Pristine, Arctic Wilderness

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Guest 4 Comments

I just recently returned from my first ever Wild Eye trip to Svalbard, and let me start by saying… this trip did not disappoint! From the incredible animal sightings to jaw dropping landscapes to being truly remote, Svalbard holds an unmeasurable amount of beauty and photographic opportunities. Consisting of islands between 74° and 81° north and 10° and 35° east, this archipelago is home to some of the most pristine wilderness I’ve ever encountered.

Glacial ice drifts out of the fjord

Our Arctic journey began in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city and Europe’s most northerly landmass. Located on Spitsbergen island, it is the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago. To get out of Longyearbyen and into the Arctic wilderness, you have to travel by boat during summer and snowmobile or dog sled during the winter. By the time I had arrived in the early morning and finally went to sleep with the 24-hour daylight, it was time to start my day. Boarding our boat in the afternoon, we had some time to explore the town in the morning. After a bit of retail shopping, I ventured to an old coal mine to photograph.

An old coal mining building sits atop a hill in Longyearbyen

Photographed from a bridge overpass, this stream runs through town in Longyearbyen

In the early afternoon, it was finally time to board the expedition boat. The M/S Stockholm was built in 1953 for the Swedish maritime administration as a working vessel in the Baltic Sea. In 1998, the ship was totally refitted and started carrying passengers as a polar passenger ship. Carrying only a maximum of 12 passengers, the ship offers incredible flexibility for all your photography dreams. Having been on a large expedition ship to the Greenland High Arctic, the difference was night and day. Being able to have the maneuverability to get different perspectives and angles is impossible on large vessels but on a ship like the M/S Stockholm, the sky is the limit!

Snowcapped mountains are a common sight, providing endless photo opportunities

As we set sail out of Longyearbyen, we were woken up a little after midnight to our first wildlife sighting… A group of nearly 20, maybe more, walrus hauled out on the beach.

The scientific name for a walrus is Odobenus Rosmarus, which is Latin for “tooth-walking sea-horse.” These funny looking creatures looked like they were in complete bliss

Later that morning, we navigated around a glacier and saw it calving. First there was a little piece that calved off, followed by a medium piece a few minutes later and then a huge chunk. Here we also saw another walrus, hauled out on the ice.

Other worldy blue hued glacial ice are a common sight

Sun rays shine through the clouds onto the top of the glacier, providing dramatic lighting

Even though we were 300 meters away, the third calving triggered a huge wave that sent me running to grab onto the railing

The polar regions are great for experimentation in photography. As I was studying icebergs drifting by, I noticed beautiful patterns that looked like something out of this world. Instead of shooting wide, I grabbed the telephoto and started focusing on abstracting these patterns.

As a photographer, I’m always looking for new perspectives. As a graphic designer, I have an affinity for patterns and when I saw this chunk of glacial ice floating in the water, I began to experiment with the shapes and textures

In the afternoon, we took a short zodiac cruise where we saw 10-15 harbor seals balancing on rocks.

Most of the seals were balancing on rocks

Some rocks smaller than others, it was amazing to see these huge seals balancing perfectly still

After an hour of photographing them, we made a landing to go on a 2-mile hike. When we disembarked the zodiacs, we saw blubber oil ovens where people would boil blubber for use in other countries. At one point, there was a beautiful frozen lake with gorgeous snow-capped mountains in the background.

This trip sounded so incredible that I skipped my college graduation to go, though my gown came with me. Seeing an opportunity here, I grabbed my graduation gown and had Gerry take some pics! Eventually, we continued our loop and walked back to the zodiacs along the shore. Suddenly, one of our two guides told everyone to stop walking… two walruses were hauled out along the beach! He briefed us on how we should proceed. Walk in a straight line, side-by-side. Walk at the same pace. If the guides stop, you stop. Don’t make noise. Don’t make sudden movements. Ok, let’s go.

