Bears of Katmai

Alaska Brown Bear Photo Expedition on the Katmai Coast

Where: Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Sessions: No sessions currently scheduled.
Brochure: Bears of Katmai

I traveled with Chuck Keim who owns and skippers the Coastal Explorer six times in the past six years. Chuck is the first captain to lead coastal bear viewing and photo trips. Nobody has more experience at finding the bears than Chuck. Three trips took place in early July and the other three in early September. The trips were hugely successful. The July trip offers bears clamming on sandy shores and grazing in the sedges while the fall trip features the bears fishing for salmon. I got my best mother and cub shots on the July trips and my best fishing bears and wolves on the fall trip. Many of the images are posted on my instructional Facebook page.

The Ship: Coastal Explorer

Our small ship is a floating hotel for about a dozen people. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included while aboard the ship. Since the boat is located near the best bear viewing areas, we will rarely experience any rough water sailing. Since we are photographing the bears close to the shore, it is easy for Chuck to avoid rough water because he knows where all of the sheltered bays are located.

The Bear Photography Experience

Most likely we will spend our time at Hallo Bay and Geographic Harbor where the salmon are spawning and where many coastal Brown Bears live. They are feeding on salmon, and spend a lot of time near the rivers. These bears are habituated to humans, which allows a close and safe approach. Our guides carry bear spray, but have never needed to use it. In some cases, the shore may be too rocky to land, so we will approach the bears closely by water and photograph them handheld from a small boat (skiff). In this case, an image-stabilized system is helpful for producing sharp images.

We like to keep our distance and try to stay at least 40 yards from them. At such close quarters photographers easily fill the frame with the impressive animals. However, bears sometimes wander closer. Obviously, 40 yards is plenty close to a 1,000 pound bear. We stay in a tight group for safety and to avoid putting pressure on the animals.

Sea Hawk Air runs one-day bear viewing trips and they know where the best concentrations are found. This information is relayed to Chuck, so he knows the most productive spots at all times. Since we are living on the boat, it is easy to move to the best locations.

In the late summer and fall bears are actively fishing and easily provide outstanding photo opportunities. A typical day begins after a hardy breakfast. When the weather and tide are favorable we will go ashore to photograph and return to the boat for lunch. Afternoon excursions are similar to morning excursions. After dinner, weather permitting, we will go ashore again until the light fails.

Daily Schedule - Itinerary

  • DAY ONE: Aug 28 - Sea Hawk Air flies you to the boat. Our flights usually depart at ten AM. Cabin assignments, boat instructions and safety procedures
  • DAY TWO through SIX: Aug 29-Sept 2- Aboard the M/V Coastal Explorer with shore excursions to photograph the bears and other subjects.
  • DAY SEVEN: Sept 3 - Sea Hawk Air picks us up flight back to Kodiak, usually around noon. Ground transportation to the airport or a hotel of your choice.

Camera Gear

You don’t need a lot of equipment to photograph bears. The ideal lens is a 200-400mm. These particular lenses allow you to zoom in on more distant bears as well as animals close by. A tripod is helpful for holding the camera and lens in position while awaiting an attractive pose. If you are using a camera with a crop factor (small sensor), consider what it does to your focal length. If your camera has a 1.5x crop factor, the field of view of a 300mm lens is similar to a much longer 450mm lens. The focal length is still 300mm, but the bear will be much larger in the viewfinder!

What to Wear

Alaska is often cool and wet, especially in late August and early September. You won’t be too hot. Don’t overdo what you wear. Hiking boots that resist water, rain pants, rain jacket that can go over your normal warm jacket, and a rain hat for both you and the camera will come in handy. Even waterproof gloves might be helpful.

Bring warm clothes to prepare for the worst. On our last visit in September, it rained a couple of days and we enjoyed temperatures in the low fifties. The boat provides hip boots for making wet landings where you must wade a short distance to dry land. I wear these hip boots the entire time ashore as it makes stream crossings and landings easier.

Fitness and Health - Hiking

This trip does not require long distance hiking but we regularly walk over a mile or more every day. We traverse sandy beaches, cobblestones, mudflats, and tall grass flats. You will be carrying your camera bag and tripod plus extra clothes. If you have trouble walking or hiking in any way this trip may not be for you. People of average physical condition for hiking will have no problem.

Getting to the Coastal Explorer

Alaska Airlines, and other major airlines, fly directly into Anchorage with connecting flights to Kodiak. It is possible to fly into Kodiak all in one straight shot. If the weather is good, you can overnight in Anchorage and then the next morning fly into Kodiak. If you decide to arrive in Kodiak the day of departure to the boat call Sea Hawk Air at (907) 486-8282 when you arrive at the airport in Kodiak and they will pick you up. The flight to Kodiak is not included in the package price. However, the floatplane fare of $600 is included in the package. It takes about one hour to fly from Kodiak to the Coastal Explorer. The plane lands on the water near the ship.

I highly recommend that you arrive in Kodiak a day early as weather delays are not infrequent. I don’t trust the weather, so I will be arriving in Kodiak at least one day early. I will stay at the Best Western Kodiak Inn and Convention Center for one night. When you arrive in Kodiak call the Best Western Kodiak Inn at 907/486-5712. Let me know if you plan to do this so we can get together, but please make your own reservations at the lodge.

Heading Home

The floatplane will pick us up at the boat around noon on September 3 and return us to the Sea Hawk Air dock. From there we will be transported by van either to the hotel or the Kodiak airport. Weather permitting I plan to take a flight to Anchorage that same day. It is possible to connect with a night flight to fly on to your final destination, so do check into that possibility. Otherwise, you will need accommodations in Anchorage. Do not book your flight out of Kodiak before 5 PM.

Meals

Three delicious meals a day are served on board the boat. No food is allowed when ashore due to safety concerns. The bears leave humans alone and we want to keep it that way! We don’t want to teach bears that humans have food to eat.

Sleeping accommodations

The boat can handle a total of 10 guests plus Barbara. For our guests, we have five double staterooms, so you must have a roommate. This is no big deal because you spend most of the time on shore photographing bears or in the boat’s spacious communal room where we work on computers and eat our meals.

I know you will find this bear photography trip to be tremendously fun and productive. I hope you will join me! Space is strictly limited.

Tour Details

Cost - $6975 per person

Included:
  • Roundtrip Sea Hawk Air floatplane flight out to the Coastal Explorer boat
  • Lodging on board the boat (double occupancy)
  • 6 - breakfast
  • 6 – lunch
  • 6 – dinner
  • Intensive photo instruction from Barbara Eddy
NOT Included:
  • Items of a personal nature
  • Transportation to Kodiak and return
  • Tips to the boat staff
  • Motel rooms in Alaska should you use them

See the brochure linked above for more details including cancellation policies.