Svalbard Kingdom of the Ice Bear Expedition Report July 2022

In July of 2022, I ran my annual expedition to the high Arctic of Svalbard in search of Polar Bears and other Arctic wildlife. This expedition was originally scheduled to run in July of 2020, but the COVID pandemic saw us delayed until 2021 and then finally until 2022. As it turned out, this was not the only incident to cause delays for this expedition.  Due to the snap SAS airline pilot strike two of the participant photographers were regrettably and unavoidably delayed in Oslo, Norway, and unable to make it to Longyearbyen, Svalbard in time for the expedition departure. This saw our group size drop to ten instead of the usual twelve. Just as an aside, it is because of situations such as this (that are out of everyone’s control) that I strongly recommend all participants always take out high-quality travel insurance (in addition to evacuation and medical insurance). You just never know when your travel might be curtailed by circumstances outside of your control. There really is nothing more frustrating than being unable to reach a planned destination in time.

We departed Longyearbyen on schedule on the 6th of July and began our steam north for the pack ice. Very few vessels had made the pack ice over the previous weeks due to high winds that saw many expedition ships seek shelter inside Svalbard’s many fjords. As such, intel was thin on the ground in relation to recent Polar Bear encounters. Fortunately, the weather gods were on our side and we were able to take full advtange of all our time during the expedition.

Around day two of the expedition, our Chief Engineer began to take ill with serious abdominal pain (that turned out to be acute appendicitis) that necessitated an immediate helicopter evacuation the following day. Thankfully Svalbard operates a first-rate Search and Rescue service and all that was required was a satellite phone call to the SAR and a helicopter was dispatched within the hour. Safely evacuated back to Longyearbyen by helicopter and onto Tromso for emergency surgery to remove his appendix (and now safely recovering at home) we were now short a chief engineer for the duration of the expedition. Under Norwegian maritime legislation, this meant we had to immediately return sail to Longyearbyen until a replacement could be found. No easy feat given the current and ongoing SAS pilot strike. These are just some of the unexpected logistical challenges that can arrive when organizing expeditions such as these. We did take the opportunity for multiple zodiac cruises at the glacier fronts in Kongsfjorden on our journey back to Longyearbyen that provided us with some fantastic bearded seal encounters and stunning glacial landscapes.

Many satellite phone calls later a qualified replacement was found in Longyearbyen and on return to port we loaded up with our new Chief and immediately set sail north for the second time – Déjà vu. Mercifully, we were delayed less than twenty-four in all and were soon back on track with our expedition.

The weather during our expedition proved highly favorable and we were able to undertake all of our planned activities without the need to lose any time sheltering from winds and weather. The map below shows our track for the expedition. The additional map (provided by Dave – thank you) shows the locations some of the photographs were taken with his Canon 5D MKIV and Canon EOS R3.

As it turned out, we earned some serious karma points early on during this expedition and were subsequently rewarded with one of the best Polar Bear encounters I have ever been fortunate to experience. After searching the pack ice for the better part of twenty-four hours we located a large male Polar Bear that had killed a large bearded seal only minutes earlier. We spent several hours photographing the bear from the ship, before launching zodiacs for more eye-level photography. 

We then spent around five hours photographing the bear on the ice as it devoured its kill. This sort of experience does not happen very often and the net result is some incredible photographs were made.

We had a total of five different Polar Bear encounters during the course of the expedition; all of which provided excellent photographic opportunities. As I have often discussed, it is not the number of bears that matters during an expedition; it is the quality of the encounter and the photographs that result from them. And this expedition had an encounter that was about as special as they come.

In terms of bird life, we sighted and photographed Ivory, Glaucous and Sabines Gull, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns, Arctic, and Great Skua, Arctic Terns, Eider Ducks, Barnacle Geese (with goslings), Little Auks and Brunichs and Black Guillemots.

Our last landing for the expedition was at the historic site of Smeerenburg where we photographed a large huddle of Walrus at the water’s edge in heavy overcast and rain conditions. This proved my favorite Walrus session in many years and some really powerful and unique photographs resulted from this landing. As I have often waxed-lyrical; dramatic photographs require dramatic weather. You have to be prepared to get out into the elements and embrace the weather in pursuit of the emotive photograph. It was fantastic to see so many of the participants join this landing and secure for themselves some powerful and dramatic photographs that will tell the story of the Walrus and the environment in which they live.

Svalbard in Summer never ceases to disappoint and in addition to the wildlife encounters, we also had some fantastic landscape opportunities in many of the glacier-filled fiords.

Footnote: As a result of my ongoing travel, I have not as yet had time to edit or post produce any of the photographs from this expedition. I will update this post at a future date with photographs from the expedition.

My next expedition to Svalbard will be in April of next year, 2023. Late Winter and early Spring is an absolutely stunning time to visit the archipelago of Svalbard. The sun is low in the sky, and the landscape is bathed in its winter armor of snow and ice. There are still several places available on the expedition before it will be sold out. Please drop me an email for more information, or to secure your place. To get an idea of the sort of photographs you can make during this expedition be sure to check out the Svalbard portfolios on my website at www.jholko.com

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