Svalbard – Classic Photo Expedition III 2023 with Daniel Bailey
ORYX guests, alongside Marius Coetzee and Daniel Bailey, departed from the world’s northernmost settlement, Longyearbyen, and embarked aboard the MS Virgo, with our travel partners WildPhoto commencing the Svalbard – Classic Photo Expedition III.
Svalbard is the largest Norwegian Archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean partway between Norway and the North Pole. With towering snowcapped mountains, forbidding glaciers, flower-studded tundra & towering fjords, it is here where the formidable Polar Bear reigns as the apex predator.
Svalbard is considered the best place on earth for photographing Polar Bears but also a treasure trove of photographic highlights await that includes the Arctic Fox, Walrus, Bearded & Harbour Seals, Belugas, Narwhal, Bowhead, Humpback, Fin & Blue Whales, Puffins, Guillemots and Reindeer.
Our journey unfurled amidst dramatic mountains, cascading waterfalls, and cliffs teeming with nesting Black-Legged Kittiwakes. As we ventured forth, the Arctic treated us to the presence of Beluga whales, a Minke whale, and two walruses gracefully gliding through the waters of Billefjorden. Drawing nearer to the colossal glacier and the imposing Icewall Nordenskiöldbreen, we found ourselves enveloped by the overwhelming scale and commanding presence of this frozen titan. The glacier resonated with a symphony of shifting, groaning, cracking, and thunderous bellows, immersing us in an aura of sheer grandeur.
Our excitement reached its zenith at precisely 23:00 when the bridge delivered exhilarating news of a polar bear sighting. Swiftly, we boarded the zodiacs, eager to explore this icy realm. As we ventured closer, our eyes scanned the vast landscape, searching for their first glimpse of the polar bear.
There she lay—a breathtaking female, reclining gracefully beneath the glacier on a bed of volcanic rock, bathed in the ethereal glow of the midnight sun. For a fleeting moment, she graced our group with a knowing glance, as if acknowledging our presence, before stretching and slipping back into slumber. It was a moment suspended in time and an unbelievable start to the photo expedition.
The next morning, we met the fuel tanker to refuel, and we departed from Grønnfjorden in the outer part of Isfjorden. At around 09:30, we began our journey northwards. We sailed throughout the night and the entire following day, heading northeast in open waters with the goal of reaching the pack ice. We entered it late in the evening, and it was truly a breathtaking sight, a privilege to reach the northernmost point at N 80.45°, E 020.33.4°.
We ventured deeper into the pack ice, breaking through the ice floes. This is when we encountered unforgettable sightings of walruses on the ice and Black-legged Kittiwakes diving for fish around our ship. With the never-setting midnight sun, we were blessed with the most beautiful light throughout the evening. We photographed late into the night and early morning, making the most of the opportunity to capture iconic imagery of the ice pack. We were ever hopeful of encountering a polar bear on the pack ice, but this was not to be. We celebrated with drinks at midnight, fully immersing ourselves in the true beauty of the Arctic. It was indeed a privilege to inhale the cold, fresh air alongside an amazing group of people.
The next morning we awoke to open ocean, a surreal feeling to be out of the pack ice. We had slightly rougher seas, with 2-meter swells as we ventured further east to eventually reach Kvitøya (The White Island) just after breakfast. The conditions were rough and made it difficult to approach closer to the island. From the ship, we spotted a large, lone male polar bear. He was walking on land and eventually lay down to rest in the morning sunshine. Due to the heavy swell, we couldn’t board the zodiacs and approach closer. Despite this, it was a privilege to see our second polar bear of the trip. The landscape was beautiful with huge glacial fronts and the opportunity to photograph the white island, and the striking patterns and textures of the glacier caused by meltwater. It appeared as if the ice had been struck by lightning. Due to the heavy swell, the decision was made to leave Kvitøya and return west, with a course for Storøya.
We traveled south from Storøya, continuously scanning for wildlife and soaking in the surreal landscapes. Late in the afternoon, we enjoyed a rarer sighting of a walrus mother and her newborn calf, resting on a small iceberg in front of the northern edge of Bråsvellbreen, which is the world’s third-largest glacier front. This evening a heavy mist and fog rolled in, and after a delicious dinner, we retired for the evening.
