My first mission for Wild Wonders of Europe is to photograph the Arctic landscape and animals at Spitsbergen, Svalbard. I was very happy to be chosen for this mission since I love this area and I’m travelling at least one week every year to Svalbard.
It might sound easy to take great pictures in this wilderness, because the light can be magic and some of the birds and mammals are not so shy. But, at 80º North the Arctic winter can be very rough. My goal for this mission is to bring out some of the beauty of this area, and hopefully also meet the king himself – the Polar bear.
Day 1-3 - A Real Arctic Experience
It can be dangerous to travel alone at Svalbard, so on this mission I am accompanied by my good friend and photographer Roy Mangersnes and a professional guide. Last year my winter expedition to Svalbard ended with a twisted ankle and a helicopter lift back to Longyearbyen, so this year I wanted to be more cautious.
After arriving at Longyearbyen we spend the first evening photographing close to the “city”. The temperature was perfect, with -15º C and clear sky. After only an hour we were lucky to find three Svalbard ptarmigans that were digging through the snow to feed on the grass underneath. It’s amazing to see how these birds can survive under such cold and harsh conditions.
The next morning we prepared for our expedition to the east of Spitsbergen. The east side is usually best for photographing the Polar bears, but it’s also exposed for hard and cold wind from the north and east. Our plan was to stay at the east side the whole week, and hopefully find some Polar bears.
Our guide was not very happy with the weather forecast for the next days on the east side. Winds at 15 m/s is not good, especially if it comes directly from the North Pole… But we decided to give it a try. We started up our snowmobiles and headed for the east. The temperature had now dropped to -25º C so it was a pretty cold drive in the fresh Arctic winter.
On our way towards the east we found some Svalbard reindeer. These reindeer are quite common on the west side and are surviving the winter almost on nothing. Only some dry, frozen grass keeps them from starving to death. I’m amazed every year I see these mammals during the winter, almost at the North Pole.
After 80 km we got our first sight of the east coast of Spitsbergen. Out in the horizon we could see the frozen ice, and lucky for us there was no wind. After 30 more km we stopped at our hut near the coastline – our home for the next week.
We started to search the ice for Polar bears, but suddenly the wind picked up from nothing to moderate gale. We took some pictures, but the visibility was getting poorer and poorer so we had to take shelter in the hut. Not the best start for our expedition to the east side. We hoped for better weather conditions the next morning.
What a night! The wind was getting stronger and the hut was shaking and snow was blowing inside the hut through small holes. It was now around -30º C and strong gale, which makes it -60º C. Our guide told us that this was the worst weather conditions he had seen in the past few years. We were not able to go outside to take pictures, not even to our “toilet”. Great!! We had to wait.
In the middle of the day the wind was still strong, but the temperature was a little bit higher. We dressed up with warm clothes and goggles and went out with our wide-angle lens cameras.
It was difficult to walk and see in this kind of snow blizzard. When I was lying down at the ground the snow was rapidly building up between the camera and my face, so it was difficult to see the LiveView display when photographing. To be honest, I really appreciated these conditions. Bad weather can turn the pictures more interesting and different. But, of course, it’s also important to protect yourself against frostbites and hypothermia.
Back in the hut we decided to “escape” from the east coast and head to more sheltered areas on the west side. It can blow for weeks on the east side, and I was on a mission for Wild Wonders of Europe – I had to get some pictures!
Ole Jørgen Liodden
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.