Svalbard Photographic Highlights
From Arctic mammals and birds, to contrasting landscapes and towering glaciers, to a variety of contours and colours, Svalbard is a dazzling display waiting to be captured.
What can one expect to photograph on a Svalbard photo tour? Below is a list of photo opportunities that await, along with some interesting facts you may or may not have known about your possible photo targets:
The main photography portfolio drawcard for a Svalbard photo tour is the reigning “King of the Ice”, the Polar Bear.
These nomadic white bears are found normally in areas with sea ice as seals are their main source of food but as the pack ice retreats during the summer, they venture to land and eat bird eggs. Polar Bears are opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything, including carcasses of walrus or whales.
Polar Bears are largely solitary animals except for mothers with offspring or pairs that mate briefly during the spring. Unlike their Brown or Black bear cousins, Polar Bears do not hibernate during winter unless they are a pregnant female. However, in extreme Arctic winter conditions, non-hibernating bears may dig day-beds in the snow and rest for a day or two and some have been known to say in temporary dens for a number of days to avoid periods of bad weather.
Spring marks the start of the mating season and males will mate with several females within the same season. Polar Bears have delayed implantation, meaning the egg does not begin to develop until the autumn (September–October) even if mating took place during spring. Cubs are normally born early in the new year and leave the den with their mother in March or April. Youngsters stay with their mother for over 2 years and their survival rate before reaching 2 years is low, with only 1 out of 3 cubs surviving. Once they reach adulthood, their survival rate is high and they can live between 15-25 years.
Svalbard is one of the few places in the world where one can see Polar Bears in the wild and with the above taken into consideration, our Svalbard photo tours visit locations found among the archipelago that Polar Bears frequent during different seasons of photo expeditions.
Considered the second largest land predator on Svalbard, the Arctic Fox occurs almost everywhere on the archipelago from the highest mountain ridges, to the coasts and even on the drift ice. It is both a predator and scavenger, preying on ringed seal pups, seabirds, geese, bird eggs and birds during spring and summer, while in winter their diet consists mainly of birds, stored food that was gathered and caught during the warmer months or carcasses of seals and reindeer. Some foxes are known to follow Polar Bears onto drift ice and feed on their leftovers.
In order to blend with their surroundings as the seasons change, they moult twice a year. During the spring they begin to lose their white coat and sport brown fur until September when the white winter fur starts growing back. Their winter coat is so insulating that they do not need to drop their metabolism to keep warm until the temperatures drop below -50*C!
Interestingly, there is a small proportion that remains dark brown throughout the year, which accounts for about 3 % of the total population in Svalbard – they are known as a “blue fox.”
Although they live in the land of the Polar Bear, they have no natural enemies or competitors but their survival rate during the first year is very low. Approximately only 36% survive past one year of age.
The Walrus is the largest seal species in the Arctic and the second-largest one on a global scale, with bulls up to 3.5 metres long and approximately 1,500kg in weight. Only male Elephant Seals on the opposite side of the poles outgrow a Walrus!
They spend the whole year in the same region but move away from the coast and towards open water during the winter. As soon as the coast becomes ice-free, Walruses return to their traditional haul-out sites. Svalbard is home to an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 walruses, with their numbers on the rise.
A Walrus’s skin changes colour depending on how long they have been ashore or the temperature of the water when swimming. Normally their colour is brown but the skin tends to turn pinkish in warmer weather when on shore as increased blood circulation in the thick skin prevents overheating. When temperatures drop or when they come out of the water, the blood circulation decreases to preserve heat and their skin will then be a dark-grey shade.
When it comes to a Walrus’s impressive tusks, their exact significance is not clear but it’s believed they use them to haul their heavy bodies up onto the ice, to forage for food and to defend against predators. The possible main role of the tusks is perhaps a social one, using them to display dominance and mating rights.
On shore, Walruses are rather klutzy and slow, but when in the water are far more agile and graceful!
Although Svalbard is located in the Arctic, it has an abundance of birds, with over 126 species recorded on the archipelago. The majority do not nest here but they do visit in great numbers, especially sea birds and geese.
Migrating to Svalbard takes place over the summer when rich food sources in the Barents and Greenland Sea are available. June is considered the best time of the year for bird watching as migratory species gather in their thousands on cliff edges and along beaches before they start breeding.
Species such as Atlantic Puffin, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Northern Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Little Auks prefer the steep ledges in order to stay out of reach of predators, such as the Arctic Fox. Arctic Terns, Ringed Plovers, Purple Sandpipers, and four species of Skua stay down on the tundra, where they depend on their camouflage or aggressive behaviour for protection.
Only the Svalbard Ptarmigan resides on the island throughout winter, as well as Black Guillemots, Ivory Gulls and Long-Tailed Ducks in the ice-free areas.
