Although I’ve been fortunate to have worked in over 45 different countries with my photography, both the Arctic and Antarctica are very much still on my wish list. Up until August that is, when I got to cross one of those off!
Technically I had already been within the Arctic Circle a number of times during previous shoots in Alaska. But this time we were heading north by boat – the M/S Stockholm polar expedition vessel to be exact – and we were going to get a lot closer to the North Pole than I had ever been before. I was leading a photographic group for Journeys Unforgettable, a tour company based in the US that runs photography trips all around the world. Together with expedition leader Rinie Van Meurs, we would be taking a group of guests in search of the elusive polar bear that inhabits the Arctic Circle.
Our journey started in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago. Svalbard is a Norwegian territory that lies halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole. At 78 degrees N. latitude, we were already further north than I had ever been before! Once we had all made our introductions it was time to board the M/S Stockholm and commence our northward journey. Built in 1953 for the Swedish National Maritime Administration, the M/S Stockholm has since been refitted and now has a productive career as a very comfortable polar passenger ship. With room for only 12 guests on board, it was an intimate and friendly group.
The first day and a half saw us sailing the coast of Spitsbergen past incredible glacial scenery and low hanging fog before finally waving goodbye to shore and heading out to sea. We would be following the edge of the pack ice northwards, and none of us knew quite what to expect. But the skies were clear, the seas were calm and the mood was one of eager anticipation… The one thing we were all sure of was that this was going to be a “once in a lifetime” adventure for everyone on board.
Breaking your way through immense sheets of solid, frozen ice is an experience like no other. The ship cruises at a constant speed as it slowly rides up onto the ice before coming down to break through and continue forward. The crack and grate of the ice on the hull of the boat echoes and vibrates in a way that contrasts with what you would normally hope to hear while afloat! However while the noise and the movement are somewhat disturbing on the first day, we all very quickly got used to it and the sound became a familiar companion during the trip, in fact the silence was almost eerie whenever the creaking ice was absent. Watching the ice slide past was entirely mesmerising and it was easy to stand at the ship’s rails transfixed as we slowly covered the miles north.
Expedition leader Rinie however kept his eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, using binoculars to search for and spot distant polar bears. His ability to spot them from far away was simply incredible. Often he would point them out to us and we still couldn’t see them until we were much closer. His record for spotting a bear at distance was 6.8 nautical miles (nearly 13 kms) which we worked out using GPS tags when we eventually reached the bear. On spotting any wildlife or features of interest, we would approach slowly either in the M/S Stockholm itself or by the inflatable rib tender boat, often going “ashore” (or onto the pack ice) when conditions were suitable. Gulls would hover and chase the tender boat, diving in whenever we broke through the ice to catch the arctic cod that live beneath the frozen surface.
The main focus of our trip – polar bears, were only ever viewed from on board the M/S Stockholm, where we would move in slowly from upwind if possible. If the bears could smell us they would approach the ship themselves to investigate – we didn’t follow the bears and moved on when they did, leaving them to the constant and daily necessity of wandering the edge of the pack ice hunting for their next meal. Although bear attacks are rare, safety precautions are stringent and Rinie carried flares and a gun anytime we left the expedition vessel.
In total we saw and photographed 23 individual bears, most out on the edge of the pack ice though we also saw mother and cubs closer in on land. Polar bears, unlike their brown bear cousins, are active year-round though they will often fast through the summer months when restricted to land by the melting ice shelf. An adult male bear can weigh up to 700kgs and measure up to 3 metres in length making them the largest living species of land predator, slightly larger than the Grizzly bears I have previously photographed in Alaska. Observing and photographing them from our water based home in such an incredible and mesmerising environment was definitely one of the highlights of my photography career to date, a sentiment readily shared by my guests on board the cruise. And if sharing images of these amazing creatures helps protect their environment for the future then it’s a job well done.
Alongside the polar bears we also saw massive walrus with their curved tusks and bristly moustaches, harbour seals, bearded seals, blue whales and any number of migrant sea bird species that spend their summers in the arctic. For those of us briefly visiting the region it was all we could have hoped for and more…
Click to watch a video slide show of images and time lapse from Chris’s Arctic Adventure:
All images copyright Chris McLennan