The sight of them is almost like something from an old Russian fairytale, and fittingly so, since the giant, white adorably furry (but sometimes deadly) animals are wandering around an abandoned village in, well, Russia.
These photos captured are the winners of the 2022 Nature Photographer of the Year Awards and they were made by nature photographer Dmitry Kokh.
He took them in the abandoned ex-soviet weather station and village of Kolyuchin, on Wrangel Island in Russia’s polar Far East. This is where the USSR once operated a polar weather station until its closure in 1992, shortly after the Soviet collapse.
Naturally, the animals in question are polar bears. Because these also happen to be the Earth’s largest terrestrial predators, and famously unpredictable around humans, Kokh captured his stunning shots in an unusual way that wouldn’t have been possible just a couple of decades ago.
In September of 2021, the photographer traveled over 1200 miles by ship to reach the Russian Arctic region. Here he found a series of mist-shrouded, abandoned houses that had been taken over by 20 of the bears from a migrating population that was staying on the island.
His next step was to patiently record them using a drone with high-quality photographic equipment built into it. This was certainly far less risky than trying to close in on the bears personally, and possibly becoming a victim of their opportunistic hunting instincts.
Using telephoto equipment was an option, but it would have also created an entirely different level of photographic quality, and also been risky due to the bear’s extraordinary sense of smell.
Instead, Kokh opted for using a drone with low-noise propellers that wouldn’t startle the bears too easily. Soon enough, these naturally inquisitive animals got used to the compact flying machine while they went about their exploration of the abandoned buildings.
As Kokh explains, “Bears are very curious by nature so they walked around houses, and checked every door, window, nook, and cranny,”
Because the bears definitely noticed the drone, they often pause to look right into the camera in the captured photos.
This detail helped compose some of the remarkable shots of these immense animals placidly leaning out of house windows and doors, just as if they were the residents of this once-human town.
While this year’s Nature Photographer of the Year awards received many stunning entries, it’s hard to deny the magical touch generated by Kokh’s exceptionally unusual setting for his majestic subjects.
For his major effort in capturing these bears, Kokh was awarded the Award’s €3,000 ($3,200) top prize.
You can see many more of his genuinely surreal images and a more detailed narrative about his Polar expedition here.
Kokh was far from the only winner or the only photographer to submit extraordinary photos of wildlife this year.
Many other submissions earned their own prizes and they range from the simply adorable to the majestic and strange in what they capture.
The 2023 Nature Photographer of the Year Awards is opening for submissions as of December 20th.
Here’s a selection of other 2022 winner and finalist photos: