Iceland Winter Arctic Fox Expedition 2017 Expedition Report

In early March 2017 I lead a new expedition to the extreme north west of Iceland for a small group of five photographers to photograph what is perhaps Nature’s greatest survivor: Vulpes lagopus – The Arctic Fox.

I have been travelling to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve (Hornstrandir is Iceland’s northernmost peninsula, covering 580 km² at the northern end of the Westfjords, to the north of the Jökulfirðir and to the northwest of Drangajökull) in Iceland during the winter months for four years now specifically to photograph Arctic Fox in winter. Late last year I released a new limited edition book on the Arctic Fox (Melrakki) which was the culmination of three years of winter photography.For the uninitiated, Arctic Foxes are unfortunately hunted and shot across most of Iceland making them extremely shy and difficult to find (and even more difficult to photograph). In the remote north-west however the Arctic Foxes are protected inside the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and can be more easily approached and photographed. What is especially compelling for wildlife photographers is that Iceland is one of the very few places in the world where it is possible to reliably photograph the Blue Morph Arctic Fox (the rarer of the two colour morphs across most of the Arctic). White morphs are also found in Iceland, but in smaller numbers.We began our expedition in the small town of Isafjord in the north-west of Iceland on the morning of the 8th of March with a visit to the Arctic Fox centre in the nearby town of Sudavik. Here we all had an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the biology and history of the Arctic Fox in Iceland before we departed on our expedition in the early afternoon.

From the small town of Isafjord, we travelled by private charter boat to the remote north-western Hornstrandir Nature Reserve (approximately one and a half hours by boat) where we  stayed for the next six nights in a small remote private cabin. The Hornstrandir Nature reserve can only be accessed by private charter boat (there are no roads or other services into this part of Iceland – and hence no tourists). Once we arrived in the reserve we had no contact with the outside world except via satellite phone for emergencies. The cabin we stayed in for the duration of the expedition is privately owned and facilities include shared bathroom, toilet and shower as well as a kitchen with hot and cold water, a communal eating area and lounge. There is even an outdoor sauna available for use. Bedrooms are a shared bunk bed arrangement. The cabin is heated with both a hydronic heating system and a log fire. During our stay in the cabin we had a dedicated person to clean and prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for us each day; which enabled us to focus solely on our photography. The house was originally built in 1921. In 1948 (just 27 years later), the last inhabitants left this isolated arctic peninsula in search of a better life. The cabin was abandoned for many years and has only recently been restored. Although no one lives there permanently, the cabin was a great getaway and the perfect place to accommodate us whilst we searched for and photographed Arctic Foxes. Curious Arctic Foxes frequently stopped past the cabin to investigate during our stay and it was even possible to photograph them from right outside the cabin on several occasions.Arctic Foxes are predominantly territorial animals that roam and patrol vast areas of the Arctic. The Arctic Foxes of Iceland are particularly tough and hardy. They have to deal with constant freezing and thawing conditions throughout the winter months in areas where this is little or no food available. During our winter expedition we experienced temperatures a few degrees either side of freezing (0º Celsius) plus wind chill. Although this was a low snow year we were fortunate to still have sufficient covering during most of the expedition.  We also had a real mix of weather and light which provided us with a lot of different opportunities during our time in the reserve.During our expedition we saw and photographed four individual blue morph foxes. As the foxes are territorial they visited us repeatedly on a daily basis (often several times per day) which provided us with multiple opportunities to photograph them. Arctic Foxes are by their nature inherently very curious animals and on many occasions approached within just a few feet of our cameras. Best of all the foxes are most active in the morning and evening – when the light is usually at its best for photography.

In addition to the Arctic Foxes there was also bird life along the coastline including Iceland Gulls, Eider Ducks, Ravens and Ptarmigan in winter plumage. I have in the past also seen and photographed Gyr Falcon in this area of Iceland and Eagles are also seen on occasion.The winter landscape in this part of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is simply stunning in its wild beauty. As a  result, there were also many opportunities to make landscape photographs during this expedition. Several participants also took advantage of clear skies and solar activity to make some wonderful Aurora Borealis images.We were met by the boat again on the morning of the 15th of March for our return trip back to Isafjord and were transferred to the airport in time for our return flights to Reykjavik. We concluded our expedition in the evening of the 15th of March in Reykjavik.

During the expedition the participants made between ten and twenty five thousand plus photographs per person which gives you a really good idea of just how many incredible opportunities and encounters with Arctic Foxes we experienced during our time in the Nature reserve. Many of our encounters lasted several hours and on multiple occasions we had the luxury of choosing our backgrounds and angle of view for our photographs. If you are interested in photographing wild Arctic Fox I will be repeating this expedition early next year (2018) for a small group of just five photographers (only two places remaining before the expedition will be sold out). Full details are on my website at www.jholko.com or you can register your interest in one of the two remaining places by dropping me an email.

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