Any tour guide with even half a conscience will recognise the gut-wrenching feeling of lying in bed listening to the wind howling and the rain pounding outside. If it happens once or twice on a tour, the guests will likely sympathise but night after night and I start to stress. Arctic Norway is never going to be straightforward in winter and that’s why we go, but a constant near-gale south-westerly with all that it brings, isn’t good news.
You would think that even in these days of meteorological uncertainty, snow above the Arctic Circle could be relied upon in February. Alas no. The normally snow-laden Lofoten Islands in northern Norway were bare this year; naked; bereft of their white mantle; lacking in the wow factor that I’ve become accustomed to. Still, there’s no point in griping (although I’ve always found it helps), one has to do one’s best. Continue reading “Languid Lofoten”
The Arctic can be a cruel mistress. Fog, wind, rain, snow, rough seas and rough stomachs can all conspire against you and bring into question the wisdom of spending time (and money) in this hostile wilderness. Of course it can also deliver great rewards and that’s the deal – sit out the bad stuff and the good stuff will happen. And so it was with our recent photo tour to Svalbard. Lots of waiting around in the frontier town of Longyearbyen was followed by lots of waiting around on our way to the pack ice and our primary prey, the polar bear. Whether its climate change or just seasonal fluctuations, year on year that journey to the ice gets longer as it drifts ever further north. Fortunately for our patient and good-humoured group, the ice quickly delivered some good stuff and within an hour we had our first shots of the world’s largest land predator. We stayed up all night and before breakfast enjoyed a second bear encounter – this time from the low level perspective of a zodiac. But as I say, the Arctic is fickle and following a euphoric if not weary breakfast, our luck changed and bad weather forced us back south.
A wonderfully peaceful overnight amongst the sanctuary of the Seven Islands and a couple of walrus shoots later, we were on our way back north for a second bite at the polar bear cherry. With an even longer trek thanks to the southerly winds, I must admit I was desperate to pick up a bear on the desert of ice, which stretched, to the horizon. After a few hours we spotted a distant bear and were delighted to see it heading straight for us. 20 minutes later we had the boat wedged into the ice and a healthy female polar bear heading our way. She eventually baulked at coming onto the boat but was close enough to stare into her deep black eyes and allow the use of a wide-angle lens. We stayed with her for over 12 hours allowing her to sleep in a nearby snowdrift, before moving on.
A dawn shoot and zodiac cruise at one of the most spectacular seabird cliffs in the world was followed by a hearty breakfast and we moved on towards Liefdefjorden via an obliging pod of humpback whales. Entering the fjord the sea was settled and the sun caressed our trusty vessel, M/S Origo. Our zodiac cruise after dinner was pleasant but uneventful and on our return, the skipper advised us of an advancing front and the need to up anchor and head for calmer seas. Dawn brought frustration and an abortive landing on Fuglesongen, home of the little auk. Heading south was a laborious and bumpy ride with most of our guests catching up on sleep and avoiding the first real bad weather of the trip. Evening brought relief in the spectacular St Jonsfjorden and a polar bear sleeping on a distant glacier sadly beyond the reach of our lenses.
Dodging the rough seas we found ourselves at a well-visited (for Svalbard) site for arctic fox and eventually found a pair sleeping amongst the rocks. Foxes being foxes they soon perked up and treated us to a short show of hide and seek amongst the glacial boulders in which they make their home.
Sun-kissed blue and fin whales in great light, along with Svalbard reindeer and diving arctic skuas, all found their way onto our trip list. For me though, this tour was all about light and I found myself photographing it…a lot! No subject, just drama. I love drama.
This was our last Svalbard cruise for the foreseeable future and so it was a reflective farewell to this part of the planet, a place that has delivered high adventure over the years, a place that stays with you. Anyone who has ever visited the arctic will know what I mean.
Thanks to the tightly knit band of photographers who made the tour such a pleasure, thanks to our excellent bear guide Katja Riedel and thanks too to the crew of Origo – you’re the best guys!
And yes, yes…thanks to Amanda (my wife) for accompanying me (read blagging a place) and helping out with chocolate and bear spotting.
HMS The Still Image was a fine vessel in her day, safely conveying a select group of passengers to ports stocked with bountiful produce. To board her you had to be in the photographic elite but once you had a ticket, you’d be well looked after, your images respected, valued and capable of providing a healthy living. And then, one day, the omnipresent sun disappeared behind a cloud and a few stowaways sneaked onto The Still Image (I was one of them). And then a few more and a few more. The gallant vessel ploughed on but now more slowly, burdened as she was with extra passengers. As word got around, more and more piled on – a few with valid tickets but many simply lured by the tenuous promise of an easy passage to an easy career in a photographic Shangri-la. The storm clouds gathered and the once spacious, comfortable cabins were now packed full with hungry, ambitious and in some cases, unscrupulous, photographers. They all wanted a slice of the action and who could blame them? With limited space and dwindling supplies, passengers started to squabble like fractious children, like vultures fighting over a rotting carcass.