The main species of seal found around the waters of Svalbard are the Bearded Seal, Ringed Seal, Harbor Seal and Harp Seal, and sometimes the lesser spotted Hooded Seal.
The Bearded Seal is the largest of the Arctic seals, characterised by its moustache, rectangular body and relatively small head. Their name derives from their distinct long facial whiskers that tend to curl when dry and studies have shown that these whiskers are very sensitive, with more than 1300 nerve fibers per vibrissae. This is among the highest density reported for any animal (cats only have 200 nerve fibers per vibrissae!)
The most ice-associated of all seals, the Ringed Seal is found across Arctic waters and is the main prey for Polar Bears. Their seal pups are born with white fur for better camouflage and are kept in snow dug caves constructed by their mothers with a breathing hole in the ice. When snow cover is low, Polar Bears tend to seek out pups that are not sheltered as an easy meal.
Harbour & Harp seals are vastly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere, while the Hooded Seal is found exclusively in the North Atlantic Ocean. What makes this peculiar spotted seal stand out other than its coat, is that males sport a “hood” and their ability to flare a red balloon like sac (which is actually an inflatable bladder septum) from the region of their nasal cavity, which they blow up to attract females.
The reindeer found on the Svalbard archipelago are a subspecies and the only one of its kind. Unlike their cousins, they do not gather in large herds and are normally spotted in small groups comprising only of 3 to 5 in numbers.
With short, plump legs, the reindeer on Svalbard are much smaller than the standard reindeer and both males & females sport antlers. Characterised as white with darker colouring along their back and faces, their coat normally lightens and thickens during winter to help offer protection during the harsh winters.
It’s adapted to survive the variable climatic conditions and the high degree of seasonality in Svalbard. They are very sedentary and thus have low energy demands, and they have an outstanding ability to use their own body reserves (both fat and muscle tissue) when access to food is limited in the winter. The thick fur contributes to insulation against low temperatures and wind.
During the winter, Svalbard reindeer forage in areas where snow has less chance to accumulate, such as mountain slopes, ridgelines, and plateaus. During the summer and when access to food is easier, reindeer spend most of their time feeding in order to accumulate enough fat to survive the next winter. Starvation is the most common cause of mortality when grazing on sparse vegetation among stones and gravel cause worn out teeth or due to lack of food when ice locks pastures and causes ‘rain-on-snow’ events during winter.
Near to extinction in the early 1900s due to excessive hunting, the reindeer gained protected status in 1925 and thanks to conservation efforts, there are now an estimated 22,000 Svalbard reindeer on the island.
Svalbard has a dark history with whales given that it gain notoriety as a whaling hot spot that commended during the 17th century but as a nature lovers’ paradise now focused on protecting its wildlife, Svalbard’s waters is a popular hangout for a number of whale species.
From Belugas, who are year-round locals, to migratory species such as the Minke whales, Blue whales, Fin Whales and Humpback whales and even the less frequented Killer Whales (Orcas) – whale watching can be very rewarding when on a Svalbard photo tour! The Bowhead whale and Narwhal have also been reported but sightings are extremely rare in Svalbard.
The summer months are the best months for whale encounters as they return to Arctic waters for ample food sources and they are often found playing in the fjords – much to a photographer’s delight!
LANDSCAPES & GLACIERS
Svalbard comprises of some extraordinary landscape scenery with its rock formations, mountains and glaciers. From brown moss-covered mountains, to jagged peaks, to centuries old glaciers, to aqua blue ice bergs that are scattered across the sea – it truly is a contradiction that also changes with the seasons.
During the summer, pack ice has significantly melted sufficiently to allow navigation and exploration of Svalbard, while the midnight sun provides ample light to view the island’s exquisite topography. In the spring and autumn, the lighting conditions on Svalbard are just magical with soft, pastel shades of orange, pink and blue that bathe the landscape’s features.
With approximately over 200 glaciers, 60% of Svalbard’s landscapes are covered by ice and during the summer the sea is sprinkled with floating ice fields, which is a popular hangout for Polar Bears as they hunt for seals. Icebergs come in all different shapes and sizes and their colour is an indicator of their age: blue icebergs are older while white indicates recent formation.
Not all of Svalbard is covered in ice as the island also sports tundra, which is a treeless area in Arctic regions with frozen subsoil and low growing vegetation, with the reindeer and Arctic fox as its main inhabitants. Roughly 7% of Svalbard is covered by vegetation with 170 plant species growing here.
The photography opportunities on a Svalbard photo tour are endless and incredibly rewarding! At ORYX Photo Tours we offer photo expeditions during different seasons which cater to the needs of photographer 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!
See you in Svalbard!
Written by Nicolette Louw