A shocking photo of a pair of unsuspecting fisherman being closely eyed by a large grizzly bear has gone viral in a stunning portrait of coexistence between nature and man.
The shot was taken at Katmai National Park in Alaska in late July by wildlife photographer Robert Hawthorne, who tells PEOPLE he’s photographed bears many times before.
Because of his experience with the animals, Hawthorne, 21, knew that the coastal brown bear lurking behind the men wasn’t looking to attack them, but was instead focused on possibly catching itself a salmon dinner in the creek below.
“Knowing from experience there that it isn’t a threat in how it was playing out, I had time to take a photo before letting this guy know that he had a bear behind him,” he says. “And believe it or not, his reaction was simply [that he] looked over his shoulder and continued fishing.”
Hawthorne says that bears in the park regularly walk up and down the riverbank searching for food, and will dive into the water dozens of times per day as soon as they spot something.
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“I’ve literally been sitting down on the bank, like right where those fisherman are,” he recalls, “and I’ve heard something behind me and looked up over my shoulder and had the underside of a bear looking over top of me.”
Hawthorne adds, “And that bear even that close to me was doing nothing but looking past me into the water to find fish, and honestly, if he had seen something he liked, he probably would’ve jumped right over me or walked right past me.”
The Montana-based shutterbug credits the strict rules implemented by Katmai for keeping the bears comfortable around humans, like requiring all food to be stored in bear-proof canisters within electric fences so that the animals never get a taste of human food.
“What often gets bears killed, or what gets bears in conflict with humans, is when they come into people’s territories and get into trash,” he says. “These bears haven’t gotten a taste of anything but what’s wild, and we literally just get to drop ourselves in the middle and be ignored by them almost.”
A spokesperson for Katmai confirms to PEOPLE that the park does, indeed, have a set of federal wildlife viewing regulations in order to protect the bears, but warns that they are still wild animals that can exhibit “unpredictable and unforeseen behavior.”
“A hefty food supply means less competition, which can mean the bears have more of a tolerance for one another, and often for people,” the spokesperson says. “However, these are wild bears who can certainly injure or kill someone, and have. One of the most notable individuals who was killed by a coastal brown bear was Timothy Treadwell, who was killed in Katmai National Park in 2003 after having a spent many seasons observing the bears in close proximity.”
Hawthorne says he didn’t get a chance to meet the two fishermen he photographed, but hopes that perhaps they’ll reach out now that the photo has gone viral.
“That photo strikes a nerve for a lot of people. You look at it and you go, ‘Oh my goodness, I hope I never have a bear that close behind me,’ ” he tells PEOPLE, estimating that the encounter was just 15-20 seconds long. “But really, I wish I [had taken] photos following it … They looked over their shoulder, and then picked the line out of the water, and stood there looking at the bear as it continued down the bank.”
Hawthorne says he’s been photographing wildlife since 2015 and loves the “adrenaline-filled absolute joy” that comes with getting a great shot.