiJoe1 karma

Cristina, as you responded to media on the controversy surrounding the footage you suggested Inuit were denying climate change and are doing so to protect their sport hunts of the polar bear. Can you provide more insight ? Are Inuit really making a lot of money?

nationalgeographic6 karma

Thanks for this question; What people don't know is that as a mix-raced Mexican, with indigenous heritage, and as someone who has worked my entire life to protect and promote the rights of indigenous people, that accusation is truly hurtful. The accusation was made after I pointed out that 600 bears are killed every year for subsistence and for trophy. I think their response was made to protect their right to hunt, which, trust me, I don't question. Let's ask ourselves this question: If polar bears were indeed being affected by climate change, would that change the number of bears that are allowed to be hunted? Would the government allow fewer hunting tags? I don't know but I think that is where I stepped on some toes. In my mind, the Inuit are as much victims of climate change as the bears and they deserve a right to hunt and support themselves. Denying that climate change is having an effect on polar bears, however, when 99% of scientists are telling us the entire ecosystem is being affected, is something we cannot ignore. I hope the Inuit will forgive my comment and accept my apology. My intention was never to hurt their livelihoods. I am absolutely not against subsistence hunting and I am certainly not an enemy of the Inuit but I am 100% for conserving an intact Arctic and for polar bears. CM