Longyearbjen is a long way from South Africa.
A really really long way but a few weeks ago I boarded the plane from Johannesburg to join a group of photographers in one of the Northern-most settlements in the world to kick of our Svalbard photographic expedition.
This small town was the starting point of our expedition and has an incredible definite charm-factor.
Our visit to Longyearbjen was during summer which means that the sun is up all the time. Literally.
This is not great for those that want whole lot of deep sleep but from a photographic point of view it is pretty awesome. The sun is never quite overhead and with very regular, and often changing cloud cover the arctic light is incredible. This was something that kept on amazing me and in the days to follow we would photograph some incredible subjects and scenes in this beautiful light.
After arriving at our hotel at around 01h00 – yes the sun was up – we spent the morning relaxing at the hotel and then strolled around the main street of Longyearbjen.
With photographers from all over the world joining us on a range of different flights the plan was to meet up at the boat 17h00 so we had a lot of time to explore. A few of the people met up during breakfast and set out to walk the streets of Longyearbjen in search of the obligatory postcard and fridge magnets.
At around 16h00 and a welcome cup of coffee we took a 5 minute taxi ride to the docks where we boarded the M/S Origo which was going to be our home for the next 10 days.
As we sailed out of Longyearbjen the crew ran through all of the mandatory safety instructions after which dinner was served. The time schedule on the boat was determined by one thing – photographic opportunities and since the sun never went down this could happen at any time of the day. The only way to keep track of the time was to check your watch or the meals onboard which was served at exactly the same time every day. Sounds strange but it was great to have this as a few days in we lost complete track of what time or day it was.
Heading west we went through our first briefing, something which we would do at every breakfast and dinner, and the brief was this – sleep.
The goal was to rest as much as possible during the first 24 hours as our mission would be to get as far north as possible where our chances for polar bears and other subjects would be better than down south.
After dinner a lot of people, myself included, went straight to bed as the ocean got quite rough – read very rough – and the first time everybody surfaced again was after lunch on day 2. Take it from me, laying flat down when you feel seasick is a much better option than trying to fight it… just saying.
So our first day on the Origo came to an end as rough seas carried us towards the pack ice in the north.
Waking up I felt that the ocean was a lot calmer and looking out of my porthole I saw this…
Feedback from the captain was that the weather conditions were not going to improve so they decided to take shelter in the Lilliehookfjord which, from what we saw from the boat, meant amazing scenes and, since the area was well protected from the weather coming in from the west, our first zodiac cruise.
Having the ability to get onto the water, up close to various subjects and create images with incredible low angles is absolutely priceless and every single zodiac cruise produced incredible images.
Our first, unscheduled zodiac trip did not produce any polar bears or other major sightings but the experience of being on the water next to massive blue ice glaciers is something that is very difficult to describe. Yes, we were there for photography but every now and then you would find yourself sitting back and just soaking up the amazing beauty of the place.
Now even though this zodiac cruise didn’t produce major sightings, the photography was still amazing and between a lone Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus) and incredible bird life we got some amazing images.
This old guy didn’t hang around for too long but we grabbed a few frames just in case we didn’t get another seal on blue ice. On the second last day we did find another one but more on that later.
Having the ability to move around the pieces of drift ice and change the image background is awesome and even a common species like these Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) made for great photographic subjects.
The benefit of being on a dedicated photographic safari where people are willing to work for and wait for the shot came through as we spent a good hour floating around the birds grabbing a variety of different images.
After a very successful first zodiac excursion we headed back to the Origo to warm up and start heading back to the open ocean to make our way further up north.
There was however one last stop and as we made our way out of the Lilliehookfjord and we did a quick stop at a Puffin nesting site.
We spent about an hour or so photographing these colourful birds in flight, in the water and on the steep cliffs where they nest. You could literally spend a whole weekend photographing Puffins but dinner was ready and we had to get moving, but there would be many more puffin opportunities in the days to follow.
After dinner a few of us photographed the amazing landscapes around the fjord, something you can literally do all the time on a trip like this.
The second day of our adventure had come to an end and we all headed off to bed not knowing what magic the next day would have in store for us.
The seas were calm and as we met for breakfast, we found ourselves way north of Svalbard. There was no land in sight.
As far as you could see and in all directions the pack ice from the polar caps surrounded us. There was no doubt that this is true wilderness and we were now on the lookout for the largest land predator – the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus).