And so here am I today sitting astride the prow of The Still Image watching the water rise and pondering. The lifeboats have been launched and photographers everywhere are scrambling to save themselves as The Still Image slowly sinks under its own weight. The days of plenty are no more. The promise of a sun-kissed utopian life with a camera in hand is an empty one. The photographic elite have been consumed by a voracious swarm of ‘award-winning’ fresh talent and face a future of uncertainty that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
On the horizon is a distant land, unknown, unchartered. The lifeboat has one more space but even if I jump in, where will it take me? Back to port with all the others and the inevitability of more infighting? The distant island looks tempting, a risk yes but one worth taking? I know that I’m not alone on that prow. Many photographers I speak to today see uncertainty ahead of them. Who is the audience for my images? What do they want from me? How much are they willing to pay? I’ve not heard too many convincing answers to any of these questions. There’s no doubt that demand for visual imagery is still high but competition has seen prices plummet and petty one-upmanship become commonplace. It’s difficult to retain dignity faced with an empty dinner table.
So what of that distant island? Will the innovators, the pioneers, the storytellers, turn their backs on the lifeboat and strike out in a fresh direction; build a new life founded on a new product or service? I hope so. The seas might be infested with sharks but surely better run that gauntlet than face a slow, painful demise scrapping over that rotting carcass.
Surreal. It was 3am and I’d been up all night scanning the sun-kissed horizon for bears. Alongside me, Jean, one of our hardy group, with binoculars glued to his eyes. The sea was calm, the sun playing with the ocean’s surface and all was well with the world. “I think I have a bear,” said Jean and he pointed far across the ice. Although tiny at this distance, the familiar cream-on-white combination revealed it was indeed a polar bear. With the rest of the group sleeping we delayed an announcement until we were sure we could get close enough for picture-taking. An hour later all hell broke loose. “Bear on a seal kill” I yelled through every cabin door. In 15 minutes the sound of motordrives echoed around the arctic. Like I said, surreal.
‘Surreal’ is certainly one word to describe this arctic wilderness. Another is ‘fickle’. Moody, broody, mean and cruel; bright and giving, humbling, cool. Svalbard is an emotional and physical roller coaster and the Northshots tour group of 2012 rode it to its full extent.
I know from previous experience and from that of other operators in the area that even 260 hours of daylight during any one trip is no guarantee of photographic success. The weather, the light, the vastness of this place and the relative scarcity of wildlife – these all conspire to make Svalbard what it is: a demanding place that rewards infrequently but rewards well. Our rewards included 23 polar bear sightings, around the same number of humpback whales – some just metres from the ship, close encounters with walrus, calving glaciers, dramatic icescapes, little auks, fulmars, ivory gulls, blue, fin and minke whales and a delightful arctic fox family. Not a bad haul from a tour that had its fair share of less-than-ideal weather.
What makes this trip unique amongst its competitors is our good ship M/S Origo with its ever-obliging crew. It might not look like a luxury liner but its homely and more importantly, accommodates just 12 passengers giving everyone their own cabin and lots of room for on-deck photography. Zodiacs can be launched in the blink of an eye allowing complete flexibility. In my view, along with its sister ship M/S Stockholm, there is no better way to photograph Svalbard than from Origo.
And so our arctic adventure for 2012 comes to an end. 80gb of images is the obvious produce from 10 days at sea but perhaps more than the digital images, it is the mental images that will leave the strongest legacy. The arctic is perhaps not for everyone but if you like the unpredictable, the surreal, the silence, the noise, the peace and the pandemonium, get yourself to Svalbard – it will get in your blood.
Thanks as ever to our guests on this tour, thanks to Chris Srigley for his invaluable help and thanks to the crew of Origo – top job!
Our 2013 Svalbard tour is now open for bookings – looking forward to more arctic adventures!
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.
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…
OK OK, I couldn’t let it pass without throwing my tenpenneth into the ring. Actually I’m not going to talk about the recent polar bear attack itself (some interesting dialogue to be found on colleague Andy Rouse’s Facebook page here) but rather the inevitable press coverage.
The death of any young person yet to experience the myriad opportunities that life offers is always sad and an impossible ordeal for family and friends. But it’s the press coverage of how this young man died that I find both bizarre and distasteful. Had the lad been knocked over by a car or stung by a wasp or had a fatal asthma attack, or any one of hundreds of less ‘dramatic’ ends, he would simply have become an anonymous statistic to the outside world; the press wouldn’t care and neither would we – because we simply wouldn’t know about it.
This story has everything that the vulturine press live for. It’s a heady cocktail of human endeavour, heroism and ultimately an untimely death. But the cherry on the cake is fear – not any old fear but the most powerful, deep-seated, primeval fear of all. The ingredients are the stuff of journalistic dreams.
But let’s put aside the predictability of sensationalising a predator attack, the salivating over the most lurid details. The objective is to sell papers/airtime. And the best way to do that is to goad an audience into the irrationality, the ill-informed anecdotal outpourings, which pitch people against each other – providing the fuel for a fire that once lit, will burn of its own accord for days. Job done.
I’ve not yet read a report which gives the reader any ecological background to the polar bear. I’ve not yet read a suggestion as to why this bear might have attacked the campers, or contextualised the danger posed by polar bears at large. Nothing about the shrinking ice cap which ironically, I’m guessing the expedition had as part of its study. Here was an opportunity to use this tragic event to educate an audience and perhaps alert it to the challenges faced by the polar bear, its arctic habitat and ultimately, how this will affect us all. But then we wouldn’t want responsible, objective and informative stories to get in the way of good old-fashioned scaremongering and a verbal punch up.