Monthly Archives: July 2012

Arctic Adventure…Part 2

Although the landscape, the general environment and simply the sense of wonder of the place is a huge part of Svalbard’s attraction, the wildlife (although requiring a fair bit of work to find in good situations) is as dramatic and enjoyable to photograph as anywhere I’ve been.

Such is my love for seabirds that when I first visited here these Little Auk’s were as high on my personal priority list as Polar Bears, and it was a pleasure to once again spend an enjoyable evening in their presence such is their personality and character.

We were slightly earlier this year and they were earlier in their breeding cycle and as a consequence even more chilled out in terms of their behaviour!  They nest under the rocks of the many scree slopes here, and some of the patterns on the rocks themselves were worthy of images in their own right.

We managed to enjoy a number of walks around the beautiful early summer tundra too, and here the lichens and flowers were just beginning to take a hold and announce their presence.

One of the highlights of this habitat here is the stunning Grey Phalarope (confusing called Red Phalarope by the rest of the world it seems) who had just arrived to beginning their short breeding season, unusual in that the colourful male does all the work of nest-building, egg incubating and chick feeding/tending: the even more showy female simply provides the eggs and then returns south, so we were in a very narrow window of time to enjoy the presence of both genders.

For most though Svalbard and the arctic is all about a couple of large mammals, and whether it be swimming, sleeping or playing there is no getting away from the larger than life personalities of the Atlantic Walrus – thankfully making good increases in population here after it’s almost devastation in the whaling era.

Among the highlights of a number of engagements with these bulky beasts was a more tender moment spent with a young mother and calf, resting and feeding on a large ice floe in front of a glacier: the youngster was almost certainly just a few days old and hadn’t grown into his wrinkles yet!

No trip here though, and certainly no blog recounting one, would be complete without Polar Bear – this truly is their domain here.  Finding them is always exciting but doing so in a setting that really does them justice rather than the snow and ice free beaches that many of them are left to spend the summer scavenging on, is somewhat harder.  Our plan had been to head up to the pack ice to look for such settings but the weather and winds conspired against us on this occasion but we had no sooner returned to the one bay we had found with a covering of ice than an adult make successfully caught a seal – an amazing hunting feat and a privilege to watch.  It was clear this was a good area to spend some time so we duly anchored up and spent 3 days there and were reward with some of the most relaxed and absorbing behaviour in front of us during that time, the highlight of which was a young male, probably 3 years old and enjoying his first summer away from Mum!

He spent an entire afternoon parading around the ice, hunting and even playing with some of the bits of seal left behind by the larger male the day before!

Wandering off that evening we settled down for some sleep and planning to move on the next day, only to awaken to the fact that he had returned and he too had gone to sleep on the ice beside the boat!

The advantages of a small yacht had really come to the fore – by being moored up where we were for so long we had effectively become part of his environment in the same way as a hide, and he was truly relaxed in our presence treating us to some truly engaging images and an experience I for one will never forget.

A fitting highlight of another great adventure in this wonderful part of the world and an iconic image to close that for me sums up this magnificent mammal in his kingdom.

Arctic Adventure…Part 1

I’m a few days back from an enjoyable, challenging and ultimately rewarding 3 week trip to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.  It seems that it’s done nothing but rain back here while I’ve been away (and since my return too) and compared to the sustained spells of high pressure that this remote location in the far north normally enjoys and has when I’ve been in the past, the weather gods were looking equally angrily on us.

That said I’d decided to place a lot more emphasis on capturing images that really gave a feel for the location rather than simply concentrating on the wildlife to be found there on this particular trip, and the grey skies leant themselves to a monochrome approach, whether enhanced through processing to that format like above, or left to the natural shades as below.

I was also keen to work on some stitched panoramics too – I know they won’t look their best on the size constraints of the web but it’s a format that really helps to get the size and nature of the mountains and glaciers across in my view – jagged peaks that caused the first Dutch explorers to name the main island here Spitsbergen.

When we did have some occasion to enjoy the beautiful tones that the midnight sun (it never sets here) has to offer we were always keen to take full advantage and the evening spent with this group of young male Walrus in front of a beautiful glacier will long remain with me – it’s an image I think really sums this place up.

We had timed this visit a few weeks earlier this year to give us a better chance of finding the areas in front of the glaciers still frozen over and increasing our chances of Polar Bear sitings, but as here in the UK it had been an unusually mild winter in Svalbard and already this ice had gone.  This process does however leave some beautifully shaped and colourful icebergs behind though and they are another key landscape feature I was keen to work with: this is the same ‘berg from  different angles and demonstrates just how the angle of lighting here can dramatically change an image.

A close look at this last image will show some signs of the seabird life that takes full advantage of their presence – either as a resting place or simply because they can act as a magnet for their food in the surrounding seas: we would regularly look to explore them for Kittiwakes and Fulmar especially.

The colours at times were simply stunning and leaving the subject small in the frame really allowed the landscape to dominate, and the same approach worked well when we spent a beautiful evening on a true gem of an island, full of tundra-based breeding birds including the elegant Red-Throated Diver.

It was also an approach I enjoyed trying out with the main target for the trip Polar Bears as well and this very simple composition is one that I particularly like.

I begun by saying it was a challenging trip because the weather wasn’t on our side, and this came to a real head when for the basis of comfort, safety and also in an attempt to ensure we could maximise photographic time we had to give up our original goal of heading to the pack ice that residers to the north of the archipelago.  It is traditionally the best place to see Bears, but with a combination of good luck, perseverance and patience we ended up enjoying some amazing encounters with in particular this extremely relaxed young male, and I’ll look to share some more images of him and also some more of the wildlife in a Part 2 to follow next week: there’s just too much to share in one post from a 3 week trip!!