The next morning we woke up to clear skies and in front of the glacier, further south along Bråsvellbreen. The glacial ice walls and the waterfalls of were mesmerizing; the size and grandeur of this glacier front are hard to comprehend. This was an incredible experience for our entire group; everyone was ecstatic to have the privileged opportunity to see this natural wonder, as we were concerned about the heavy fog from the night prior.
Bråsvellbreen is an immense glacier situated in Sørkapp Land on Spitsbergen, the largest island within the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It stands as one of the most awe-inspiring locations in Svalbard, a remarkable natural wonder. This glacier presents a breathtaking expanse of ice, complete with towering ice cliffs and dramatic crevasses. It is truly challenging to fully grasp the sheer size and grandeur of Bråsvellbreen. This glacier boasts the largest front in the northern hemisphere, extending over approximately 200 kilometers in length, with ice walls that reach a staggering height of 50 meters. What adds to its allure is the presence of cascading waterfalls that plunge into the Arctic Ocean. These waterfalls are formed as meltwater from the glacier’s surface flows down through crevasses, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. Bråsvellbreen is a natural wonder that leaves a lasting impression on anyone fortunate enough to witness its majesty.
After spending our morning soaking in the sights at Bråsvellbreen, we enjoyed lunch and set sail with the aim of finding some walrus colonies. We were treated to an unforgettable experience as we landed at Torellneset. We boarded the zodiacs and made our way to make a beach landing and approach on foot. It was a special experience to be on foot, walk, and approach the walrus colony from a safe and respectful distance. It was quite something to sit, observe, and photograph a thriving walrus colony. The sight of these gigantic creatures up close was truly awesome. There were potentially 25 individuals, resting on the beach. There were dramatic scenes with big bulls, weighing 1.5 tons, jostling for prime position, as they all tried to get some sleep in a close huddle, basking in the sunshine. There were small groups swimming and feeding in the surrounding waters. They would momentarily approach the beach and great curiosity, observe and shuffle closer onto the beach to get a closer look at us. They were very inquisitive, and this allowed for great photographic moments and portraiture displaying their tusks, whiskers, and scars from previous battles. But the wonders didn’t end there – a stroke of luck led to a rare sighting of two Arctic fox kits playfully engaging with the walrus colony, as they searched for any morsels to eat. This was apparently a first, for our Arctic guides, Frede and Jan, on all of their expeditions!
After lunch, we set sail with the aim of getting to the Brussnet Guillet bird cliffs at Alkefjellet. We hoped to get there closer to midnight to make the most of the clear weather conditions and light for photography. As we sailed along mountain peaks and glaciers, en route, we encountered a male polar bear. Roughly at 21:00, we boarded the Zodiacs. We approached the large male polar bear resting on the pebble-lined beach. He was resting and occasionally would glance up at us or lift his head to pick up a scent on the breeze. He provided us with some memorable photographic opportunities. It was a special experience, photographing the polar bear from the Zodiacs, at eye level and low angles. We spent about 45 minutes with this particular bear. He was rather dirty, and we deduced that he had recently fed on a carcass and would be resting on the beach for quite some time. We decided to leave him be and made our way back to the MS Virgo to continue on towards Alkefjellet.
As we approached Alkefjellet, ‘the mountain of the guillemots’, we were immediately taken aback. The sheer size of the cliffs is mind-blowing. It appears to be something out of a fantasy novel, think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. Even from several kilometers away, one can already see literally hundreds of thousands of birds and hear the humming, beats of wings, and calls of activity. Just after 23:00, we boarded the Zodiac and approached the bird cliffs and the breeding colony of over 600,000 pairs of endangered Brunnich Guillemot. They nest on these sheer cliff faces, some 400 meters tall. They all had young chicks that were very nearly ready to jump and leave this site, otherwise, they spend the rest of their life at sea. This is a very special location; it is a constant hum of activity.
