Like I mentioned in this post, Svalbard is a place of superlatives. It is a vast, almost mystical place which consumes all your senses and without a doubt one of the last true wilderness areas on the planet.
It is difficult to truly capture the scale and emotions of this place in words. Even an incredible photograph that is apparently worth a thousand words will fall short as the Svalbard experience is larger than the collective sum of all the words and photographs you can imagine.
Even though this was my second journey to, literally, the top of the world the excitement I felt when our group boarded the M/S Stockholm on 13 May was right up there with what I felt the first time I saw the beautifully harsh world of contrasts.
From the moment we saw the first snow-capped mountains from the air I knew this expedition was going to be very different to what our group experienced the year before. It was almost two months earlier and it looked like a different world. The purity of the white landscapes was almost overwhelming and the true nature of the adventure that awaited us was evident on the awe-struck faces of all the people in our group.
We had a few hours before we had to board our vessel and a short tour through Longyearbyen set the tone for the next ten days.
Meeting old friends and posing for the obligatory tommy-tourist type images kept us busy while learning about the history of the town, something that added great value to our understanding of the isolated nature of the small mining town from where our adventure would begin.
After a cup of coffee in town it was time to head to the dock where she was waiting for us – the M/S Stockholm which would be our home for the next 10 days.
Once aboard it was, like on pretty much any safari or outdoor activity, it was time for the safety briefing in the lounge area, which ultimately turned into our lecture and post processing room.
Ronald, our expedition leader, and Rupert, our specialist guide, shared all the necessary info safety, boat rules and more or less how the expedition would unfold.
Now for most people that travel to the Arctic there is one main attraction that initially is the only thing that they want to see.
Once you leave Longyearbyen the landscapes of this vast white world makes you forget about any pre-conceived ideas you might have had as to what kind of images you were going to get.
During the first few hours everybody spent their time out on deck photographing the ever changing scenes as a couple of Northern Fulmars escorted us out of the last bit of civilisation we would see for quite some time.
For about two hours we watched as Longyearbyen disappeared behind us and Svalbard revealed but a few of it’s incredible scenes.
One of the unique things about these expeditions at this time of year is the midnight sun and from the moment you arrive until the day you get back on the place you never see a sunset. The sun is up 24 hours a day. The only things that helps you keep track of what time it is are the meals.
We enjoyed our first dinner – the food was spectacular throughout the trip – and then called it a day. After quite a bit of traveling there were some very tired but excited people on board.
Our incredible journey had begun.
It was cold and the snow was falling as we started the second day of our expedition.
After wrapping up tightly we head out on our first Zodiac excursion in search of photographic subjects and we did not have to walk through the snow too long before finding them.
A group of about 12 Svalbard Reindeer were scattered along the base of a snow covered mountain. A few of the youngsters seemed quite curious and continued to move around us which made for fantastic photography.
The freedom of being able to move around of foot – always under the watchful eye of our armed guides – meant that we could work the scene in order to create images that not only showed our cute little subjects but also the incredible environment in which they thrive.
We spent a good hour or so with the herd of Reindeer before it started snowing a bit harder. This was not necessarily a bad thing as it added incredible mood to the scene we found ourselves in and even better images.
As a couple of the young Reindeer followed us over a small ridge the shutters went crazy.
With everybody using very different focal lengths at this point in time the images that we got from this sighting was absolutely amazing! It was one of those moments that every wildlife photographer dreams of and to me one of the many photographic highlights of the trip.
The snow came down heavier and we decided to make our way back to the Zodiacs. The snowfall was so heavy that we could almost not see the M/S Stockholm waiting for us offshore.
As we got closer to the Zodiacs the snow eased up just long enough for us to quickly check out an old trapper’s hut.
It is almost beyond me as to how people could have lived in this environment for an entire winter and it again highlighted the harsh and completely remote place we found ourselves in. It was incredible!!
After lunch on board we sailed further north and within an hour the weather had done a complete about turn.
The speed at which the weather changes in Svalbard is quite unbelievable. From a photography point of view this is incredible as the light is literally different every 10 minutes making any scene or subject look almost new every time you take a picture.
Our timing was perfect as we arrived at a truly incredible white landscape.
The photography from the deck of the boat is fantastic and the various decks and heights means you can work any of the scenes without running out of different angles or types of images.
