Svalbard Spring Light 2023 Expedition Report

In early April of 2023, I led my Arctic Spring Light expedition to the archipelago of Svalbard. This expedition aimed to photograph wildlife in and around Spitzbergen and the incredible high Arctic landscape draped in its frosty Winter armour. 

This time of year, the sun never truly sets in the high Arctic, meaning hours of golden light are available to make photographs. Even late into the evening and early morning, there is sufficient light to photograph the dramatic landscapes in the high Arctic. There is something quite surreal about standing on the bow of an expedition ship as it gently ploughs the waters, camera in hand, around midnight, under soft Arctic light, watching the breathtaking landscape roll past. I have been fortunate to photograph around Svalbard for over a decade and never tire of returning to this miraculous archipelago. There is a mystical draw to the Arctic that tugs deeply at my soul, and even now, barely over my jetlag, I yearn to return yet again to the land of ice and snow.

The landscape opportunities in Svalbard in winter are stunning. The mountains are covered in snow and ice, and the light is often soft and diffuse. Winter is my favourite time to photograph the landscape in and around Svalbard. The majesty of the landscape draped in winter armour provides unparalleled photographic opportunities. Frozen sea ice, sea smoke (as the ocean freezes), precipitous mountains and glaciers, and deep majestic fjords make great photographic subjects. Photographs are to be made everywhere you look, and each minute brings new opportunities. All one need to do is step outside with a camera and compose.

Our expedition departed on schedule on the 7th of April with all clients and luggage intact. Our introduction and mandatory safety briefing were dispensed quickly, and our journey began earnestly. With a few quick stops in Isafjord to check some small bays and fast ice for Polar Bears and other wildlife, we made our way almost directly north from Longyearbyen, heading for the edge of the permanent pack ice. Along the way, we made stops in Kongsfjord to look for wildlife and to photograph the other-worldly winter landscapes. We had several extraordinary photographic encounters with Walrus on ice flows. The Walrus has been one of conservations success stories in recent years and have bounced back from the brink of extinction and is now regularly seen in significant numbers in and around Svalbard. As I have written, Walrus make wonderful photographic subjects for iconic imagery. A recent issue of Wildlife Photographic magazine featured many of my Walrus photographs, including the cover photograph. Link to the Edition HERE.

Our stay in the pack ice was brief but exceptional before the weather forced us to retreat south, seeking calmer waters. Nevertheless, the time we spent in the ice proved fruitful and fabulous photographs resulted. One of the best things about photographing all ice, whether sea ice or icebergs, is its transient nature. It is constantly changing and never the same. The opportunities differ from moment to moment, which the photographer can interpret limitlessly.

We steamed far south to Hornsund and the very bottom of Svalbard in our search for wildlife. Although we had many encounters with Walrus and sighted several Arctic Foxes (both blue and white morph), Polar Bears remained elusive, bar a distant, non-eventful sighting.

This time of the year, the birds are beginning to return to Svalbard from their winter migration, and activity is increasing around the bird cliffs. During this expedition, we encountered around a dozen species noted below. We also had an extraordinary photographic session with the Northern Fulmars over glassy seas. During this session, I finally captured an image I have been trying and failing to get for many years – a Fulmar gliding low over the ocean, dipping its wing into the mercurial waters, leaving a thin line in its wake. This vision was a photograph I had tried previously on many occasions but had never managed to capture the precise moment. This time, with the 30 frames per second of Canon’s EOS R3 camera and the focus speed of the new RF 600mm lens, I could capture the exact moment perfectly. The shot was handheld from the top deck of the ship.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

The most common gull – seen everywhere. Fly higher than the fulmar and flap wings more.

Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea)

An all white gull seen in fjords near glaciers and also at the pack ice.

Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus)

The most common large gull. Seen in a number of locations.

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

A couple of birds seen in Isfjorden.

Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)

Quite common. All black in summer plumage and one white bird (winter plumage) seen in Ekmanfjorden.

Little Auk (Alle alle)

The small black and white auk seen both on the water and flying in groups.

Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia)

The large black and white auk seen all over.

Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)

Groups seen in a few locations near land. Sometimes mixed with King Eider.

King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)

Most seen near Bellsund, sometimes with Common Eiders.

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)

A few group seen near shore south of Bellsund.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta hyperborea)

A Svalbard endemic subspecies. One bird seen flying by the ship (Yves).

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Two small groups seen in flight in Bellsund.

Arctic G&T Long Whiskered Wood Pecker (dranktomuch arcticus)

One observation but seen frequently throughout the ship.