Photographed from the ship, these clouds provided an extremely dramatic backdrop

Though there were many highlights of this trip, one of my favorite moments was photographing a female walrus with a 2-3-month-old calf that was nursing. As our boat slowly drifted towards them, I decided to try to get eye level by lying belly down on the freezing deck floor, sticking my telephoto lens out of a small opening. I stayed this way for what felt like forever, in the cold with snow falling down… but the pictures are SO worth it. When the walrus became a protected species in 1952, there were only about 50 animals left in Svalbard. Today, there are at least 3,800 (making for great walrus sightings on this trip).

After this amazing sighting, we took a zodiac cruise in a calm lagoon where we photographed birds taking flight followed by a landing nearby. We did a small loop, walking along the shore and then up a ridge for a nice view of the fjord. We also passed by an emergency hut (and old trapper cabin) complete with bunk beds.

Cruising along the lagoon against the glacial current took a lot of zodiac power, but in the process of reaching the fast ice, we were able to enjoy birds taking flight

Alone in the wilderness, this hikes was one of my favorites

On the morning of May 26, we arrived at a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. All you could see within hundreds of miles was sea and the occasional ice. Prior to disembarkation for the island, one of our guides had mentioned he had never come to this island without seeing a bear. As we walked around the tiny strip of land, up and down the beach, our guides were constantly on the lookout—even more so than usual.

Chunks of glacial ice lined the beach

The most stunning, blue iceberg was drifting in between our ship and the shore. We photographed it from different angles, circumnavigating it several times, but this angle was my favorite with the smooth texture and lines

After about two hours of photographing the landscape, they said it was time to go back to the ship to keep on schedule. The captain had already turned the ship around when our guide came knocking on the cabin doors… they had spotted a polar bear on that same island!

The captain turned back towards the island, sailing along the coast as we sat in the cold waiting for the perfect shot. If I thought yesterday was cold, boy was I in for a surprise today. Three layers of shirts, three layers of pants, two layers of socks, water/windproof boots, a beanie, a face mask, a buff, a scarf, and three layers of gloves and I was STILL cold (but I’m from Los Angeles, so I’m not used to cold weather). Standing on the bow of the ship with my 600mm lens, my hopes of getting a good photograph were diminishing when all of a sudden our guide said “Ok, let’s try with the zodiacs now”. Just like that, the entire crew came outside and lowered the two zodiacs as we put on more layers of clothes and grabbed more camera gear. Less than five minutes later, we were racing into the wind, across the water. For nearly an hour, we crouched low in the zodiacs photographing the bear from a distance I never imagined possible. I had seen polar bears in the Greenland and Canadian High Arctic, but never this close. We were so close that at one point, the 3-year old female polar bear even perceived us as a threat and charged towards us, barely stopping at the water’s edge!

Noticing something different, the polar bear walked up and down the entire beach, sniffing where we had all walked

After climbing back up the beach, the polar bear began shaking her head like a dog

Photographing a polar bear from the zodiac was the most amazing animal experience I’ve ever had. Here, you can see how close we actually were!

Another highlight was sailing along Hinlopen photographing spectacular bird cliffs. Here, there were hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs. After observing the flocks of birds and after sailing up and down the cliffs several times, we headed out back into the sea ice in search of wildlife. Almost immediately, we came across a female walrus. This one allowed us to get quite close on the boat, providing amazing photographic opportunities. Shortly after this sighting, we also came across a bearded seal.

Journeying back into the pack ice, we later came across a mother polar bear with two cubs. She had just killed a seal and brought it over to the two youngsters. The following morning, we had yet another polar bear sighting—this time of a middle-aged male polar bear walking in the fjords. Though we were in uncharted waters (literally—the captain had no idea whether the sea was deep or if we’d run aground), we inched closer and closer to the polar bear and we were able to take great environmental shots. We also photographed puffins flying, swimming in the water, and sitting on bird cliffs. We proceeded to make landing to photograph reindeer, squishing through the muddy terrain in our waterproof boots.

