Svalbard: An amazing place

24 10 2013

Svalbard, as you might have gathered from my previous blogs, is simply an amazing place.  It is so extreme, that any species that manages to survive up there is quite special, and then some.  I went there hoping to see a few of the more charismatic species, but found myself amazed by everything we saw.

The thing that surprised me the most was the amount of landscape images I came back with.  Being a true wildlife photographer, I don’t often put time into landscape photography, but in Svalbard, you don’t have a choice!  The stark beauty of every new horizon is too inviting.  It was great to see a bunch of big-lens wielding photogs giving the wide-angle lenses a run.  While the little lenses were out, some new ideas came to mind.  For ninety percent of the safari, we had a travelling companion – the northern fulmar.  Admittedly, not the most striking bird, but pretty in its own right, these birds would fly behind the boat, swinging left to right for hours on end, giving us great photographic opportunities.  Combining the little lenses with the northern fulmars created some magic images.
At one point we found ourselves in between two little auk breeding colonies.  These fantastic little birds nest in the thousands underneath large boulders.  Sitting patiently on the rocks just off to the side of the nests gets you right into the action, and every few minutes a flock of five hundred or so birds comes whizzing past your camera.  Shortly after the little auk colony, we were face to face with a family of harbour seals. Curious by nature, these seals are quite interested in the people taking their picture, so they come in closer for a better look – this was a wonderful discovery for the photographers!  Sitting only meters away from these playful seals was an unexpected win for us!

The glaciers that we saw were equally as impressive as the wildlife.  The sheer size is difficult to fully understand, and the photographs certainly don’t do the size any justice.  Try to imagine a forty-story building and you will get a rough idea as to the size of some of the smaller glaciers leading edges.  The massive mountains in the background don’t help the brain compute the size either, by dwarfing these monsters.  We did manage to see some carving, which is when large chunks of ice fall off the front of the glacier – scary stuff!  It literally sounds like a building being imploded, and the force of the ice falling looks similar to it as well.  The waves created by carving glacier ice have toppled boats anchored over a couple of hundred meters away.  Hopping into the smaller zodiacs, we went between theses enormous blocks of carved ice and were transported into an ancient world, as some of the ice were a few thousand years old – again, difficult to fully comprehend.

Svalbard is a special place.  I feel really privileged to have experienced it both in summer and late winter, and can’t wait to get back again!

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Svalbard: The ever-present tern

15 10 2013

At every turn in our Svalbard adventure, another tern would pop up.  The arctic tern is quite a small bird, but is the record holder in quite a prestigious category – it is the animal that has a longer migration than any other.

These amazing little birds breed during the arctic summer. As soon as they have successfully fledged the chicks, they begin the long journey south – to the Antarctic!  They literally migrate from one pole to the other.  This is no mean feat, but given the size of the bird, they have certainly earned their spot in all our respect books.  Perhaps because of their arduous journey, they are tough little blighters.  This became quite evident when on our first day in Svalbard we happened upon an arctic tern nest and were forcibly removed from the area.  The birds begin the attack with loud squawking, quickly followed by dive-bombing at your eyes.  I know they are small birds, but let me assure you, this is a very convincing technique.  No matter how sure you are of yourself, there is an instinct to protect your eyes you can’t seem to turn off, and they win that fight ten out of ten.  I witnessed them using this trick of theirs on a number of occasions, and they were always able to chase off the predators (impressively, from glaucus gulls to polar bears).

During a walrus sighting, the large mammals moved a little distance into the water and we were patiently waiting their return.  Right on cue, an arctic tern showed up and started feeding not far from where we were sitting.  The tern gave us great images as it would dive into the water, catching little shrimp, and then flying off with its quarry right past us.   It goes to show, it is not always the biggest and scariest animals that make the best pictures – keep your eyes open and look out for the ever-present terns.

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Svalbard: The Kittiwake’s cliff

11 10 2013

Tucked away in a large crevasse along the jagged coast of the main island Spitzbergen, is an extremely impressive colony of breeding black-legged kittiwakes.  These petit and very pretty birds appear gull-like, which probably makes you think ‘a little dull-like’.  I certainly did, until we reached the cliffs, settled in and actually had a chance to watch these beautiful birds go about their day-to-day.

Viewing the cliff is quite an intimate affair- you climb over a ridge and (very carefully) work your way down until you are basically in the colony, on a small grassy patch that is unused by the birds.  From there you can find yourself only a few meters away from the birds, and the photographic opportunities are endless.  Every lens was put to work, from the widest angle to the big zooms – it was fantastic!  The birds simply ignore you and carry on with their day, which is ideal for photography. 

A real highlight was seeing the newly hatched chicks in the nest.  For the most part they were well covered by their parents, but every now and again, a little fellow would pop its head out from beneath its mother and have a look at the world.  This was a dangerous game as the always-present glaucus gulls were keeping an eye out for a quick meal.  While we were at the cliffs, it seemed that the kittwakes had the gulls under control, as none of the youngsters were snatched.