Leaving our tripods out on deck meant that we were always ready to quickly ‘lock and load’ in order to get the shots.
A few hours after dinner it was time for another landing and we head out to an area where our goal was to see and photograph white Arctic Foxes.
The areas below the massive bird cliffs are generally very good for these scavengers as they feed of birds eggs and chicks that fall from the nests and we didn’t have to walk for too long to find our first fox.
Only thing is, that it wasn’t white like you would expect it to be at this time of year. This particular fox was a dark, chocolate brown colour and had our guides quite confused as it was a very unusual occurence.
We discussed many theories as to why this particular animal’s coat was different but whatever the reason was, it made for amazing photography!
We spent at least an half an hour looking at the dark Fox running up and down the cliff. It was one of those situations where you could, after getting a few shots, put your camera down and just enjoy the experience of seeing an animal that is remarkably well adapted to it’s environment.
We got back to the boat at around 22h00 and after a cup of coffee called it a day. No Polar Bears yet but there were no complaints as the first two days already exceeded expectations.
From both an experience and photographic point of view – Svalbard never disappoints.
After breakfast our goal was simple. Photograph Walrus on foot.
The sky was beautifully blue, there wan’t a drop of wind and as we set foot on land the photography started.
Two big Walruses were sucking up the Arctic sun and was the focus of our photographic attention for the next hour or so. The freedom to move around on foot makes for literally endless photographic opportunities and we used lenses ranging from 14mm all the way to 600mm to create images of the massive beasts.
I remember that when I got to Svalbard last year, my first time, I was not to excited about photographing these large creatures. I mean seriously, how exciting can it be?
After our first encounter last year my opinion has changed completely and spending time with, and photographing Walrus is absolutely amazing! Apart from the changing, dramatic backgrounds that change as you move around them their facial expressions and postures make for great photography.
After a while we decided to leave the two big guys and walk a bit to try and warm up. There was no wind but it was still cold so walking for bit would be a nice way to warm up while looking for more photographic subjects.
The snow was pure white and the landscape particularly dramatic as we found our next photographic subjects.
Actually, reading that it sounds wrong. Walking along the jagged coastlines you never really stop taking pictures. Anything from textures on the beaches to the incredible landscapes – there is always something to photograph.
For now, our attention was again turned to a small group of Reindeer in a vast white world.
We settled in to watch and photograph these stocky little animals and they way the moved around meant that we could just sit in one spot and allow them to create the images for us.
One of the things Svalbard will teach you, photographically, is to look at and play with your background in order to create different images. Whether on the boat or on and you can keep on shooting the same subject for quite some time before running out of options and the white snow with bleu skies made for a great morning of photography.
The small group was, like the previous time we met them on foot, very curious and would keep on approaching us again and again to check us out. For us, that meant more great photo opps!
After a good 3 hours on land we made our way back to the Zodiacs where, en route to the boat, we photographed a massive flock of Guillemots in the water. It was early in the season but you could definitely see that the birds were returning for spring.
Back on board it was time for lunch and to download the images from a great morning of photography.
We set sail and started heading North towards the pack ice where we were expecting to see and photograph Polar Bears. Well, not quite expecting but considering the time of year this was where the odds where stacked heavily in our favour.
As we sailed, people with binoculars were scattered all over the ship looking for Polar Bears. We had a few false alarms which caused quite a stir but each time, upon closer inspection, we had only found another Reindeer.
The ever present Fulmars made for some amusing photo opportunities whenever we needed a break from Polar Bear watch.
By dinner time we had not found any Polar Bears yet so we decided to call it a day. What helped our decision along was the captain’s warning of heavy weather throughout the night.
You see, during most of the expedition we find ourselves in fjords and close to glaciers which is normally quite secluded and hidden from wind and weather but since were going to be sailing North along the west coast of Svalbard we would be exposed to some nasty weather and heavy seas.
After dinner most people took a seasick tablet – just to be safe – and headed off to bed.
Now I am not a fan of the motion of the ocean at the best of times but I slept very well and the sideways movement of the boat was surpassingly soothing. The things we have seen thus far, the experiences we have had and the feeling of adventure was amazing and as I dozed off my thoughts were filled with the privilege of being able to photograph this wonderful place and the possibility of once again seeing the world’s largest land predator on the ice.
Our 2014 Svalbard Polar Expedition was well underway.
What would the remaining six days hold in store for us?
To be continued…
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
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