No expedition to Svalbard is complete without a high expectation of photographing Polar Bears, and this expedition was no exception, with much of the ship-board chatter surrounding finding bears. During these expeditions, my guide team and I take shifts, spending hours and days relentlessly scanning the landscape for wildlife. The guide team sleeps as little as a few hours a night for days, and is dedicated to finding as much wildlife as possible. As the days wound down without seeing any Polar Bears (at a reasonable photographic distance), the tension rose as everyone hoped for a dramatic photographic encounter in the diminishing time remaining. Of course, there are never any guarantees of any wildlife encounters (especially Polar Bears), but everyone openly hopes for them. As time ticks down toward the conclusion of an expedition, pressure increases, and my stress levels rise. With limited time remaining on our expedition, I could sense the hope and tension for a good Polar Bear encounter was peaking. We did spot one bear very far from the ship early on in the trip but could not approach it due to shallow water. We then found another bear on the sea ice in Eckman fjord that looked promising, but unfortunately, it wandered away before we could get zodiacs into the water to approach for photographs. Typically, it has been my experience that only one in seven bears provides a decent photographic opportunity. That opportunity would come on our last full day. When it did, it would exceed all expectations and dreams.

With time almost gone, we spotted another bear (a large Male) in Yoldiabukta (in Isafjord) that was far away on the sea ice against the distant glacier. We parked the ship against the edge of the fjord ice and waited, watching through our binoculars, to see if the bear would get curious enough to approach. The bear was approximately two kilometres away and too far to make a decent photograph. At this point, I want to note my new Swarovski 12 x 42 NL Pure binoculars proved nothing short of brilliant in helping me spot wildlife at a significant distance. They might be expensive (ok, very expensive), but if you are in the market for high-quality binoculars, the Swarovski NL Pure models have my heartfelt recommendation.

The bear made no effort to approach the ship and seemed disinterested in our arrival and presence. It stood up a few times, lay down again and wandered back and forth a little but showed no sign of approaching the ship. With time ticking away, I decided, as the trip leader, to get everyone into survival suits and put zodiacs into the water, hoping the bear might get curious and approach the much smaller rubber boats. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the Polar Bear wandering the edge of the sea ice as we photographed it from eye level in our zodiacs. That dream was soon to become a reality.

Video Below courtesy Tara Sweeney – thank you

The decision to get everyone into zodiacs proved the trip’s ultimate decision and decisive factor. Within a few minutes, the bear became curious and slowly made its way toward us, to the edge of the sea ice, just meters from our zodiacs. As soon as the bear was within range, the cameras began firing full throttle and barely slowed for the next hour and a half. With its curiosity sated, the bear eventually became disinterested in us and began hunting along the ice edge. We then followed the bear for the next hour and a half, taking photographs as it wandered the edge of the sea ice in search of food, oblivious to our presence. During the entire photographic encounter, the light was soft and ethereal. A distant soft yellow glow on the horizon provided just ideal lighting, while the deep soft, fresh snow on the sea ice provided a wonderful counterpoint to the power of the large male bear, whose fur was in near-perfect condition. This perfect storm resulted in one of my best photographic encounters with a Polar Bear in over a decade. As Humphrey Bogart once said in the classic Maltese Falcon, it was ‘The stuff that dreams are made of’. 

During the hour and a half we spent with the bear, I made well over 5000 photographs, many of which I would frame and hang on my wall. Why so many? Paw position is critical with wildlife, and shooting at high speed is necessary to catch perfect leg and paw position. It is not just about the perfect ‘paw curl’ to insinuate motion in the animal. It is about the combination of paw and leg position in relation to the head and body position of the bear. In addition, Polar Bears often close their eyes when they are walking, and thus it requires many images to capture the ideal gesture of the bear with its eyes open. When conditions are so good, with a cooperative bear, soft light and a dramatic backdrop, you must go for it entirely and worry about editing the many photographs later.

One of the last images I made of the Polar Bear before it wandered into an area of ice we could not follow is my favourite image of the bear in the landscape. Although the bear is relatively small in the frame, the beautiful ice in the foreground adds a lot of context to the bear’s environment.

These photographic encounters with Polar Bear are incredibly rare and perhaps accurately described as once in a lifetime. The smiles on the faces below tell the story better than words ever could. 

With our Polar Bear encounter ending, we returned to Longyearbyen that evening and wrapped up our expedition with a farewell dinner as we pulled alongside the harbour. We then disembarked early the following morning and formally concluded the expedition. I want to thank all of the participants who participated in this expedition. These sorts of trips are only possible when people work together as a group.

Over the last few months, I have had many enquiries about future expeditions to photograph Polar Bears. With new regulations soon coming into effect in Svalbard, there is a need to go further afield to seek ideal photographic encounters. I am pleased to give some insight that I will be offering something new and inspiring for 2025 dedicated to the photography of Polar Bears on the frozen sea ice. This all-new expedition will be eighteen days, providing a fantastic amount of time to photograph Polar Bears as they live and hunt on the sea ice. The expedition will be limited to twelve people and based on a ship. We will be far from Svalbard and not subject to the new regulations surrounding landing sites and wildlife distances. Drop me a note to register your interest – no obligation at this point.

For those of you looking for something even more adventurous, I am also offering an extraordinary opportunity to be part of a small team of just four photographers and join the Inuit in Eastern Greenland next winter on a unique dog sled safari to photograph Polar Bears and frozen icebergs. Only three places are available, and full details are available on my website. 

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