Alex Stead

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the Svalbard expedition with natural world safaris

On Saturday morning I booked onto a 10-day expedition, to explore the nature, wildlife and landscapes of Svalbard by ship. On Monday I set off on this last minute adventure, not sure what to expect, but excited to experience a new location.

As a photographer, I’m always thinking of the best way to capture the locations I visit. I booked onto a small ship called the M/V Kinfish through a company called Natural World Safaris, who specialise in wildlife based tailor-made and small group safaris. With a maximum of 12 guests and crew, we had the opportunity for flexibility to sail into shallower waters, cruise around in zodiacs while still enjoying room to change position and to wait and observe the wildlife we found. I had set myself up with the greatest opportunity a photographer could to capture arctic wildlife. 

For this trip I took the D850 and D810 Nikon bodies, with the following lenses: 16-35mm, 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 400mm 2.8, and 1.4 and 2X converters. For an explanation in more detail of why I use these lenses, please head to my gear blog. 

Embarkation

Departing from London Heathrow on Monday, I had 4 flights and an overnight hotel in Copenhagen before I even reached the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard. With limited flight times and only 2 airlines flying the route, I was very lucky to get flights last minute and for the most direct flights, booking in advance is essential.

By Tuesday afternoon at 2pm, I had landed in Longyearbyen and got a transfer straight to the ship. With such a small crew it felt like home straight away. After meeting the rest of the guests and crew, we learnt a bit more about our guides, Alex and Lauren, who both had years of experience guiding and were very knowledgeable about the area and the wildlife. We set off that evening, sailing to the south.

On our first day we saw two polar bears out on the fast ice. We watched from a distance. When the bears are in the distance like this, a telephoto zoom lens is necessary to get any sort of image where the bear is recognisable and I spent a lot of time shooting at 800mm due to this.  

Shot with a Nikon D850 400mm 2.8 + a 2x converter.

Shot with a Nikon D850 400mm 2.8 + a 2x converter.

In the afternoon we hopped onto the zodiacs and made our way to land for our first shore landing. Getting up close and personal with the Arctic landscapes was incredible. Standing at the foot of towering cliffs and heading to a higher vantage point to see the full scale was Svalbard was something I cannot put into words. Of course the wildlife was there as well: Seabirds were constantly circling around overhead and nesting in the cliffs while arctic foxes were out darting around and trying to hunt the bird eggs. After wandering around and taking it all in we got back into the zodiacs and cruised back to the Kinfish.

After dinner and some socialising, it was time to get some sleep.

Svalbard

Summer in Svalbard sees the midnight sun out in full force which is quite odd when you’re not used to it, but it definitely has its perks for photography and wildlife viewing with the guides coming to wake you up at any time if there’s a good bear sighting. In general during the ‘night-time’ hours we mostly covered long distances, allowing us to wake up in a different location each morning. 

Most days were spent enjoying 1 to 2 zodiac excursions each day to explore glaciers and head ashore to see more of the wildlife and arctic landscapes that Svalbard has to offer. We were gifted with relatively calm weather throughout which offered an amazing opportunity for landscape photography. Heading out into the zodiacs provided a lower perspective and the opportunity to get closer images and unique angles of glaciers, icebergs and reflections in the water.

On one afternoon, our guides spotted a polar bear in the distance so we anchored up to the fast ice and waited to see if the bear would come to us. As is the case with most wildlife photography, patience is key and you don’t always get what you’ve been waiting for. We spent 18 hours observing and hoping it would come closer, however the below image is the closest we saw this particular polar bear.

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As much as I would have loved for this bear to come near the ship to get a close-up shot, I also love the scale in this photo between the glacier/mountains and the bear as it really conveys their habitat in Svalbard.

Overall, in terms of photography, it’s a lot easier to take images of polar bears in cloudy weather as the light is more even, acting as a diffuser. However, the bright sunshine and blue skies are great for photos with the sea and landscape images such as glaciers, ice bergs and mountains, allowing the colour contrast to really show. By adding a polariser onto the lens, it was able to reduce some of the harsh reflections and really make the blues pop.

Early in the season, the East side of Svalbard is engulfed in ice, making it inaccessible. However, due to warmer weather we were able to head around, making us the first ship around there this season. Over this side of Svalbard, we were completely alone, not another ship in sight. It was here that we had our luckiest day yet, we saw 14 bears within a 4 mile radius! Many of them were a over 500m away, making close-up photography impossible, but again the landscapes more than made up for it.

Continuing our search, on our last day around the East side, we experienced the moment I had been waiting for: a mother and her two cubs playing and jumping in the water about 100m away. Having just had a dip in the sea, one of the cubs stood up on its hind legs, which was the perfect moment to capture and was that closer shot of a polar bear that I’d wanted.

That evening was one of my favourite moments of the whole trip. The calm waters created the perfect environment for reflections and with the polar bears wandering and playing, we sat down as a group and enjoyed a BBQ out on deck.

Overnight we moved south, gradually making our way back to Longyearbyen. It was down in this Southern area where we made one of my favourite landings. A lot of the time this site is inaccessible due to high tide and very shallow waters. Upon making the landing, we were greeted with the towering rock walls of the canyon and thousands of kittiwakes. Wandering around, we were also thrilled to see an arctic fox hunting.As we were walking back to the zodiacs, the fox ran out the of canyon with a bird in its mouth.

Another landing before we reached our final destination saw a very photogenic family of Arctic Foxes, playing and hunting, the perfect end to a fantastic trip.

To Conclude

We were very lucky on this trip to see 20 bears. Many people often only report seeing a few and they’re usually quite far away from the ship, as most of our sightings were. However, even if we had only seen a few bears, the experience and the landscapes were absolutely incredible and 100% worth the journey.

If you want to look at booking the trip I did, check out the below link:

https://www.naturalworldsafaris.com/holidays/polar-regions/svalbard/svalbard-polar-bear-explorer

Thank you so much for reading! If you have any questions just let me know below.

Alex SteadComment