Polar Bears of the High Arctic 2019 Expedition Report

This July 2019 I lead my annual expedition around the northern archipelago of Svalbard in search of Polar Bears, Walrus, Arctic Wildlife and of course breathtaking Arctic landscapes. I have been leading photographic expeditions to Svalbard and the Arctic for a decade now and I never tire of returning to this incredible part of the world. Glaciers, mountains, Arctic Tundra, Polar Bears and other Arctic species are just a part of the attraction. There is something quite surreal and unique about the Arctic. The landscape speaks to me on a very personal and intimate level and I am awed by the sheer majesty and power of the mighty Polar Bear and the outright tenacity and ability  of the Arctic fox to survive and thrive in such a harsh environment. This incredibly fragile region of our planet is a photographers paradise and never ceases to disappoint. Every expedition to this precious environment is both unique and special and this trip was no exception.

July is a wonderful time to visit the high Arctic. The midnight sun blesses the region with twenty fours of summer daylight; doubling the amount of time one normally finds available for photography. The normally dark nocturnal hours are a wonderful time to photograph this time of year with soft light that bathes the landscape in a gentle golden glow. This year we encountered little in the way of fog and had fantastic visibility almost the entire expedition. It is always my preference to try and photograph at night when the light is at its softest and we spent much of our time on this trip working early in the morning.

For my 2019 expedition I switched ships to M.S Freya. Freya offers all of the benefits of my previous ship M.S Origo with improved cabins, more deck space and perhaps best of all – its super quiet and virtually free from vibration when the engines are running. Freya is an absolute joy to both live aboard and photograph from. With just thirteen of us (myself included) we were were blessed with more than ample space for the expedition with individual private cabins. All future expeditions will now be held on M.S Freya.

During the expedition we encountered a total of fifteen Polar Bears, two Blue Whales, a large school of Beluga whales, Humpback whales, Walrus, Reindeer, Bearded and Ring seals, a plethora of Arctic birds including the majestic Ivory Gull and my personal favourite; flocks of Kittiwakes in front of the many glacier fronts of Svalbard. Beluga whales were a real treat as they are not a common site in Svalbard and on average we probably only spot them one in ten expeditions. Likewise, Blue Whales are also a rare sighting and were a much appreciated bonus for us!

The absolute highlight of this expedition was watching a large male Polar bear stalk, and successfully catch and kill a fully grown bearded seal on the frozen pack ice. The entire event unfolded right in front of our ship with the Polar slipping silently into the water in front of our ship and slowly swimming up behind the ice flow the seal was resting upon. He then dove under the flow and exploded onto the ice on the far side closest to the seal. Misjudging the seals exact position the bear missed his lunge and dove into the water hot on the heels of the fleeing seal. Seconds passed… then nearly thirty seconds later the bear surfaced with the seal in his mouth and its body clasped in a bear hug. Incredibly, the bear caught the seal under the water! It took a minute or so for the bear to kill the seal before it dragged the (probably close to 300 kilogram) now dead weight of the seal up onto the ice.  It was singularly the most incredible and amazing moment I have ever experienced in all of my wildlife photography. Around 98% of all Polar bear hunts result in failure. Even witnessing an attempted hunt is incredibly rare. Being able to witness the hunt, the catch and the kill was an absolute gift. Perhaps best of all, I was able to share the experience with all twelve clients on the expedition. High fives, explosive adrenalin and ear to ear grins were in abundance at the conclusion of the event (I will have more photographs of this to share as I get time to process them).

During the expedition we also experienced another unusual and rarely seen event – our eagle eyed spotter on the bridge (thanks Yves!) found a recently deceased Sperm whale carcass washed ashore on the beach and a nearby sleeping Polar bear. A few hours of patient waiting and we were able to utilise the zodiacs for some close up photography of the bear attempting to tear through the thick whale skin. Twenty four hours later a mother with two cubs rolled up on the scene as well. It is always my preference to try and photograph Polar Bears on the pack ice whenever possible, but the opportunity to get up close with bears on a whale carcass is far too good to pass up and as such we took advantage of the situation, spending many hours in the area.

We explored several fjord systems in depth during the expedition and these areas proved very fruitful with multiple sightings and photography sessions with Polar Bear, Bearded and Ring Seals, and a great many Arctic bird species including a a rare sighting of the long-tailed Skua. Although I looked hard I did not spot any Sabine Gulls this year on our way past Lagoya. We did however have many great encounters with the beautiful Ivory Gulls. We also cruised glacier fronts in search of both wildlife and landscape opportunities.

In April and May next year I will be leading a new Winter / early Spring expedition to the Svalbard archipelago in search of Polar Bears, Walrus, Reindeer, Arctic Fox and of course spectacular polar landscapes. The Arctic in Winter and Spring is a place to inspire the imagination. It is a white landscape bathed in golden light. The main focus of this expedition will be late Arctic winter and early spring light, landscape and wildlife. In March and April the light conditions in Svalbard are magical. Usually winter trips to Svalbard are limited to day trips on snow mobiles quite close to the town of Longyearbyen. With our expedition ship we will explore a much bigger area including the western and northern areas of Spitzbergen.

This exclusive expedition is for a strictly limited number of just 12 participants plus leader and is dedicated to winter photography in Svalbard. As of a few days ago, we are now down to just the last couple of places before the expedition will be sold out. Drop me an email for further details.

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