For me there is no place that can take my breath away or give goose bumps on my arm, like the open areas of the vast and seemingly desolate pack ice. Or give me strength. North of most land it is impossible for the mind to not be present in each and every moment.
Man was neither physically nor mentally designed to exist on these latitudes. It is technology during the last few hundred years that has allowed us to become tourists of yet another region of earth where we by definition do not belong.
As a human being it is easy to feel like an unwelcome guest at a dinner table hosted by some of the most fascinating and strong creatures of this planet. Ever since I started working in this part of the world one question which has stayed in my head is “How on earth can anything survive here, in an environment so harsh, and so extremely unforgiving?” One thing is sure. This frozen world demands adaptation to its extreme, and full creativity in survival from all its inhabitants. After 7 years in the Arctic I am still trying to catch the essence of it. Although I am starting to get a sense of it, I know in my heart that it will probably take forever. It is too extreme.
My mission for Wild Wonders of Europe brought me up to the Svalbard Archipelago. A group of frozen islands situated around latitude 78 and 80° North, between the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
Boarding the tour operator Polar Quest’s small expedition vessel M/S Stockholm in Longyearbyen, the adventure and work could begin. Skipper Per Engvall, with 23 years of experience in navigating through these cold waters, knew where to break the ice. Together with expedition leader Lisa Ström, an environmental engineer and professional North Pole guide, 12 guests and the boat’s crew, we started our journey heading straight to the north.
The great symbol of the Arctic, the polar bear. Majestic and strong. A mammal well adapted to a life on a frozen platform -the pack ice. With white on white it takes skill and patience to discover them in their favorite world. Also they don’t hesitate to hunt humans. So, no doubt about it with these creatures, I’m bringing in the big glasses! Here 400 to 600 mm lenses are a standard, but there is one small issue, shooting frames from a rocky boat in strong winds. Here we go!
To get a scenery shot with calm, mirror-like water around Svalbard is exceptional, as there is almost a constant wind blowing. Here we came into the impressive Smeerenburg fjord with its glacier fronts reaching down into the water. At first covered in a thick white fog, without even a slight breeze in the air. Suddenly the mist rose to the sky, revealing Arctics’s beauty. We stopped the engine on the boat and just listened to the silence in the bottom of the fjord. But then sounds started to reach our ears, it wasn’t completely silent. In the water, millions of small pieces of ice were popping with a sound like carbonated lemonade. Trapped since thousands of years, air bubbles from ancient times is released when the ice melts in the water. Wow!
Kittiwakes are abundant and enjoys fishing close to the glacier front, were there is lots of nutrients to be found, especially the polar cod. We passed a group of birds resting on a small iceberg with the boat, and I focused on the small gulls for some time trying to predict where they were to take off.
Slowly moving forward with the rubber boat we could get into a close encounter with one of the heavy weighters among seals, the bearded seal. With 250-300 kilos it is an impressing creature that loves to spend its days resting on ice floes if the weather is fairly good.
This year there was more sea ice in the area than it has been for a long time. During my second week onboard M/S Stockholm we tried to get through the dense pack-ice belts north of Spitsbergen, towards the eastern parts of the archipelago. But the ice conditions got worse and worse as the boat pushed its way through all the white. Finally it got all to clear to all of us – we were stuck! It was no idea to continue fighting with the ice. Now the plan was to wait and see if the tide could move the huge ice belt that was surrounding us. This was on a Tuesday. The days went by. When Saturday came, everyone started to get a little restless. By now we had done all thinkable lectures onboard. The environmental issue had been discussed. Creativity, arctic photography and similar work shop topics had was also popular. Pack ice walks and pack ice rugby made us loose some of the good food. Finally, at noon Saturday, rescue came in the shape of a big ice breaking ship from the Norwegian coast guard. We got loose, Hurray!
At the end, I just have to tell you what a luxury it is to be onboard one of the most genuine expedition boats in this region, with such excellent service, fantastic guidance and dare I say it…a great chef! But we are not counting calories, are we! Also, being able to go to sleep in the night in my cabin having crew on the look out, waking you up with a kind knocking on the cabin door accompanied with “we have a polar bear” next to the boat, or “walrus in the water!” Such things polar photographers are not spoiled with. Expedition leader Lisa and Captain Engvall did their utmost to give all of us explorers an unforgettable journey. Trying, and succeeding, in getting us close to the wildlife. In a safe manner, that demands skill and professionalism. Normally, I work without these luxuries. Just a tent on the pack ice. And the food? Let’s not even go there. The weeks on the Polar Quest vessel was a fantastic experience, and I thank them for the opportunity.
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.