Polar Bears of Svalbard 2016 Expedition Report

In late July 2016 I lead my annual Polar Bears of Svalbard photographic expedition to the edge of the permanent pack ice north of Svalbard to photograph Polar Bears living and hunting in their natural environment. During the expedition we also photographed incredible arctic landscapes as well as other wildlife of the Arctic region including Walrus, Arctic Fox, Whales, Seals and a plethora of sea birds including the rare Ivory Gull (the rare Ross’s Gull remains an elusive species for me in Svalbard). This expedition was for a small group of just twelve passionate photographers and utilised a small ice hardened ship that enabled us to sail north directly into the pack ice in search of the king of the Arctic.Svalbard2016-5959-EditImportantly, our ship had very low decks that were very close the waterline which enabled us to make photographs at eye level for more intimate images. The choice of ship for expeditions such as these is critical to the ability to put yourself in the best possible place to make powerful and emotive photographs. Large ships that are unable to penetrate the ice and with high decks  where you have to compete for space with other passengers are far from ideal and unsuited to photography expeditions. During the expedition we were fortunate to see and photograph an incredible twenty Polar Bears in the just the first three days! Two of these bears were also on recent seal kills. Seeing a Polar Bear on a seal kill is a very rare event and as luck would have it were able to photograph the kills and all aboard were able to capture some really fantastic photographs. What was even more special was the even rarer encounter we had with a mother and her 6 month old cub on the sea ice. This was truly a special moment with a very curious cub and a very calm mother we were able to approach very close in our zodiacs for some really superb photography. As one participant put it “It was two hours photography that was better than his previous six visits to Churchill National ParkSvalbard2016-24158This year we undertook a different route to my 2015 expedition and instead of heading south and circumnavigating Spitzbergen we headed directly north for the pack ice. This turned out to be the perfect decision with twenty polar bear encounters in the first three days in the ice. The Arctic pack ice is a vast area and just finding Polar Bears in this maze of ice can be quite the challenge. Encountering so many bears in such a short space of time was truly miraculous.Svalbard2016-5843-EditAfter three days in the ice we continued our northerly travels encountering light to moderate winds in the Hinlopen strait. In this area we explored and photographed the spectacular 200 mile+ long glacier face Bråsvellbreen and the plunging bird cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe. The sights and sounds of thousands of nesting birds against such a precipitous cliff is an awe inspiring sight. I have been fortunate to visit this area a number of times now and it never ceases to impress. Being surrounded by thousands of Arctic birds is a very special experience.  Svalbard2016-12283-EditWhen it was time to head south again we made several stops in the spectacular Kongsfjorden; where we photographed Arctic Fox and spectacular glacial fronts. We rose very early one morning for a wonderful session photographing Walrus in fantastic light. During the expedition we were also fortunate to see and photograph several rare Blue whales (unfortunately I did not get a good photograph). Blue whales are quite tricky to photograph as they rarely reveal to much of their body above the waterline. Nevertheless the experience of seeing this massive mammal is an experience that stays with you forever.Svalbard-0404At our furthest northerly most position we were just shy of 82º North – less than 500 Nautical Miles from the North Pole. In total we travelled a total distance of 1148 nautical miles (2126 kilometres). Our total wildlife count for the expedition was twenty Polar Bears, two Arctic Fox, four Humpback Whales, three Blue Whales, two Beluga Whales, one Minke Whale, More than twenty Walrus and eight Reindeer. On top of this we had many different species of Arctic Birds. This was a fabulous result that netted some amazing photographs from all aboard.

During the expedition we took advantage of great light at every opportunity and often worked at night when the light was soft and ethereal. One of the most fantastic things about photography in the Arctic is the 24 hours of daylight and the extensive opportunities this provides for image making at any time of the day or night. One of the best moments for me personally was capturing a fog as it burnt off across the top of one of the glacial fronts.Svalbard2016-28772-EditThe high Arctic remains one of the most spectacular locations I have ever visited and I look forward to returning again next year when I will lead another two expeditions to the pack ice north of Svalbard – Polar Bears of Svalbard and Winter in Svalbard (Winter is already Sold out). The summer expedition will depart on the 25th of July from Longyearbyen and is dedicated to the photography of Polar Bears living and hunting on the sea ice. If you would like more information about this expedition please drop me an email at info@jholko.com. Be sure to check out the video below to experience just what this expedition is really like. There are now only a few places remaining before the expedition will be sold out.KingdomoftheiceBear

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