The cliffs were shared with a small colony of brunnich’s guillemots, which seemed to enjoy the peace away from the main colony (see: Svalbard: Unbelievable scenes).  Together they seemed to have a great place to nest, coupled with a great view and plenty of food.

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Svalbard: 100% character

8 08 2013

There is so much natural beauty on the island archipelago of Svalbard that there was bound to be one species that dropped the ball, so to speak.  There is no denying that the mighty walrus is not an outright looker, but what they lack in aesthetics, they make up for with loads of character.

Naively, before seeing my first walrus, I thought of them as a juicy prey item for the largest predator on earth – the polar bear.  Split seconds after seeing my first walrus, I realized just how wrong I was!  It was never in doubt that they were big creatures, but I was really surprised by just how big they actually are.  The average size of a male is around one thousand two hundred and fifty kilograms (about two thousand seven hundred and sixty pounds), and the average length is just over three meters (ten feet).  Those nifty stats simply mean that if they are bothered by a polar bear, or anything else for that matter, they don’t actually have to do anything, they just stand together and hold their ground.  We did actually see some interaction between a polar bear and a herd of female walruses, which came to naught as soon as the wary mothers had (rather roughly) escorted their young to the safety of the water.

We had a number of good encounters with walrus on the safari, each one leading to some pretty decent photo opportunities.  Getting up close to the walrus was not a challenge.  The first encounter we had, they came up to us (wildlife photography made easy).  We were still sorting out cameras and approaches on the beach when a couple of the bigger lads came to see what we were all about.  The way they pop their heads up out of the water and inspect you is very cool, even gentlemanly.  Once they were comfortable with us, they stopped the bobbing up and down, and just had a good look.  It was a great opportunity to get some detail-revealing portraits.  On our second encounter, we crept slowly and quietly up to a large herd of mature males that were sleeping on the beach.  They were sleeping with conviction, so it was not difficult to get within fifteen meters.  The sounds emanating from the herd combined with the sheer volume of snot and drool didn’t help their case, but what fantastic animals!  A true surprise.  I had gone to Svalbard sure the polar bear was easily the ‘trophy’ species, but the all-out character of the walruses won the group of us over.  It was great getting the chance to study these massive, blubber rich beauties (beauties used loosely there), and take some pretty (pretty used loosely there) great images.

 

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The polar experience

15 05 2013

Seeing a polar bear is quite an ordeal.  Firstly, it means you are somewhere very cold, and I mean very cold!  Secondly, you join a privileged few to actually see one of these magnificent bears in the wild and finally, being in such a remote and seemingly inhospitable environment, you really get a feeling of the majesty of nature.  I was up in Canada on a photographic safari a few months ago, and had the great luck to see several different polar bears, as well as a few of the other brave residents of the far north.

 

The first thing that hits you when you set out on safari is of course the cold.  We were welcomed with a cool minus thirty degrees Celsius, topped off with winds blowing at around sixty kilometers per hour.  I can assure you, that is some pretty cold stuff!  Once you have accepted the conditions, and found a way to work with them, you realize the space that surrounds you.  Vast ice fields, seemingly endless, stretch off in all directions.  Seldom will you find yourself in so much space.  The great white plains of the Canadian arctic are something to behold.

It seems nearly impossible to find a white bear in amongst so much snow and ice, but with a bit of patience and some luck, they magically appear from their white world.  Being the super predator, they are generally quite relaxed with the safari vehicles, and allow you to follow them as far as they see fit.  What this translates to, is amazing photo opportunities!  We spent a total of six or seven hours in the company of these magnificent bears, freely taking as many images as we could.  The only limitation to the photography is how long you could stay outside for!  Even with all the gear, there is no real way of protecting your hands against such harsh conditions, which makes things quite a bit more interesting.

 

I have added a short video from the safari to show what it is all about!

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2012 in review

31 12 2012

Thanks to everyone for all the support during 2012!

I have put together a quick collection of highlights from the year for you, and want to wish you an incredible 2013 with plenty of good sightings, all of them in great light!

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Photographing the Northern Lights: Part 2

11 12 2012

After the excitement from the second night, I was keen to try photographing the Northern Lights again, which brings us to our final night.  We were lucky again with a perfectly clear evening, so the game was on. The Internet forecast for the lights once again left us with little hope, at a hard zero out of five possibility.  Playing the odds here would not be smart, but I figure you have to be in it to win, so I made plans for us to go twenty minutes out of town and into a pine forest, and see if we could get some magic there.

