This is the Grand Prize Winner of National Geographic's best photo of the year competition, taken by Seattle-based photographer Paul Souders. It's titled The Ice Bear, and it features a female polar bear staring at Paul from underwater. It's an outstanding image, but I think the rest of his series are equally good—or even better!
I asked Paul—who also won the 2013 BBC Wildlife photographer of the year award—if it was scary to be so near this huge wild beast. He told me in an email that "there's always a little jolt of adrenaline when I'm working close to bears. But to be honest, sitting in a small rubber zodiac boat 30 miles offshore, out of sight from land, is the scariest and most dangerous part of it."
He gave us permission to publish these awesome documents:
His account of the event is even more awesome:
Maybe that's why this this image feels so much like a gift. Having come so far and worked so hard to find this one special bear, tolerant of my presence, curious but not aggressive.
I didn't rush in when I saw her. I kept my distance and let her grow used to the boat and to my presence. At one point, she swam under a small piece of broken sea ice, and poked her head up through the hole to watch me. I stopped the boat and struggled to mount a camera on the end of a 7-foot long boom to try shooting close in with a wide-angle lens.
But nothing was working the way it was supposed to. I'd already dunked one of my remote triggers in the salt water and wound up hand wiring another by chewing off the leads and jury-rigging the exposed copper wires. It was not pretty. I slowly maneuvered the pole closer to her, struggling to hold the camera steady and fire the shutter. I was shooting completely blind, pointing the camera and hoping for the best.
I thought I might have a pretty cool shot when she poked her head up less than three feet from the camera. It wasn't until a week later, as I was riding the train from Churchill south toward Winnipeg that I finally had time to look through all of my digital files. When I saw the frame of her lurking under the water's surface, staring back up at me, I was completely surprised.