A polar bear surveys the landscape featuring enormous icebergs in the Arctic Circle. (Supplied: Dave Sandford)
When Canadian nature photographer Dave Sandford is not shooting Illawarra oceans, he spends weeks at a time in the Arctic Circle removed from outside communication and searching for spiritual encounters with polar bears.
Mr Sandford wears a small polar bear head carving around his neck, glued on top of a polar bear claw.
He said polar bears had been his favourite animal for as long as he could remember, but until recent years they were something he could only see in a zoo.
He is in Wollongong as part of his annual trip to the east coast of Australia to visit his sister, who lives here.
The Arctic Circle is home to a variety of fascinating animals, including walruses. (Supplied: Dave Sandford)
He is planning yet another trip deep into the icy north of the globe in search of more encounters with the animals he calls “the king of the Arctic”, which have a profound impact on him.
He works as a contracted photographer on board an adventure tourism and research vessel.
“Every time I do see a polar bear it’s very emotional and I don’t take it for granted,” he said.
“It’s an animal you don’t get to see every day, so to have the opportunity to watch them in their natural environment, there’s nothing like it.”
For tourists on board the boat, polar bears are the number one attraction too, but they are notoriously hard to spot.
The term they use on the boat is “polar dots” because they first appear as a slightly yellow dot in a vast expanse of white sea ice.
“They blend in so well to the environment, so you might only see a little head sticking out of the water with a black nose and two black eyes,” Mr Sandford said.
“Walruses are a big hit because they’re an animal you don’t get to see a lot, as well as seals, beluga whales and there’s the unicorn of the sea, the narwhal.”
From NBA baselines to Arctic shorelines
Mr Sandford made his name as a professional sports photographer.
His iconic image of ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky hanging up his skates in the locker room for the last time hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
But he has always said his true love is nature, and after a career on the baselines of NBA courts and sidelines of ice hockey rinks, he is focusing more time photographing nature, sometimes in challenging environments.
“It can be anywhere from four to seven weeks that I’m on the ship, and during the course of that time you can be at sea for five days,” he said.
Polar bear interactions like these are a big tourist attraction for people visiting the Arctic Circle. (Supplied: Dave Sandford)
“We try to do a landing every day if we can, but you don’t always get to take the route you want because ice dictates where you can and cannot go.
“Sometimes we get trapped in the ice and have to wait for the Canadian Coast Guard to come and free us with an ice breaker.”
Mr Sandford works alongside researchers, who hire space on board the ship, and tourists.
He said the area was so isolated and inaccessible, there were only about 8,000 people who travelled through the north-west passage each year.
“The time of the year I’m there is summer into autumn, and the landscape is vast and barren,” he said.
“The thing you can’t get over is everyone thinks it will be flat and covered with snow and ice, but it’s the complete opposite.
“It’s mountainous, rugged and it looks like a land stuck in the prehistoric ages — you expect dinosaurs to come trouncing over the mountain tops.”
Dave Sandford’s shots in the Arctic Circle show the diversity of the landscape. (Supplied: Dave Sandford)
The pleasure of disconnecting from society
In the Arctic, Mr Sandford’s mobile phone becomes nothing but an alarm clock.
He is disconnected from phone calls, messages, his business, and his 40,000 Instagram followers.
But rather than stressing over the lack of communication, he said it was liberating.
“The first time I went up, when I came back it was a Thursday and I didn’t turn my phone on until Monday, I enjoyed being without it so much,” he said.
“It allowed me to appreciate life without technology, and it does take some adjusting to come back to regular society.
“When you’re on the ship you’re working in close quarters with people and you become very tight-knit.
“You tell stories and share the day’s events and it’s refreshing to be without technology that way.”
Mr Sandford said while the trips were a commercial exercise, the mental health benefits were enormous.
“It’s good for your psyche and you feel connected with nature, and for me it feeds my soul,” he said.
Canadian sports photographer Dave Sandford now divides his time between sport and nature photography. (ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)