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Svalbard – Winter Wonderland with Daniel Bailey

An Arctic Adventure of a Lifetime

For multiple repeat guest and good friend, we embarked on an adventure to the northernmost part of our planet, to experience the pristine, silent world of Svalbard in peak winter. Our previous visit to this remote archipelago was in August 2024, but the allure of its frozen beauty called us back. This time, we were determined to capture the essence of winter in Svalbard, guided by the seasoned ORYX leader, Daniel Bailey.

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Journey to the Edge of the World

Our journey began in Cape Town, South Africa, from where we flew to Oslo, Norway, and onward to Longyearbyen, the gateway to the Arctic. We spent our first night at the Polar Hotel Radisson Blu, savouring the anticipation of the days ahead. The next morning, we set off on our Svalbard Winter Expedition, a three-day snowmobile trek to the remote Isfjord Radio Station.

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Snowmobiling to Isfjord Radio Station

Covering 90 kilometers on snowmobiles, we traversed snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, and fjords. Our path led us through the dramatic landscapes of Spitsbergen, culminating at the historic Isfjord Radio Station. Along the way, we encountered the resilient Svalbard reindeer, their antlers silhouetted against the snow-covered terrain as they foraged for food in this frozen wilderness.

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We were fortunate to photograph harbour seals basking on ice floes, flocks of King and Common Eiders, and the elusive Arctic Fox in its winter coat. A particularly memorable sighting was the Svalbard rock ptarmigan, perfectly camouflaged against the snowy backdrop.

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Braving the Arctic Elements

One of the most exhilarating moments was navigating through a white-out snowstorm. Visibility was reduced to just a few feet, and we relied heavily on our guide, Pieder, and the faint lights of the snowmobile ahead to stay on course. Despite the harsh conditions, the adventure was invigorating, and the thrill of the Arctic wilderness was unmatched.

Our accommodations at the Isfjord Radio Station Hotel were comfortable, offering a warm refuge after our daily excursions. The remote setting provided the perfect backdrop for exploring the inland wonders of Svalbard.

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The Polar Plunge: A Refreshing Arctic Dip

One of the highlights of our trip was the polar plunge, an exhilarating experience that tested our limits and left us feeling truly alive. After a full day of exploring on snowmobiles, we decided to take advantage of the relatively warmer weather—just mildly above the -20°C mark.

Dressed in our bathrobes and boots, we made our way to the sauna. Once warmed up, we derobed, put on our fashionable Crocs, and waddled like penguins to the edge of the Arctic sea. The water, at a chilling -1.8°C, was frigid but incredibly refreshing. Submerging ourselves in the icy waters was an invigorating experience, one that connected us deeply with the harsh yet beautiful environment of Svalbard.

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Crossing Grønfjorden

One of the most nerve-wracking yet awe-inspiring parts of our journey was crossing the frozen sea ice of Grønfjorden. We stopped every 100 meters to check the ice thickness, drilling into the ice to ensure it was safe to cross. The frozen expanse of Grønfjorden, 18 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide, was an otherworldly sight, with the vast white landscape stretching out before us.

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Exploring Ice Caves and Glaciers

On our return leg, we stopped to explore an ice cave underneath a glacier. Hiking up to the entrance of the cave, we marveled at the layers of earth frozen in time, remnants of a once-flowing underground river. Tobogganing down into the cave was a thrilling experience, revealing the stunning beauty and varied colors of the ice layers.

Venturing deeper into the crevice, we explored as far as 25 meters beneath the glacier, where the raw power and beauty of nature were frozen in time. The intricate formations and the sheer scale of the ice cave left us in awe, a true testament to the ever-changing yet timeless landscape of Svalbard.

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A Day with the Huskies

Our adventure continued with an Arctic mushing experience. We set off to the kennels to meet our team of enthusiastic huskies: Asterix, Penne, Obelix, Helfrid, Kairo, and Nomé. The excitement of the dogs was palpable as they howled in anticipation of the day ahead.

