“White is not a mere absence of color; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black.” G.K. Chesterton
The past two weeks Pj, Iwan and myself went to the roof of the world to photograph these fifty shades of white. In the second week, Ronan and Dave joined us.
The target was to photograph arctic wildlife in Svalbard, a place I had once traveled to in August 2009 with my dad. Yet seeing PJ’s superb images during his half year stay in Longyearbyen (human settlement on the main island Spitsbergen), got Iwan and myself thinking about an arctic photo expedition during early spring.
We rented snowmobiles and made plans. We set off with two snow scooters equipped with big pelicases packed with camera equipment. The plan was to start looking for arctic foxes and ptarmigan, and as soon as we were comfortable with scooter riding and the cold temperatures, we would head further out on the ice.
I want to start this report by thanking Pj. Even during hardcore whiteout blizzard conditions he navigated the frozen fjords and cracked glaciers without effort. It was his fifth Svalbard trip and he definitely knows his way around. He knew whom to address for up-to-date wildlife info and all three of us pushed each other harder for the perfect image. Also Iwan is now to be considered a dedicated nature photographer and I think he loved every bit of the slow process that is creating an image.
The fact that we had several snow scooters meant that we were each others back up, and that we could penetrate further into the frozen wilderness, taking along spare fuel, food, and spare batteries for the two gps devices (your life depends on it).
Also introducing: Iwan, who was by a long stretch the most insulated man on planet earth.
Hence the nickname Double Arafat.
And I was there as well:
We started off with photographing Svalbard reindeer. This is a reindeer subspecies only living on the Svalbard archipelago, and it has been doing so for at least 5000 years. They are the smallest subspecies of reindeer and became well adapted to the harsh climate. Local people often call them pigs since they are so fat. In fact thanks to this layer of fat, they don’t need food to survive winter, but look for it simply to keep their intestinal flora alive.
Female reindeer are the only deer that carry antlers. Think long and hard why this is the case.
In fact, this is because of the fact that females could be chased away by males if they were to scrape away snow to reach the vegetation during the long winter. By carrying antlers, they can defend themselves.
We saw ptarmigan every day and they are usually tame which makes them easy to photograph. This is the only land bird that stays in Svalbard during the long dark winter, where permanent darkness remains for four long months. These birds have fully feathered legs to prevent heat loss.
April is also a good month to see ringed seals. Many parts of the fjords are frozen and seals use this opportunity to give birth. The mother and pups keep a breathing hole open, which gives them easy access towards a safe underwater haven. These seals constitute the bulk food for polar bears this time of year. Bears will often stake out near a seal hole and wait for it to pop its head out of the water. Teddies will also excavate seal pups hidden in a chamber under the ice surface.
The Noorderlicht freezes in every year and acts as an exclusive hotel. Dogs are their as polar bear alarm.
Arctic foxes are just fun to spend time with. Always on the prowl for a polar bear kill they can feed on. Often elusive since they are still trapped for fur in Svalbard. But once they know you are harmless, they can come as close as 1m. Superb little creatures.
And always ready to kiss kiss.
They survive winter on an occasional ptarmigan or dead reindeer, on food that they buried during summer but often also by feeding on seal carcasses left behind by polar bears.
We were very lucky to see a big bull walrus that had houled out on the beach near Longyearbyen.
Finding presence of polar bears is not difficult, tracks are to be seen almost every day. But the bears themselves are often elusive and relax during daytime. At night they tend to come down to the frozen fjords to hunt seals. Our tactic was to look for sleeping bears during the day, and come back at night to photograph them. This yielded good results but we spent many many days looking for them. Also, we never chased a bear to try to photograph it. In my opinion you will scare it off and not take pictures anyway. You just have to be lucky that it doesn’t mind you being there, and walks past you. Some bears see you at 500m and turn around, this was the case with a mother and her three cubs. Very rare to see this, but we did not mind not having images of it. In total we saw 12 bears and got three photo opportunities.
The first two were in Billefjorden near the abandoned Russian settlement of Piramiden. Just six people live here to maintain Russian presence. We slept two nights in this remote place, only adding to the very special atmosphere.
Iwan -who had been scanning intensely during several days- found the first bears. This big male was patrolling the fjord and came to say hello.
When he passed us, I could hear him breathing. Heartbeat went instantly to 160. We pointed our scooters in the right direction, and held our breath. The gentle giant did not pay us any attention and lumbered past.
We returned at night to find the bear sleeping on the open ice. He was not bothered by our passing by and kept snoozing in this harsh freezing blizzard.
These were mesmerizing photo opportunities and we were freezing our buts off, but kept shooting.
Dark blue nights with a bit of orange from the sun that was just below the horizon. And a blizzard polar wind to top it off.
During daytime we photographed the very special glacier ice.
60% of Svalbard is covered with glaciers, thanks to a mean annual temperature of -5°C. In central Spitsbergen, most glaciers are comparatively small due to the dry climate, but large valley glaciers and ice caps are frequent along both the west and east coasts of Spitsbergen. Several large ice caps exist on the eastern islands, Edgeøya, Barentsøya and Nordaustlandet. Most glaciers in the dry interior of Spitsbergen are cold-based, and move only 1-2 m per year, but in the more humid regions along the coasts, glacier velocities frequently are more than 10-30 m per year, causing large crevasses to form.
This glacier blue is simply due to the blue wavelength of the spectrum of sunlight penetrating deepest in the clear ice.
Most bears are very hard to spot. Again Iwan found these mother and cubs resting during the daytime. At night she went hunting for seals.
We felt very privileged to see this in real life.
On the end of the trip we found a dead reindeer and decided to deploy our camera equipment, fitted with remote controls. We were hoping to catch a picture of a glaucous gull, or even better, an arctic fox. Hours passed by when we suddenly saw a female polar bear with two cubs born last year. She smelled the reindeer and approached it carefully. We pressed the remote controls as hard as we could and smiled. High fives and many many group hugs were given. I get goose bumps every time I reminisce about that moment. The bears ate the remains of the dead reindeer and wandered back on the frozen ocean. Our camera gear dribbled with bear saliva.
I find it hard to summarize this trip. It is a life changer, that is for sure. The pure beauty of the frozen arctic during these April nights where colours vary between blue and orange, is out of this world.
I hope you like this extra long report. I had troubles selecting a limited amount of pics.