“No one comes to Svalbard by accident,” Jamie, our expedition leader, said to me one night at dinner. It turns out, he was right. Onboard the 132-guest Expedition with us were travelers representing 22 nationalities, including Germany, Thailand, India, the USA, Australia, Brazil, and Portugal. All of us had come deliberately to experience Norway’s Svalbard archipelago for the wildlife and ice, and more than half of us had come with a strong interest in photography.
We were traveling on the Realm of the Polar Bear expedition. A voyage of such a caliber brings together like-minded, well-traveled passengers seeking a unique experience. For many of us, photography was not only a big part of documenting and sharing our memories but also in making them. Photographers are particularly in tune with the environment as we hone in on a subject and wait for the best light and action, and adjust our settings. My personal travel résumé includes Antarctica, Papua New Guinea and Patagonia—with dozens of work trips taken over my 10 years as a travel specialist with AdventureSmith Explorations—but having the chance to take an expedition like this to the Arctic was remarkably special.
Here are a few highlights that made this such a particularly photogenic adventure to capture:
The Wildlife – Polar Bears, Whales, Walrus, Reindeer…
I was excited to take this voyage but tried to not put any specific expectations on what I would see. Despite the name of the expedition (Realm of the Polar Bear), there is a chance you won’t see the trip’s namesake. Thankfully, we did. Over 11 days (I opted for the trip’s longer itinerary option for more opportunities for a sighting), we ended up seeing 4 polar bears including a mother and cub. We also saw arctic foxes, numerous seabirds, puffins, reindeer, walrus, bearded seals, a fin whale and beluga whales up close from the Zodiacs, which was a surprise since belugas are not seen at all on most departures.
Even though the Arctic is a place you will get quite close to the wildlife, you still want to pack a serious zoom lens. On this trip, I shot on a Canon 6D with a 16-24mm wide-angle lens for landscapes and a 24-105mm for mid-range. I also rented 100-400mm lens, plus a 2x extender; I rent for each of my trips to cater my gear to each expedition’s needs. A few of my favorite wildlife shots from the trip are pictured here:
I took this photo from aboard a Zodiac. It’s a good example of incorporating the human element into your frame; when I travel for work, these types of shots are often requested by AdventureSmith. I was probably about 200 feet away when I took this shot. One of the crew spotted the bear from a long way off as we were watching a lone walrus in the water, and our Zodiac was the first to approach. We slowly crept closer to get a better view but also were mindful to keep certain distance so as not to disturb the bear’s behavior. Our guide relayed how important it was to not waste the bear’s precious energy by having him flee or come toward us to investigate. Food sources are scarce during the summer months, and polar bears need all of their energy to survive until winter when the sea ice returns and their food sources (mainly seals) are more available.
This is my favorite photograph of the polar bears, and I took this shot right from the ship. I really like the black-and-white contrast of the bear against the deep-black rock on such a grey day.
I love how in-focus the walrus’s eye is. He’s almost looking right at the camera. I also like how this shot captures the subtle movement of the water dripping down from his tusks. I took while photo while on land, but from a good distance away thanks to my rented zoom lens.
While we naturally had some excellent opportunities for wildlife shots, the landscapes were also varied and visually breathtaking. The color and occasional lack of color make the Arctic a great place to experiment and get creative with light and composition. My favorite shots from the voyage are landscape shots more so than wildlife ones. The wildlife ones remind me of the animals we saw, but the landscapes bring me back to the place and to the feeling of being in the Arctic.
In addition to the wildlife and scenery off the ship, I found incredible subject matter in the ship’s expedition team. A crew of experts with backgrounds in marine biology, ornithology, geology, history, botany and photography led our voyage, with hosted talks and informal chats during excursions covering everything from camera settings to identifying bird species. Many of them had been working on board since the ship started expedition cruise operations in 2008. The ship’s photographer-in-residence also hosted some photo competitions, so we all submitted our best shots to take top honor in categories like black-and-white and wildlife. My cabinmate and I also had a challenge among ourselves to take photos of the guides in their element. Some proved to be quite elusive! I really like how this shot of guide John K. turned out, with the ship emerging through the fog behind him.
The Thrill of a True Expedition
We went to really extraordinary places on this trip. We sailed up to the sea ice, to above 81° 37’ N, the farthest that the Expedition has ever sailed before! The ice conditions in Svalbard change rapidly with ice melting and passages clearing that had not been open just days before. Sailing in August upped our chances at completing a full circumnavigation of Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen, and it was exciting to see that happen on my trip. Because of this, we were able to visit the massive, bird-rich Alkefjellet cliffs found on the eastern shore of the island. Each Realm of the Polar Bear voyage is an expedition though, so no two will be the same. Weather, sea conditions, ice conditions and wildlife sightings all come into play, and fog especially plays a big role in safety/visibility when traveling in polar bear country. As you can see in my photos, guides carry rifles just in case, and each landing is scouted first to ensure passenger safety. It was fun to adapt to the changes and to trust that the Captain and crew were always seeking to better our experience.
I have been on a lot of small ship cruises with AdventureSmith Explorations, and this expedition was really a standout. Spitsbergen has similarities to Antarctica and Alaska but it is also completely unique. I think my photos can convey some of this better than words. To view more of my images, see my Facebook albums: Realm of the Polar Bear In Depth Album 1 and Album 2. To learn more and book this trip, see Realm of the Polar Bear.