After a brief orientation, we set off on a 30-kilometer sled ride through the snow and ice. The stillness of the Arctic was punctuated only by the sound of the sled cutting through the ice and the joyous howls of the huskies. The clear skies and warm sunshine provided a stark contrast to the -21°C temperatures, making the experience even more memorable.

We paused for a lunch break, feeding our dogs before ourselves, and then continued our journey. The determination and energy of the dogs were inspiring, especially the two brothers, Asterix and Obelix, who were always eager to keep moving.

The return to the kennels was bittersweet. We thanked our dog team with cuddles and had the chance to meet a new litter of puppies, where a little blue-eyed girl captured our hearts.

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Embarking on the MS Virgo for the Svalbard Winter Photo Expedition

Having concluded our inland adventures, we transitioned to the next phase of our expedition aboard the MS Virgo, a ship designed to accommodate 12 photographic guests. Reuniting with the friendly and familiar crew and our expedition leaders, Frede and Eric, we set off to explore the archipelago for nine days, seeking out the winter wonders of Svalbard.

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Capturing the Arctic’s Winter Beauty

This was the third scheduled departure for the winter season, a rare and exciting experience for photographers. Our main focus was on the breathtaking landscapes, with lighting conditions that included the mesmerizing glow of the midnight sun. The sunsets and sunrises painted the snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and frozen fjords in pastels, golds, pinks, and blues, creating an ethereal backdrop for our photographs.

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Exploring the western and northern parts of Spitsbergen, and venturing above the 80th degree north into the vast ice packs, we hoped to find the resilient Arctic wildlife that thrives in these otherworldly lighting conditions.

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The legend of the Fulmars, believed to be the spirits of lost seamen, accompanied us on our voyage, adding a touch of mysticism to our journey.

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Encounters with Arctic Wildlife

Our encounters with Arctic wildlife were numerous and magical. We observed behemoth walruses lazing on ice floes, basking in the Arctic sun.

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Along the shoreline, sneaky Arctic foxes made their presence known, vocalising as it was their breeding season.

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This year, the ice formations were more extensive than in the past 20 years, a privilege to witness but also a reminder of the delicate balance of this ecosystem. Traversing the archipelago was tricky, as we were careful not to disturb the ice and the vital habitats for seals and their predator, the polar bears.

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The Elusive Polar Bear

Despite our hopes and efforts, we did not encounter any polar bears on this expedition. The conditions and timing simply weren’t in our favour. Yet, this season is renowned more for its stunning landscapes and extraordinary lighting than for its wildlife. While the potential disappointment of not seeing a polar bear was real, the privilege of experiencing Svalbard’s beauty outweighed any sense of loss.

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Reflecting on the Arctic Experience

Disembarking from the MS Virgo, we carried with us beautiful images of the Arctic landscape and a deep appreciation for Svalbard’s unique environment. This place, with its harsh yet stunning beauty, is far more than a destination for photographing polar bears. It is an adventure seeker’s utopia, a place to calm the mind and renew the spirit.

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As a South African bush boy, experiencing the Arctic’s rugged, pristine, and inhospitable environment was life-changing. The challenges of navigating and photographing in such harsh conditions highlighted the resilience of the wildlife and the fragility of this ecosystem, especially in the face of climate change.

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Svalbard’s silent, stark beauty left us speechless and profoundly moved. The experience of winter in this remote part of the world was worth every effort. It made me eager to return, hoping for a chance encounter with the iconic polar bear, but also to once again immerse myself in the unparalleled serenity and majesty of the Arctic.

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Our time in Svalbard, though challenging, was filled with unforgettable moments and breathtaking landscapes. The Arctic wilderness, with its serene beauty and resilient wildlife, left an indelible mark on us. This photo safari was more than an adventure; it was a journey into the heart of one of the most remote and pristine places on Earth. As we departed Svalbard, we carried with us not just photographs but memories of an Arctic wonderland that few are fortunate enough to witness.

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Daniel Bailey, ORYX Photo Tour Leader

 

Daniel Bailey is a Photo Tour Leader for ORYX private and scheduled departures. To view Daniel’s small group photo tours, click here.

 

To have Daniel join you on your tailor-made tour as your private Photo Tour Leader, please email [email protected]

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