Thirty-five-year-old Hawaiian wildlife photographer Leighton Lum adjusted his 600mm telephoto lens, waiting for a massive white bear to amble along the Hudson Bay coastline into frame. This was the shot Lum had traveled thousands of miles for – a polar bear in its natural summer habitat.
Lum secured a spot this summer with Churchill Wild, joining 14 others on the Birds, Bears & Belugas safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge. “I came as a substitute, thanks to one of my good friends, Joanne Richardson,” said Lum. “She and her husband were supposed to go, and they had it booked for like two years in a row but kept postponing because of COVID, and then her husband had to work. She asked if I wanted to go in his place and of course I said yes.”
Though Lum had photographed polar bears in Churchill before, he was amazed by the number of bears at Seal River. “There are a lot of bears up there in the summertime – you don’t have to go far to find them like around Churchill,” he said. “We saw bears every day. It’s just different because at Seal River, a lot of the bears come right to you.
“We had one walk up to the lodge in the morning and a mother and cub too. She sat right there with the mom. Another bear actually went right up to the spotting scope behind the group. We moved around and then he decided he wanted to go play with the spotting scope. That was a really good bear.”
Under expert guides, Lum got closer than ever to photograph the bears while respecting their space. The results were excellent. “I got some of my best polar bear shots ever on this trip,” said Lum. The sublime access and abundance of wildlife exceeded his expectations.
With the lodge as home base, he captured majestic images of bears lumbering just yards away along the coast. On Zodiac tours he photographed mothers with cubs, a rare summer sight. “The photography opportunities far exceeded my expectations,” Lum said.
Lum was also able to visit Hubbard Point, where he had been before. “It was really good to see a lot of nice, healthy bears out there,” he said. “If you really thought about it, there were a ton of bears. It was almost comparable to what I see during the October/November bear season in Churchill.”
The guides read the bears’ behaviors well, knowing when they could approach versus needing to back off. Their expertise helped ensure visitors didn’t disrupt the bears’ natural activities.
Lum was impressed with their ethical approach. “I like it, it’s a good approach,” he said. “I wish we were a little less stringent on it, but it was good, respectable.
“We don’t chase the bears. And that’s my approach to wildlife photography too. If we approach once and the bear doesn’t want to be a part of it, okay, then we’ll leave it and try again from a little bit further distance. We did a pretty good job. We didn’t scare any bears off or harass them.”
After exhilarating days out with the bears, Lum returned to the lodge for hearty gourmet meals and rustic yet comfortable accommodations. He called it a “treat” after being used to rougher trips, saying the hospitality made it feel like he was at an African safari lodge, just swapped into the Canadian Arctic.
“I loved the food,” said Lum. “It was amazing. And the staff was very good. Ben and Nicole did do a really good job up there.”
For Lum, this was a dream photographic adventure. “I’ll be recommending it to potential clients for years to come,” he said. “Churchill Wild offers a world-class wildlife photo experience.” The access and abundance of wildlife exceeded his hopes.
Lum has crafted wildlife images for over a decade. After this trip, he aims to bring avid photographers to Seal River Heritage Lodge to give them the same flawless experience. “I want to lead a photo group up here,” he said. “This is a dream destination for any wildlife photographer.”
With his reliable Canon gear, Lum captured extraordinary polar bear images he hopes will inspire appreciation for the bears. His beautiful photos and memories will stay with him as he plans future trips to iconic wildlife habitats worldwide.
Lum stays busy leading photo tours across the planet, specializing in wildlife and exotic locations. “I’m passionate about using my imagery to inspire appreciation for animals worldwide,” he said. He crafts immersive expeditions focused on the exceptional creatures unique to each ecosystem he visits.
Later this summer Lum heads to Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park to photograph hundreds of grizzly bears feasting on salmon runs, and later to Iceland for landscapes and wildlife photography. After that he’ll be heading to Africa to photograph wild dogs.
“We’ve got the same crew that did the Dynasties documentaries for BBC. I have the same guide and we’re going to try track down these wild dogs that I’ve never been able to capture We’re going to try a little bit in Botswana, but I think our better chance is going to be in Zimbabwe.”
Lum has partnered with The Art of Seeing Photo Tours, run by Ken Lee, to host trips worldwide catering specifically to avid wildlife photographers.
“Most of my upcoming workshops are going to be run through Ken’s company going forward,” explained Lum. “He’s got the clientele we’re trying to reach.” Lum wants to keep growing, leading trips to all seven continents.
Wherever his travels take him, Lum’s Canon cameras will be along to document wild creatures in their native habitats. And he hopes to bring a group of photographers back to Seal River Heritage Lodge, a dream destination to capture Arctic magic through a lens.
“If we could come up there every year, run a group every year, that would be amazing,” said Lum. The spectacular polar bears and hospitality make it a wildlife photographer’s paradise.
Lum first got into photography over 20 years ago, and has been working professionally for 10 years. He’s been leading photography tours and workshops for the past 6 years. “I live in a pretty good place for it,” he laughed, referring to his home in Hawaii. When asked how he generates income, Lum explained it’s all from leading photo tours.
“It’s a higher end clientele at Seal River,” Lum commented. “I’m not used to that level of comfort. I’m used to roughing it more.” But he appreciated the hospitality.
Compared to other wildlife lodges worldwide, Lum ranks Seal River Heritage Lodge with the best. “I would put it up there with some of the better lodges in Africa,” he said. “It definitely ranks up there. It’s delivered for sure on the wildlife, and that’s my whole thing as a photographer – can the destination deliver?”
Lum understands wildlife sightings can’t be guaranteed due to factors like weather. But he was impressed by the number of polar bears in the area.
“There seems to be a good, healthy population of bears, and we can get to them, so that’s good,” Lum said. “So if I bring a group in the future, there’s definitely photo opportunities, especially during the summer when it’s hard. There are bears up here you can photograph.”
The enthusiastic photographer hopes to keep growing his business by leading groups on trips of a lifetime across the globe. He plans to return to Seal River Heritage Lodge with a group to experience the majestic bears and the Arctic landscapes. He’s also setting up a group trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge for November 4-9, 2025, through TheArtOfSeeing.com
For Lum, few places offer more magic than the wildlife photographer’s paradise he discovered with Churchill Wild in Canada’s subarctic. Like many others who have been to the Churchill Wild ecolodges, Lum has seen the light…
On polar bears.