Polar Bears of Svalbard 2017 Expedition Report

This August 2017 I lead my annual summer expedition to the sea ice north of Svalbard in search of Polar Bears, Walrus, Arctic Fox, Arctic Birds and spectacular Arctic landscapes. Whilst Polar Bears and other wildlife are the main attraction on an expedition such as this it needs to be said that the landscape opportunities in Svalbard are nothing short of breathtaking. Soaring bird cliffs, plunging glaciers and dramatic mountainous scenery means there is quite literally something for every photographer. Summer in the high arctic is a very special time for photographers. With twenty-four hours of daylight the photographic possibilities are quite literally as abundant as the day is long. In fact, what would normally pass for night time is actually one of the best times for photography in the Arctic summer as the light is often soft and ethereal with subtle golden overtones. Svalbard can also be prone to a bit of fog in summer but I find that this helps to soften the light and often adds a good deal of atmosphere to photographs. I know some photographers find fog difficult to work in as it often obscures the subject; but I enjoy the element of mystery fog often adds. Anytime you can make the viewer pause to more closely examine a photograph you have succeeded far beyond what might have just been a pretty picture.

Our most northerly position on this expedition saw us just north of 81º; which put us right at the edge of the permanent pack ice (how much longer there remains sea ice in summer is debatable, but I expect it may only be a few years before the arctic is free from ice in the summer). This year there was a lot of open ocean and no fast ice around even the Seven Islands area. As a result bears were hard to locate in this area and we had to head quite far east before we encountered some good bear opportunities. Even the solid ice edge was very thin this year and evidence is everywhere that the melt continues unabated.We never know exactly what we are going to find on these expeditions and every single trip is different. On this occasion we had a total of eleven polar bears, seven of which were what I like to term ‘photo bears’. That is, a bear that comes close enough to the ship that it provides some really fantastic photograph opportunities. On this trip we even had a bear come right up and nose the front of the ship as we were parked in the sea ice. For those who had never seen a polar bear before this was an encounter they will likely remember forever. Anytime you can put away your telephoto lens and shoot a polar bear with a wide angle is a very special occasion. We also had a fantastic encounter with a swimming polar bear. The bear was quite curious about our ship and shadowed us as we headed north keeping up a constant 1.3 knots for over three hours before finally climbing out on the ice and heading north-east.One of the real highlights of this expedition for me personally was finding a large group of Walrus on sea ice on the west coast. Walrus have become quite numerous since their protection in Svalbard which has made finding them easier in recent times (they were hunted to near extinction). However, finding Walrus on ice is always a rare thing and finding them on ice in beautiful soft light is even rarer. We were fortunate to be able to get quite close to them on zodiac and the resultant opportunities were truly fantastic. Zodiacs are the ideal way to photograph Walrus as they provide a stable platform that is super low to the water enabling the photographer to get down to eye level for more intimate images.In another first for me we also photographed a polar bear feeding on a dead whale carcass that had washed ashore. Using zodiacs again we were able to get very close and position ourselves for some fantastic mountain backgrounds. We spent a couple of hours with this bear and were able to get some really unique photographs. This is one of the key benefits of small expeditions such as this; we can really spend quality time with every opportunity we encounter. And with a small group of just twelve participants there is plenty of room for everyone in the zodiacs. During the expedition we also sighted numerous whales including Humpbacks, Bowhead and Fin whales (and possibly a Blue Whale although it was a little too far to identify with certainty). We also had some fantastic encounters with Arctic Fox in Kongsfjorden where we also witnessed a large blue iceberg roll over right in front of our zodiacs. Although we were never in any real danger and had everything completely under control it was nevertheless an exciting moment.

If you are interested in travelling to the high Arctic to encounter and photograph polar bears and incredible arctic landscapes I will be repeating my annual summer expedition to Svalbard in July next year 2018. Places are strictly limited to twelve participants (only three places remaining before it will be sold out). To get an idea of what it is like to participate in an expedition such as this be sure to check out the short film Kingdom of the Ice Bear below.For those of you keen to brave the beauty of the Arctic in winter I will also be running a very special expedition to Svalbard in March next year. At this time of year we typically have hours of golden light as the sun crests the horizon, but stays low in the sky. Winter is a very different experience to summer. With most of the fjords frozen over the opportunities for winter landscapes is at its absolute best.  It is also the perfect juxtaposition to a summer experience. You can drop me an email to register your interest for either or both expeditions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s