At one point, our guides even let us do a “walrus walk” where we were able to walk close to a group of 50+ walruses. We had 30 minutes to quickly lower the zodiacs, put on all our layers, grab our cameras, and head out. While 30 minutes may seem like a lot of time, just putting on all your layers can take half the time! Finally all ready, we flew across the water at high-speed, ready to walk alongside walruses. To approach the walruses, we had to line up in a horizontal line, shoulder to shoulder with our ship mates. Our two guides in front, we followed a little behind them. It felt like forever, but we inched closer and closer to the walruses until suddenly we were only a few feet away. With heavy snow coming down, we laid belly-down in the rocky beach. Anything for a photograph, right?!

Svalbard isn’t just about the wildlife, though. We also visited Ny-Alesund, a popular research town for atmospheric science, marine biology, terrestrial research and investigations of snow and ice. The town is incredibly small, housing mainly research buildings, a museum, and a gift shop. It also has the world’s northernmost post office!

An old railway system was set up for the mining industry. Today, the train still sits on the tracks in the settlement

The post office here is the northernmost post office in the world

We also visited an old, abandoned Russian mining “ghost” town called Pyramiden. In the 1980’s, the town had a population of more than 1,000 though now it is mostly visited by birds, foxes, and the occasional tourists. Named after the pyramid-shaped mountain nearby, the urban architecture is still largely intact. After 53 years of operation, the Russian state-owned mining company Trust Arktikugol closed the mine due to the falling price of coal, the difficulty of extracting coal from the mountain, and the Russian air disaster at Operafjellet which claimed 141 lives.

An old crane sits on the dock of Pyramiden

It seems as though everyone left in a hurry. Cups were left on the tables, newspapers are on the floors, posters still hang on the walls, and sheet music still sits on the piano. Every dark corner you turn into, you think something or someone will pop out at you. The indoor swimming pool and cultural center both feature Soviet era architecture and many of the buildings remain just as they were left. At the top of the main street, a statue of Lenin watches over the abandoned town. Home to only eight people who work at the hotel and as tourist guides, the ghost town is truly remote.

Part of the kitchen, chairs, cups, and trays still clutter the rooms

Sheet music still rests on a dusty piano in the cultural center

Some buildings are in worse shape than others, though all buildings have been untouched since the town was abandoned

An unexpected highlight was watching a helicopter practice emergency training exercises on the bow of our ship. an emergency helicopter radioed our ship asking if they could practice rescue operations. Less than a minute later, a huge emergency helicopter was hovering over the bow of our ship. Disturbing the otherwise peaceful silence I’ve grown so accustomed to, I cautiously headed up to the top deck.

As the helicopter descended, I had to take off my hat which had already been blown halfway off. Holding steadily onto the railings so I wouldn’t be blown away, I crouched, photographing the rescue crew as they slid down the rope, and were hoisted back up into the helicopter. This cycle repeated for about half an hour and when the last person was up the rope, the helicopter vanished over the mountains. All was silent once more.

An emergency response personnel slides down a rope and onto the bow of our ship

The person in charge (left) helps a coworker onto the bow of the ship

As we sailed back into Longyearbyen, I couldn’t help but reflect on this beautiful, Arctic wilderness I’ve had the pleasure of visiting these past two weeks. I’ve trudged through mud, sand, uneven rocks, and at times waist deep snow photographing some of the most pristine wilderness I’ve ever seen.

You are truly cut off from the rest of the world up here. Svalbard looks like a landscape from the end of an ice age… it’s bare, the vegetation is sparse, and over half the land is covered in glaciers. With vast, creaking icebergs, snow-topped mountains, fjords, and an abundance of wildlife, this archipelago is truly spectacular and I encourage every one of you to visit if you have the opportunity.

Wild Eye claims they change the way you see the world. As a graphic designer with branding experience, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little skeptical of the tagline, but after this expedition I can honestly say that Wild Eye exceeded my expectations. Gerry was always available for help with my camera, teaching me tricks and coaching me on how to take great landscape pictures. He changed my life with his expert knowledge on post-processing, and after only one trip with him and Wild Eye, I see a huge improvement in my photography abilities.

I loved everything about this trip, so much that I’ll soon be going to the Great Bear Rainforest on another Wild Eye photography expedition!

If you’d like to read more about my experiences, you can follow my travel blog at http://globetrotting-elissa.blogspot.com/ or follow my Instagram at @elissatitle.

Elissa Title

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