Regarded as a marine mammal, the polar bear is without a doubt one of the most well adapted animals on the planet and as our eyes searched the ice I kept on being amazed at how anything could survive in this place.
Then we saw it.
Our first polar bear!
It was a special moment and I can only imagine that this is what someone who sees their first lion or leopard in Africa feels like.
We followed our first bear for quite some time as we photographed from the deck of the Origo. Even while ‘off-roading’ through the ice the boat was remarkably stable and we all managed to get some great images. This was super telephoto lens territory and there were a lot of 200-400mm, 600mm and a few 800mm lenses pointing at the bear. Love it!
We followed our first subject for around a half an hour before deciding to move on. He was definitely on a mission and started to move away from us and, as with game drives in Africa, there is no point in stressing out an animal so we decided to move on.
We hadn’t sailed too far before spotting another bear. This one was also on the move and very far away from the boat but we spent a few minutes to grab a few shots.
This is a hard crop of an image taken with a 600mm on a 1D4.
We didn’t spend too much time with this bear and decided to move on.
It happened again, the crew alerted us that there is another bear up ahead and he was sleeping. Out cold.
We slowly kept on moving towards him and stopped the boat very close to the sleeping bear which allowed us to get some different images and with shorter focal lengths.
As the big guy, and he was huge, woke up he looked at us with a mild irritation and then proceeded to shuffle around on his bed of ice. We spent about an hour with him as he eventually woke up, moved around the boat and off into the distance. I included an image of him in this blog post.
It was lunchtime and that unspoken pressure we all feel on a trip, that pressure before getting your first shots, was now gone and we were very happy with what the day had produced so far. We had seen 3 bears and we were very happy with our day so far.
However, not too long after lunch we got the call – “Two more bears and it looks like they might be on a kill”.
For the next few hours everything just worked. The pack ice was open enough which meant that we could head out to the bears on the zodiacs and the light was changing all the time.
We were about to strike gold.
The sighting we had for the next few hours ranks as one of the best I have ever had anywhere in the world.
A male and female polar bear were going through mating rituals and they had kill in the area.
At some stage I will be doing a blog post dedicated to this sighting but for now here are a number of images that barely scratch the surface of what we photographed during the next few hours.
As we arrived the two bears were playing with each other, something that is apparently very rare to see, and we were hoping that they would stand up all the way. But not yet.
The female was not all that keen on us and moved a little bit away from us. The male, on the the other hand, was photographically very obliging and moved around to their kill.
This guy was majestic.
The light was literally changing every 10 minutes.
The female relaxed and returned to the male.
The two bears kept on interacting around the kill.
We moved around the scene with our zodiacs.
We were in wildlife photography heaven!
I normally approach any wildlife sighting with a whole list of images that I would like to get which ranges from animal in environment and interaction to animal behaviour to marketing type images.
During the first two hours I was able to tick pretty much every box I had in mind and some.
And then we just kept going…
Did I mention that the light kept on changing all the time?
The arctic light is unreal!!
So after spending about 3 hours with the bears we decide to head back to the boat for dinner after which we would head back out on the zodiacs to catch up with out two superstar polar bears.
And it’s a good thing that we did.
As we got there the female was still laying down but the male just started moving around again.
Without a doubt one of the most beautifully powerful animals out there.
A little while later the female woke up and joined the male and for the next two hours we photographed some of the most amazing interactions.
Both our local guides said that they have never seen this kind of behaviour in Svalbard and the general feeling between all the guests was one of complete disbelief.
The two bears moved through the ice, over the ice, into the water – all the time playing, mock fighting and sharing some amazingly intimate moments with us.
As memory cards filled up the two bears finally did it.
They stood up…
Absolutely amazing to see and, as a wildlife photographer, even better to photograph.
I have yet to work through all my images from my Svalbard trip, but what you see here is just barely scratching the surface of some of the magic we experienced on day 3 of our trip.
The last image was taken at 23:25.
Yes, it was almost midnight and we were photographing one of the most amazing subjects any wildlife photographer could wish for.
And you know what?
We weren’t done yet. We spent another two hours with the dancing bears before returning to the Origo after which we continued to photograph from the deck.
But, since this blog post just covers the first three days of our trip I am going to leave it there for now.
Our next three days would see us photograph walruses on foot, more polar bears and the largest mammals on the planet.
- Check out part 2 here: http://bit.ly/svalbard4-6
- Check out part 3 here: http://bit.ly/svalbard7-10
- Join the 2014 trip here: http://bit.ly/svalbard2014
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
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