Nature photographer Jim Abernethy was on a two-week trip documenting the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve in August 2007 when he caught on camera a violent encounter rarely witnessed by man: a mama grizzly facing off against a much larger male grizzly in a desperate bid to protect her cubs from attack. Known primarily for his photography of sea life, Abernethy says he’s always been drawn to big predators. On the scuba diving trips he leads from his home base in North Palm Beach, Florida, he specializes in getting filmmakers and professional photographers in position to shoot close-ups of makos, great whites and hammerhead sharks. But the lessons he learned at Katmai have changed his whole approach to filming the natural world’s fiercest apex predators.
Abernethy traveled to Katmai on the advice of Brad Josephs, a naturalist interpreter and bear-viewing guide who works at Katmai and also guides polar bear viewing trips out of Canada. “He told me that if you want to see the true nature of bears, you have to go someplace where people don’t hunt them,” Abernethy says. “That way bears don’t look at people as predators. You’re just another animal they aren’t concerned with.” On the beach at Hallo Bay, located on the park’s eastern shore across the water from Kodiak Island, Abernethy found grizzlies plentiful–and cooperative. “The bears weren’t afraid of us at all,” he recalls. “They would come within 5 or 6 feet without any real concern.” The bears can actually get too close for wildlife photographers who–like the shooter in this photograph–come to Katmai equipped for long distance shots. “He had to ignore the bear who was right by him because he didn’t have the right lens for such a close shot,” Abernethy says.
With Josephs as his guide, Abernethy set up each day on the beach between the water and a field of tall grass where the bears napped during high tide. At low tide, the big grizzlies roused themselves and stretched before hitting the flats to fish for salmon in the shallow waters of the bay–passing within a few feet of the photographer on their way to and from the shore. He felt safer on this preserve than on Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands in southeast Alaska, where he has photographed grizzly populations that are subjected to hunting pressure. But Abernethy was aware of the potential for conflict. Katmai is where “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend met an unfortunate end, killed by bears they had lived among for months. “The place where it happened we went right by,” Abernethy says.
“The amazing thing, there was one big blonde grizzly with two cubs, and every single day she would stop and sit right in front of us,” Abernethy recalls. “She’d look at each of us for a minute, and I think she was just trying to figure out if we were evil in any way, if we were a threat to her cubs. Then somehow she would summon her cubs from the tall grass.”
“They were only about 12 to 15 inches tall; they would trip and fall as they tried to walk to her, because they were so young. Finally they’d make it the 150 yards to where she was, and she would somehow tell them to stay with us. And then she would go fishing.”
Day after day, Abernethy says, the young cubs–dubbed Sugar and Spice by the scientists who study the Katmai bears–would hang out near Abernethy as their mother joined the two dozen adult bears who hunted salmon in the shallow waters of Hallo Bay.
“These two cubs would stay near our tripod while the mother fished. We were constantly moving to stay closer to the adult bears, and when we moved the cubs moved. They never touched us, but they were within 6 to 8 feet of us a lot. If I walked away from the tripod they would walk right underneath it.”
On the day of the encounter, a friend nudged Abernethy and pointed to a grizzly heading straight toward them. “He said, ‘Look at the size of that grizzly coming at us now.’ I turned and looked and said, ‘Oh my God that’s a huge bear.'” It was a dark brown male the scientists had named Secretariat because its lean, muscular build reminded them of a champion thoroughbred. “I looked down at the two cubs, who were right there in front of my tripod, and they were looking at the big grizzly like they were thinking the same thing I was. They turned and looked at the 25 grizzly bears feeding in the water, looking for mom. She was eating a salmon, her back turned to the cubs. The little cubs went back and forth, looking at mom, looking at the big grizzly, until one finally just lost it.”