You can’t quite comprehend the sights, sounds, and activity from over 2 million birds darting in and out of these gigantic, impenetrable cliff faces and fingers. It was great fun photographing the birds, capturing them in flight; they are more agile underwater than they are in the air, they appear to be belly flopping off the cliff faces. We explored the patterns, shapes, and shadows in the rock faces, all in the privileged opportunity to be here at midnight with outstanding golden light. This was undeniably a firm favorite moment from the expedition and one that many could miss due to inclement weather conditions. We all counted ourselves as part of a lucky few individuals on the planet to observe, photograph, and simply put down the cameras and appreciate the spectacle playing out in front of our eyes.
The next morning we awoke and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience on Wahlbergøya, spotting not one, not two, but three polar bears feasting on a minke whale carcass. This carcass had frozen over from the previous winter season, and now the polar bears were making the most of the opportunity to feed. We observed all three bears take their turns feeding.
We photographed a grizzly-looking older male and a younger male walking along the ridgeline towards the carcass. A stunning backlit moment that gave our guests a shot of a lifetime, as well as high-key imagery with rim lighting and condensation of the polar bear’s breath. It was a true spectacle to observe this bear walking above us on the ridge line and gave us a sense of his true size; most males weigh 600 kilograms, and they are pure muscle and raw power as their feet touched down on the ancient rock surface. We also had a beautiful sighting of a younger bear, potentially 5 years old, swim and clean himself after feeding, with head shakes, to dispel water from his coat. He allowed us the opportunity to follow him in the Zodiacs as he walked along the glistening turquoise blue water’s edge before finding a place to rest on a basalt cliff face.
Another highlight was watching one of the polar bears walking on a snow shelf above a glacier wall, in which we explored images with a wider perspective incorporating the patterns and lines within the ice. These created iconic and beautiful imagery. We also enjoyed the sight of a total of six ivory gulls that were flying and feeding on scraps alongside the polar bears at the Minke whale carcass.
We spent most of the day out photographing the polar bears coming in for short breaks and meals. Another highlight was that we also got to enjoy a shore landing with a larger walrus colony on another cove on the island. There were potentially more than 60 walruses within this colony. They were a sight to see as they rolled and fought within the group for the best sleeping and sun spot. The large group of blubber against the backdrops of the mountains and landscape made for great images. We enjoyed quiet moments with walruses swimming in the water and beaching, and sometimes even approaching us at very close range on the shoreline. Walruses apparently have poor eyesight, but are incredibly curious and intelligent. They would often approach in a friendly, inquisitive manner on the shoreline and then retreat back into the water. After a very productive day, we were all exhausted, and our memory cards were full. We enjoyed dinner and an editing session as we sailed throughout the night and woke up the following day at the 7 Islands. These are the northernmost islands on Svalbard. Our guides and team scouted for wildlife from MS Virgo, but there was no major wildlife to see. It was a beautiful landscape, lunar in appearance, and gave us a better understanding that it is, in fact, an Arctic desert. We were informed that it was actually a good thing not to have encountered polar bears on the 7 Islands, as they had already made their way onto the ice packs, with more abundant food sources on offer. If not, they would have been stranded there until the next winter. We continued to sail south towards Zorgdragefjorden and Beverleysundet on Nordaustlandet. We all enjoyed being outside and photographing the ever-changing landscape.
The next morning we explored Hamilton Bay in Raudfjorden by zodiac. We were out on the water for over four hours. The landscape, glaciers, and the wildlife were rich. We spent a lot of time photographing birdlife and the landscape. A firm highlight was photographing Arctic Terns. They are also nesting this time of year with young chicks hidden among the rocks. The Arctic terns are one of the most tenacious birds in Svalbard; they are very territorial, and anything or anyone that gets too close is met with aggression. Known as the ‘sea swallow’, they’re easily identified by their black caps on their head, red bill, and otherwise white bodies. They would mob our groups on the Zodiacs as we navigated through the bay. We tried our best not to disturb them, but they were tenacious and they dived and mobbed us, allowing us to create unique imagery with wide-angle lenses as they fluttered delicately above our heads.
