Distressing photos of polar bears show dark reality behind plastic pollution

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  • Danny Sullivan
    American racecar driver

Heartbreaking photos show two polar bear cubs fighting over some plastic they found in a remote part of Alaska.

The upsetting images show the cubs battling it out over the plastic pollution as they get increasingly hungry and desperate waiting for the arrival of this winter’s sea ice, allowing them out on to the ice to hunt seals.

The striking shots include a cub getting its nose stuck inside the gallon milk jug, the two furry siblings playing tug of war with a scrap of litter and another showing the infant bear gnawing on the plastic packaging.

The images show the very real effect plastic pollution and climate change are having on local wildlife, according to photographer Danny Sullivan, who captured the sequence whilst shooting in Alaska earlier this year.

Two polar bears fight over a piece of plastic in Alaska. Source: MDW/Australscope
Two polar bears fight over a piece of plastic in Alaska. Source: MDW/Australscope

“The shots were taken in early October, in previous years that whole area would have been five foot under by then,” Sullivan said.

“They wouldn’t have had a chance to get to the plastic, it would’ve been buried. It was a good five degrees warmer than it should have been so the ice was actually starting to form at the end of the month, rather than the start. It shortens the window for the polar bears’ hunting season so it’s sure to have a knock on effect soon enough.

“That’s not really the point though – the plastic shouldn’t have been there in the first place. What was a plastic gallon jug doing out here in far-flung Alaska? It just goes to show that what we’re doing is having an effect everywhere. Plastic floats. This could’ve come from anywhere and now there’s every chance one of these young bears has ingested it.”

Sullivan, who was assisting wife Shayne McGuire on one of her photographic tours of the far north, was unable to intervene and remove the plastic, as doing so would’ve put his life at risk.

The polar bears are becoming increasingly hungry as their hunting season is shortened. Source: MDW/Australscope
The polar bears are becoming increasingly hungry as their hunting season is shortened. Source: MDW/Australscope

“I was watching the cubs nurse with their mum when one suddenly went running off,” he said.

“I followed him and so did its brother. Before you know it they’re sitting there playing with the plastic and there’s nothing we can do. If we tried to stop them then mumma bear is going to have her say, and believe you me, she isn’t going to take any prisoners when it comes to protecting her cubs. We try and clean up when we see trash and plastic but it’s not always possible – you can’t put yourself in jeopardy.”

Sullivan said polar bears loved to investigate and explore new things with their mouths and he wouldn’t be surprised if they swallowed plastic.

“It’s sad and it’s not the only time we’ve seen litter in the most secluded, beautiful spots that are really in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

“This is what we’ve done to the planet and although we have the power to change it, hemp-derived bottles and other plastic substitutions aren’t mainstream yet and the corporations aren’t doing enough. We really are on a path to destroy our planet.

“I really hope people see these photos and think ‘wow, we really have to start changing the way we operate’. Plastic rubbish has no place anywhere, but certainly not in wildlife hubs in Alaska.”

– Australscope

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