Cairns finally goes over the edge!

A report from our Arctic correspondent, John Cumberland.

Location: Svalbard: August ’11.

We’re happily bobbing around in our Zodiac in the middle of an Arctic fjord against a backdrop of three colossal glaciers that  ‘calve’ noisily and create mini tsunamis with blue icebergs the size of articulated lorries, bouncing around and sometimes rolling over. The water beneath us is a gorgeous shade of aquamarine and a chilly 10C.

Pete, one of our  so-called ‘expert’ guides, is in ‘Viking mode’ sitting on the prow of our flimsy vessel enthusiastically searching out a seal here, a bird there, was that a bear in the distance? Then suddenly, a splash. A very loud splash.  He’s in the water!  He’s actually in the bloody water! His camera and 500mm lens remain on the zodiac, somewhat lonely, on the prow. But Cairns himself is completely submerged!  His lifejacket automatically inflates, just as it should but whilst returning him to the icy surface, nearly throttles him in the process. Chaos reins.  ‘Belfast Annie’, sitting on the starboard side, is in no mood to see our Viking hero float off into oblivion.  Adrenaline pumping, she leans over the side and grabs Pete in the neck region clamping him firmly to the side of the Zodiac.  As her spectacles steam up, Pete is heard to say, over and over again , “Annie, I am trying to get my leg over!”  This sounds to Annie like one of the best offers she’s had in years and so her grip tightens on her Viking hero.  While those of us on the port side balance the Zodiac (and if truth be told take as many pictures as we can), calm Swedish Captain Dan intervenes and soon Pete is safely back on board.

Pete becomes the subject of great concern (that doesn’t stop us taking yet more pictures) but our bedraggled leader remains cheerful and Annie helpfully points out the similarity between Pete’s inflated lifejacket and a ‘Double D’ bra that’s somehow got caught around his neck. Spitting out several mouthfuls of Arctic brine, Pete admits to feeling somewhat foolish, or words to that effect. A hollow, unsympathetic, chuckle is heard from our sister zodiac which Pete immediately recognises as the voice of his (supposedly) best mate, Mark Hamblin. We all vow that he should be next for a dunking!

On returning to the mother ship, Pete is soon restored to warmth and his usual level of exuberance.  Never mind, you can’t have everything!

This was John Cumberland, Northshots News, The Arctic.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are not necessarily shared by Northshots and are clearly those of an individual who derives satisfaction from the misfortune of others.

Svalbard 2011.

Picture the scene. We’re bobbing gently on a mirror-calm fjord surrounded by the most exquisite of ice sculptures, some reflecting myriad turquoise tones, others graphic in their design and transparency. Beyond, a series of jagged-toothed mountain tops are periodically caressed by delicate wisps of snow-white cloud as their bases are gnawed by glacial teeth, unrelenting for millennia. Periodically the constant pushing and heaving of ice delivers a thunderous crack and a slab of history the size of a tenement block, crashes into the aquamarine waters, stirring a wave that takes several minutes to reach us, by which time all is silent once more. “All we need now is a glass of red wine,” quips John C, one of our merry ‘class of Svalbard 2011’. And he’s right. The silence, solitude and sheer majesty of this primeval, evolving landscape is hard to improve upon, but yes John, a glass of vino would certainly round it off.

As ever our good ship Origo provided a warm and cosy bolt hole from the worst of the arctic weather and thanks to an excellent crew (great grub throughout), we never felt deprived of creature comforts even in this, one of the remotest places on earth. Despite one couple (sorry Bob & Anne) forgetting that an open cabin porthole in choppy seas, has inevitable consequences for the moisture content of bed linen and carpets, our group remained dry and warm throughout (well, not quite but more of that later).

Given the abundance of classic polar bear images from this part of the world, it’s easy to imagine that the largest land predator on earth is easy to find. Not so. We’re talking about a solitary animal that roams huge distances in search of food, spends much of its time holed up behind icebergs and can swim almost as inconspicuously as any otter. They are also white. And so is ice. You need to put yourself in the right habitat, spend some serious time on deck with a good pair of binoculars, but above all, you need some luck and the arctic can be a fickle friend.

We notched up 10 polar bear sightings and photographed 4. Disappointingly the ice pack was unusually far north and was hellbent on travelling even further north, depriving us of some time in prime polar bear habitat and we prematurely headed south following Plan B.

One of the other real characters of the arctic is the previously-persecuted walrus. Now bouncing back, these leviathans present the photographer with several challenges: they are uniformly brown, rarely awake and are found in places where the sun don’t shine. Apart from that they’re easy and we had two great sessions with a worthy support act of squabbling arctic terns in superb light.

The north can be cruel – light is hard to come by, weather is fickle and there are no migrating herds of wildebeest – the Masai Mara this ain’t. But when it’s good, it’s fantastic and if you accept the 90/10 rule (90% of the time there are no pictures to be taken), the 10% gets under your skin and lures you back time and time again.

Other highlights included particularly obliging bearded and ringed seals from the zodiacs and mirrored ice sculptures in perfect light. But for me, it’s not polar bears or seals or landscapes or mirror-calm reflections, it’s all of it rolled into one big spectacular life experience. It’s 12 months before I’ll be there again but I’m already counting the days. If you want to join us, you’d be welcome as there’s only one thing that tops Svalbard itself and that’s being there in good company. We were, so thanks to this year’s group – you were the glass of red wine that topped it off.

I mentioned staying dry. Of course this assumes that you avoid inadvertently taking a dip in the frigid arctic waters. I failed in that particular objective but more of that in a future post…

Sex on 4 legs…or 2 wings.

I know I’m not alone in search of the holy grail that is mainstream acceptance of the natural history image. Yes I know that conservation is more ‘popular’ than ever and that greetings cards of robins sell by the truckload. I’ve even noticed the trend for well established camera operators to become presenters, such is the appetite of a growing audience for contact with nature – virtual or otherwise.

But let’s be honest: it’s not mainstream, not really. Very little of what I or my contemporaries do, ever gets noticed beyond a very small niche audience. We’re simply not sexy enough. And so it was with great surprise (and cautious delight) that I picked up a copy of HELLO magazine recently (left at our holiday cottage I’ll have you know). Amongst all the glitz and the obscene conspicuous consumerism of the great and the good, an image from the Wild Wonders of Europe collection – yes, a natural history photograph in HELLO magazine! Right in there alongside a more than generous serving of designer-clad celebs sporting the latest shade of orange skin pigment.

So my quest for 2011 is to give thought (or should I say ‘more thought’) into translating this faint ember of hope into a raging inferno. Conservation has been historically conservative in its quest to sell itself. Perhaps 2011 is the year for nature photographers to prostitute ourselves; to do whatever it takes to be seen; to be conspicuous; to be less worthy; to make our subjects sexy.

Any ideas? A very safe and contented New Year to one and all.

Bears and more bears.

With tours to Finland and Alaska now completed, we’re already looking at bear options for next year. If we’re honest, we just can’t get enough of bears and judging from enquiry levels, neither can you!

We’ll more than likely be staging a bear (and wolf) tour to Finland, so if you’re interested, do drop us a line.