A rare view of the secret world of polar bears

British filmmaker has perfected the technique of capturing these magnificent animals using "spy cams"

If you've ever enjoyed the sight of polar bears, this story is for you because you're about to see them as you never have before.

For this, you can thank the ice-breaking work of John Downer, a British filmmaker, who spent two years getting to know them. It wasn't easy. Polar bears frequent the most forbidding part of the planet. It's tough to get there. And once you do, it's really cold. Polar bears are also difficult to spot - white on white is not easy on the eye.

In the past, they'd been filmed from a distance, which is advisable. Polar bears are dangerous. But, as "60 Minutes" reported last March, John Downer wanted to get up close and survive. So he needed new tricks. He came up with forms of surveillance which could make the CIA proud. Downer's film, "Spy on the Ice," will air on Animal Planet on October 4th. He will take you inside their world. Correspondent Bob Simon will show you how he does it.

Scotch on glacier: a guided tour of the Arctic
Bob Simon takes you on a guided tour of his Arctic Circle trip

You may have seen polar bears shot from a distance, but have you ever seen them up close, just doing what polar bears do? Probably not. And that's because they're not being shot at the end of a long lens - they're being filmed by "spies."

For the last two years, the polar bears have been under constant surveillance, scrutinized by cameras disguised as snowballs, mounds of snow, and tiny icebergs drifting by.


The bears wander right past or up to the cameras, but the nearest cameraman can be miles away.

Simon headed to the Arctic Circle, chillingly close to the North Pole. We've traveled to remote places before, but never on an icebreaker. We were invited on board by Downer, who has revolutionized the way wildlife films are made. His technique uses espionage - cunning espionage.

"What's the idea of a spy cam?" Simon asked.

"Well, the thing about a spy cam is it actually gets you close to the animals. You're in the scene, you're in the picture. You're picking up a magic that you cannot capture with a normal camera. It is like a secret world," Downer explained.

Extra: Polar bears and spy cams
Extra: Sir David Attenborough on spy cams

If the lion is the king of the jungle, then the polar bear is the king of the ice. He's at the top of the food chain on the top of the world, and he's revered by the few people who live in the Arctic Circle. They call him God's dog or the "ever wandering one" because he can roam hundreds of miles searching for seals.

That is, on ice. But in summertime there is less ice, and some bears get stuck on dry land where they have to scavenge to stay alive. Downer and his crew plant their spy cams wherever they think a hungry chap might pass by. They do it quickly because it's dangerous in the bears' territory. It's illegal to leave your boat without an armed escort; we had two.

"Polar bears see something on two legs and think, 'Well that might be food.' Everything it sees that moves in this environment could be food. And of course, food is everything in this world," Downer explained.

The cameras are triggered by motion and there isn't much motion up in the area that isn't a polar bear.

Produced by Michael Gavshon