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Vancouver photographer wins prestigious award for intimate polar bear snaps

Martin Gregus wanted to showcase a different side of polar bears, when they're among green grass and blue skies.

A Vancouver man is being recognized for photographs he captured during an intimate moment with a Canadian polar bear and her cubs.

Martin Gregus started taking pictures when he was just eight years old; at the time, his family had moved from Slovakia to Vancouver. 

Now, the 25-year-old has won the prestigious Rising Star Portfolio Award at the Natural History Museum’s 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The museum is located in London, England and has been recognizing the world's best nature photography since 1965.

"It’s pretty amazing, a little bit overwhelming as you can imagine, but it is kind of a thrill. I am just trying to live in the moment,” he says.

The winning snaps are rare, something most people will never get the opportunity to experience. 

"It was tremendously difficult getting these pictures,” he says. "They were taken in an area that only a handful of people have ever visited, and I do mean a handful. Tourists don’t really go there. Few photographers have gone there in the past.”

Gregus and a team of people he considers close friends travelled to Churchill, Man. to photograph the polar bears in the summer. 

"It is quite unique, getting there. In general, was a logistical… not nightmare, but crazy getting there and living out in the elements.”

Over 14 days, they lived among the polar bears in Hudson Bay.

"You live with the polar bears for so long you just grow closer and closer to them,” he says. 

Gregus’ goal was to capture the polar bears during a time when many people don’t see them. Instead of glacier backgrounds and snow, he photographed them with green grass and blue skies. 

"That’s really the behind-the-scene story to these pictures, to see what these bears really do in the summertime... I think that comes across in those pictures,” he says. "We are so used to seeing bears on ice and on the snow, but the bears we see in the summer aren’t the best looking."

His favourite photograph from the portfolio is one that shows the mother polar bear and her cub napping. 

"I love that one. The cub actually only has three legs. It was one of those unique behaviours that we saw on the expedition we weren’t really expecting,” Gregus says.

Other photographs show the mother polar bear napping with her cubs and a polar bear swimming among beluga whales.  

"I wanted to get a camera in the water and document that other side of them where they are swimming. Polar bears are actually also known as sea bears because they do tend to be more at home in the water.”

Using remote controls to operate his cameras and drones, Gregus was able to get close and minimize the group's presence. 

"I want people to look at these pictures and see really intimate connections with these bears,” he says. "I find as people, it is easier for us to care for something that we have a relationship with.”