Svalbard is a name that sends tingles of excitement down my spine. This icy archipelago, lying halfway between Norway and the North Pole, is home to an extraordinary cast of awe-inspiring animals such as walruses, whales and Arctic foxes, not to mention a tasty variety of birds.
In the town of Longyearbyen, our workshop base, it's possible to have close encounters with many of the Arctic's "most wanted" species.
When you add snow-capped peaks, colourful houses & pleasant weather, balmier than you might expect at 79° north, it's easy to see the photographic potential of spending quality time in this delightful town. Here are some of my "must-see" spectacles from a few summers in Svalbard …
The Arctic Fox is at the top of most photographers' Arctic bucket-list, & your first encounter with this ghost of the tundra stays with you. Elusive in winter, foxes are drawn to the town in the summertime in search of duck eggs and are easy to spot in their white coats against the freshly melted tundra. We often glimpse our first fox within minutes of arriving - or even from the plane, as happened on my 2019 visit!
During our stay in Longyearbyen, you will get to know several individual foxes & are often rewarded magical moments in their presence. On a recent trip during the first night of many here, the group stayed up to watch this fox raiding nests, just below our sitting-room window. She carried 40 eggs off to her den in just a few hours. We were unsure of who was happier: the fox with her stash of eggs or the grinning photographers with their bursting CF cards!
Eider eggs are the fox's favourite prey, and with a well-established colony of 200 birds on the outskirts of town, there will be many chances to take lovely portraits of these exquisite ducks. Their raunchy "hoo-hoo!" call is a chorus around town and captures the heart of many a photographer passing by.
The eider colony marks the town's limits, and we head into the valley for a morning of bird photography. The mosaic of lagoons offers unrivalled bird photography at water level, with Red-Necked & Grey Phalaropes feeding close to our lenses, spinning like little clockwork toys.
The King Eider is the holy grail of tundra birding, with its harlequin face and big attitude, and many pairs nest in the valley. I never tire of spending time with these majestic birds as they court and fight off rival males. We make repeat visits to photograph all these breeding birds in different weather and by the light of the midnight sun.
After we wrap up with phalaropes & eiders, many other opportunities await us in the snowy mountains. With just the bird's red wattles giving the presence of this Svalbard Ptarmigan away, he is a master of camouflage, & the creative possibilities that the white landscape offers are limitless.
On the sea cliffs, the delightful pint-sized Little Auks chirrup to each other just metres away from us. It is an incredible sensation to sit & take in the noise of 3000 black-and-white wings whirring around you.
The nesting activity catches the attention of scavenging foxes. Hunts are regular, so I experiment with slow shutter speeds to give a sense of movement as this fox scampers along the slope, her nose sweeping the earth like a metal detector hot on the trail of dinner.
It's not just the land that offers excellent wildlife photography. The Isfjorden, Svalbard's second-largest fjord & our gateway to the Arctic Circle, holds seabirds in spades - from terns & Arctic skuas to puffins and three species of guillemot - plus encounters with a blue whale or a pod of belugas is high on the cards. As we pass through this breathtakingly beautiful glacial realm on the way to the walrus colony, "blue" fulmars shear the waves, and terns scream through the air. It's a sublime, calming landscape that leaves a deep impression on many who visit.
If the polar bear is the king of the Arctic, then the queen must be the walrus! Gathering in herds of up to 30 females on the beaches and ice floes of Prins Karls Forland, these gentle giants are full of character, giving humorous & dramatic portraits as they doze & jostle for a prime bathing spot.
With various portrait and action shots in the bag, it's fun to play with lens and composition choices. You can achieve eye-catching results with patience & respect for breeding birds. The courtship ritual of these red-throated divers was one of the most thrilling wildlife spectacles I have seen. Using a Go-Pro triggered via an iPad at a distance, we captured this tender moment of the female incubating her egg. The female's melancholic wail to her partner is the song of this wilderness, and it's a privilege to observe Longyearbyen's animals & get under the skin of this magical corner of the Arctic.
Hope you can join me for an Arctic Adventure in 2023!