Later that day, we continued to sail towards Fuglefjorden, an impressive glacier, and where we managed to observe a huge ice mass collapse from the glacier front. We sailed onwards towards Virgohamn. This was a location of an old Dutch whaling station from yesteryear. It was quite something to regale in the history of the area and the sheer number of whales that used to be hunted at this location, establishing a settlement equipped with boilers to reduce the blubber into glycerol. A large number of Bowhead whales and Humpback whales were hunted here in the past; reports state that the bay was filled with carcasses of hundreds if not thousands of whales during the season. In a fitting and somewhat poetic series of events, at this exact location, we saw our first and only Humpback whale. It was fin-slapping the surface with its pectoral fins and tail. A sign and hope for the future.
Our aim was to go out in the Zodiacs to search for Harbor seals. We boarded the Zodiacs and headed out into the cove. We searched the bay and found no sign of the seals. To our disappointment! We deduced that this location had frozen over with ice during the past winter, and it was likely the seals had moved on to a new location. As we slowly made our way back to the MS Virgo, we spotted a polar bear from a distance on the rocky shoreline. This was such a huge relief and such an unexpected twist of events. We were all ecstatic!
This moment was the ultimate pinnacle of our Svalbard expedition as we were treated to a wonderful sighting of a gorgeous young female polar bear. She kept us entertained, patrolling the shoreline, posing regally for images, and eventually she took a playful swim. It was an unbelievable sight. One that each and every one of our guests will forever cherish. After her swim, she returned to shore, took a deep sniff of the air, and continued to patrol the beach. As we followed her, she provided great photographic opportunities with her reflection dancing on the water’s surface. At the end of it, she discovered a walrus carcass, providing us with a front-row seat to her mealtime ritual. A true privilege and the highlight of our unforgettable expedition. We ended our day with dinner and drinks in front of the stunning Smeerenburg Glacier.
We had an absolute blast at 14th July Bay, capturing the antics of Arctic Puffins. Despite the Zodiacs bobbing about, it was a thrilling and fun-filled session as these birds leaped from the cliff faces, darting into the Arctic sea in search of their next meal. A challenging yet incredibly enjoyable experience. We spent the evening at Kongsfjorden with a few reindeer feeding at the base of a cliff face with nesting Black-Legged Kittiwakes. We explored large icebergs and photographed shapes and patterns of the diamond ice, as well as various species of birds, notably Arctic Skuas, Black-Legged Kittiwakes, and gulls on the ice.
We woke up in Tryghamna and had a shore landing at Alkehornet after breakfast. We enjoyed the opportunity to walk on land, enjoyed the summer tundra and wildflowers underneath a striking mountain face. We had a wonderful sighting of a family of reindeer under the impressive bird cliff.
We sailed through the late evening to return to Longyearbyen. We arrived at the harbour and docked. On our final evening, we had a delicious dinner all together. Then, we enjoyed a recap of the expedition, sipped on drinks of choice (my personal choice: Scotch with 10,000-year-old glacial ice), and went through a slideshow of everyone’s favorite images and relived our shared experiences.
We were all so content and blessed to have traveled a total of 1316.57 nautical miles through the Svalbard archipelago. Our memory cards were full, and so were our hearts. It was a trip of a lifetime and one that everyone should consider doing at least once in their life. It was truly a holistic and life-changing experience, from the camaraderie of guests and crew to the incredible Arctic landscapes and wildlife. I simply cannot wait to get back and host guests at this incredible otherworldly destination.
The photography opportunities on a Svalbard photo tour are endless and incredibly rewarding! At ORYX Photo Tours we offer Svalbard photo expeditions during different seasons which cater to the needs of photographers on a small expedition ship, with zodiac outings and is limited to only 12 participants.
If you love soft lighting, join a Winter or Autumn Light photo expedition. If you love ice, join the Ice Lover photo expedition. If you love the midnight sun, join the Classic photo expedition. Each have different elements that cover wildlife, topography and lighting – it all depends on what your photo targets are!
I look forward to exploring the Arctic with you in the near future.