The cub called Spice broke and ran toward its mother, followed soon after by Sugar. The male grizzly, spotting the cubs for the first time, gave chase. “Male bears will eat cubs because they’re food, but also because the mother will mate again if she doesn’t have cubs,” Abernethy says. “It happens, but we don’t observe it very often.” Such encounters can be violent, the stakes life or death. In fact, Abernethy’s guide told him that the previous year a female grizzly died defending her three cubs from an attacking male. “The male ate her in front of her cubs,” he says.
The male grizzly caught Spice in its powerful jaws and drove the cub under the water. Looking through his viewfinder, Abernethy thought the cub was done for. “I changed Secretariat’s name to Evil Bastard,” Abernethy says, “because he’s picking on this tiny cub. Even though the guide warned us not to get emotionally attached, not to try to stop what was happening, we were all obviously rooting for the cub. I mean, they’d been at our feet for days. They were adorable.”
Grizzlies typically pin their prey to the ground and tear into their victim while it’s still alive. The big male appeared ready to do just that…
…..until the mama grizzly roared–literally–to life. Caught off guard, the big male cowered.
The female grizzly quickly closed the 100 yards or so between her and the cub’s attacker. “Secretariat went into full retreat immediately,” Abernethy says. “He wanted the easy meal, but once he realized he’d have to fight her, he wanted nothing to do with it.
“She chased him for two or three minutes, up and down the beach, and she clearly wanted a piece of him.”
Meanwhile Spice rose out of the waves…
…and tottered onto the beach.
With the female still in hot pursuit, Secretariat headed for home. “He didn’t even stay to fish. He got out of there as quick as he could. I think he probably had to watch his back the rest of the day. There’s a lesson there! It shows you the power of females.” The male had galloped within 8 feet of Abernethy on his way toward the water in pursuit of the cub; now he passed that close again as he fled the mama grizzly. Abernethy shoots a Canon Mark III, which he and his fellow photographers call “the fire-breathing dragon” because it sounds like an automatic weapon when the shutter trips at 10 frames a second. “When he got really close I said, ‘I’m locked and loaded,’ and I fired off about 3,000 [frames] at him like the camera was a machine gun. The scientists kept saying don’t get emotionally involved, but it was a relief for me, like I was gonna take this guy out. It was comical.”
Sugar rejoined Spice, seemingly intent on comforting her sibling. “She licked his wounds,” Abernethy says. “He was shaking uncontrollably, soaking wet and bleeding. I think he lost some trust in his mother that day; he was afraid of her.”
Mama grizzly, the photographer says, didn’t devote much energy to soothing her cub. “She gave him about three seconds of her time. I think her message was basically, ‘This is part of life; get to know this.’ Then she went right back to fishing as if it was no big deal. But man, she almost lost a cub there.”
Later the bears walked past Abernethy on their way out. “At that point, I really didn’t know if he’d make it. We talked about it that night, hoping he’d pull through. The next day I saw the two cubs playing tug-of-war with a piece of kelp. There wasn’t any sign of what he’d been through. He was fine.”
Abernethy believes the bears of the Katmai Preserve co-exist with people because they don’t see us as a threat. That lesson, he says, “has changed everything I do from a nature standpoint. It taught me that to see the true nature of an animal, you have to go to a place where it’s not hunted. It essentially changed my own shark expeditions.” Abernethy instituted strict rules on his dives prohibiting aggressive behavior toward sharks, and he says he removes hooks and parasites from them on a weekly basis. The change in attitude has led to a change in behavior for the many sharks that are regulars at his dive site, including one 14-foot tiger shark he calls Emma and has interacted with closely for seven years. “There are a dozen or so I call supermodels, because they go up and down the runway and get their pictures taken. These animals follow me wherever I go, because of what I learned at Katmai.”
Nature photographer Jim Abernethy was on a two-week trip documenting the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve in August 2007 when he caught on camera a violent encounter rarely witnessed by man: a mama grizzly facing off against a much larger male grizzly in a desperate bid to protect her cubs from attack.