Over the past couple of years, I have missed going to many locations but one place that I was desperate to get back to was Svalbard. I have been running trips to this beautiful Island Archipelago in the high Arctic for many years. These islands are the realm of the King of the Arctic, the Polar Bear. Most people that visit Svalbard go during the summer months and travel by boat as the Ice starts to break up in the fjords and you can access some of the remotest parts of the islands. It is a great way to look for Polar Bears and the other inhabitants of the islands. I also run trips this way, but I also like going when winter is still holding firm and the sea ice is at its most extensive. Getting around is difficult and the only way to do so is by snow mobile. You must cover huge distances on these bloody awful machines and sometimes trying to find the wildlife feels like looking for a needle in a haystack.
But, when you find that needle, the encounters can be such an amazing photographic experience. Svalbard is without doubt one of the most stunning locations, especially in the winter. The wildlife during the winter months looks its best too and so combine these two ingredients you have some real special photographic opportunities. Add the glorious light that you can get in the Arctic at this time of the year and so you can see why it adds such an attraction to me.
It is not easy I must confess. Finding the wildlife can be tricky as it is not overly abundant like other locations, the long days, and nights out in the field can be tough especially with such cold temperatures that can occur at this time of the year. The worst thing for me is having to drive the Snow Mobiles for such long stints and at the end of the trip I am always glad to see the back of those things. But it had been three years since my last trip, and I had forgot all those hardships and was itching to get back out.
On previous trips I have had some great encounters with Polar Bears, but I have never come across a bear that had made a fresh kill. We had found lots of signs and nearly misses but just not been in the right place or time. That changed for me this year as we came across a fresh kill that a female bear had made, and she had two second year cubs in tow too. The family was looking well fed and had already eaten most of the Ringed Seal with only the carcass left but we knew she would come back to finish the rest, so sat it out and waited. The wait wasn’t so bad as the carcass had attracted a couple of Arctic Foxes.
One of my favourite subjects to find in Svalbard is the little Arctic Fox. They look beautiful at this time of the year as they are still wearing their winter coat. I have always been fascinated by the relationship between Bears and Foxes. There are two strategies for Foxes in Svalbard during the winter. Some stay in their territory during the winter and rely on their cache of food that they had built up during the productive summer months. There are no Lemmings in Svalbard and so their only other food source is Ptarmigan or coming across a dead Reindeer during the long winter months. A risky strategy but one which has huge benefit and pays dividends when the summer finally arrives.
The other strategy is to head out on to the ice and follow Polar Bears and take advantage of the scraps that they leave behind. Most Bears only eat the blubber of the seals that they catch and so there is usually plenty of food left for the Foxes and Gulls. These foxes will no doubt have an easier winter but as soon as the ice starts to break up, they are forced back to land and don’t have a summer territory. It is a tough choice and a tough life for this little fox in the high Arctic.
The following morning, we headed back to the same fjord and came across the same family of Bears. The female looked like she was resting away from her two cubs, but she was hunting. Polar Bears hunt Seals in different ways and this female was laying next to a breathing hole of a Ringed Seal where if the Seal visited it, she would rush to grab it. I have seen this behaviour before, but adult Seals are clever and have many different breathing holes in their territory. She sat there for over two hours, but nothing showed and so eventually got up and wandered off. It took a while for her cubs to realise she had moved on as they were fast asleep and once, they did there was a moment of panic before they rushed to her.
The other holy grail for me in my quest to photograph Polar Bears is finding a female with very young cubs and on this trip, we managed to find two females. The first encounter was not a good situation as the female was very nervous, so it was not possible to get any images. It was frustrating but you must let the Bears close the gap between you and the bear themselves, you can’t just drive up to them. If they are not comfortable, they would just head in the opposite direction. Our second encounter was different, and I have photographed this female before. That was back in 2018 and her name is Frost. She is a beautiful Bear and is very relaxed. We spotted her in the distance and just quietly sat and waited for her. She had only just come out of her birthing den and her little cub was fascinated by us.
It was such a privilege to see her again and she seemed very proud to show us her new generation. She has been a very successful female and has produced many cubs over her lifetime. I hope I get another chance to meet her again.
So, we kept going back to the same fjord which was delivering some amazing encounters. There were many different bears using the fjord as it must have been a good situation and good ice conditions for the Ringed Seals that give birth in their lairs underneath the snow cover on the Ice. The Seals give birth in the same period, and this is such an important time for the Bears to build their fat reserves up before the ice starts to melt.
We also got some good opportunities to photograph a young male during this trip. He would have spent the winter with his mum but at this time of the year the female would have started to come back into season which attracts the larger males. At this point he is on his own, but his mother must have taught him well because he was very good at catching seals himself and looked in great condition.
I said earlier that the wildlife is difficult to find in Svalbard and there are only a handful of species that you can find and work with during the winter. Reindeer can be common is certain valleys and make great subjects. Whenever you find Reindeer, you have a good chance of finding Ptarmigan too. The Ptarmigan find it difficult to find food when the snow is deep so let the Reindeer dig away the snow and then they find it easier to feed, so the two species are never far from each other. Ringed Seals can be difficult to approach when they are resting on the Ice which is understandable with so many Bears around, but with patience you can get a bit closer.
So, there you go just a small selection of some of the images that I managed to achieve on my trip to Svalbard this year. It really is a wonderful place for the photographer and the winter just offers that little bit extra. It really isn’t an easy trip, and I am glad it is over towards the end but of course I am already looking forward to going back next year.