Arriving at our destination, a small, cozy log cabin standing alone in the forest, we searched around for some interesting foregrounds, should the lights forget to read the forecast and appear. We were now ready for the lights in all directions.  This having been done, we went back inside, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Just as we were getting ready to start packing up, I went outside for one last check.  I had been out every five minutes for over two hours to check if the lights would appear, and had no real expectations of seeing anything, but better to check and be sure.

Once my eyes re-adjusted to the darkness, I saw the smallest, thinnest sliver of green not far from the horizon, just over the pine trees. Almost excited, I began taking some images.  I set the camera to maximize the light and colour, and managed to get some images out that were decent given the near lack of the lights.  In a two-minute swish, everything changed.  The sky lit up a bright green, with purple, red and orange flames jutting out the side.  It was extraordinary!  The belt of green linked the opposite horizons, and turned the black, very cold night into a green, very cold night.  I was running around to all the foregrounds I had found earlier and was shooting away, having an absolute blast, forgetting about the conditions.

Real life soon caught up with me, and the brisk thirty below temperatures started taking their toll.  Unexpectedly, the camera was struggling before me.  The glass on the front lens kept frosting up, and the controls on the camera were lagging, seriously lagging.  It wasn’t long before the entire rig, camera, lens and tripod, started freezing solid.  This signaled the end of the session, which gave me a chance to head back into the cozy cabin, and regain some of the feeling in my fingers and toes.  You really learn to appreciate your digits after a couple hours out in the snow.

To join me on Safari, head to www.50safaris.com for full Safari info.

 





Photographing the Northern Lights: Part 1

5 12 2012

It is sometimes difficult to concentrate when you are experiencing a natural phenomenon for the first time, when it is absolutely breathtaking, and of course when it is 30 degrees below zero, but even more so, when it catches you completely by surprise.

I was leading a photographic safari in Canada recently; the main focus of which was to see and photograph polar bears.  I did have secret hopes though, of popping out at night, and trying my luck with the Northern Lights, a fantastic visual display that only occurs at a very high latitude (the Southern Lights only occur at a very low latitude, but are much the same thing).  The first evening we arrived was completely overcast with very low set clouds that didn’t look like they were going anywhere, so that was that.

The second night was clear and I was in with a shout.  I checked the Internet for the forecast on the lights (they can apparently do this), and it gave us a low probability, basically, a one out of five chance.  Not great, but being the eternal optimist, I set the camera up outside the lodge anyway, hoping for the best, and went off to dinner.

With a good steak in the belly, I went outside to check on proceedings. Nothing.  All I had managed to achieve was a really cold camera.  I picked it up to head back inside, and something unusual caught my eye, a big green cloud slowly moving through the night sky.  It was the lights!  I, like a champion, had been looking the wrong way.  In a mad panic, I took a photo with the first foreground I could find – the back of the local general goods store in town.  Not bad I thought, but now for the magic.  It was a split second after that that I realized I had no other plans.

I had seen a potential foreground when we arrived, and enquired hurriedly as to its exact location.  This set me off on a run to the other side of town.  To be fair, it only took me 15 minutes, not because of my incredible (lack of) fitness, but because the town is actually that small.   Finding what I was looking for, an Inukshuk (a contraption used by the Inuit people to navigate across water in misty conditions), I set up as quickly as possible, and started shooting.  The lights can stop at any second, so I was moving things along quickly to try get as many shots as possible. Once the camera was going it occurred to me that I was standing on the bay with the highest concentration of polar bears anywhere, at night, alone…  Not great.  I moved to a nearby building, leaving the camera on the bay to do the hard yards.

It must be said at this point, that I was wearing two layers of thermal underwear, a full ski-suit with a jersey underneath, a balaclava, a face mask, two beanies, two pairs of thermal socks with my trusty Sorrell boots and three pairs of gloves (it was minus thirty to be fair), and I had run the length of town.  The sweat that had been expressed during the run was now starting to freeze.  This nullified all the clothing I had on, and it was time to head back.  I braved the polar bear infested shoreline, picked up my camera/icicle and started the slow jog back to the lodge.  Midway along the main road in town, I looked up and saw a couple of locals (in jeans and a single jacket) having a drink on the balcony of the bar, (you read it right, not a bar, the bar), and they stopped mid conversation to take in the tourist dressed for an arctic blizzard with camera-on-tripod-over-the-shoulder jogging up the main road near midnight.  I laughed at what I must have looked like, but took comfort in the fact that between the balaclava and the face mask, they would not be able to name and shame me in the morning.

To join me on Safari, head to www.50safaris.com for full Safari info.





Some cool customers

27 11 2012

I was recently on safari in Canada, and had the amazing opportunity to head out into the tundra, and look for polar bears.  I had three full days to search for, and photograph, the great bears and each day provided new images in different conditions, but one thing remained the same: the mercury hit the minus thirty point on the thermometer without fail!  Chilly to say the least…

 

The first two bears we found were in quick succession of each other, and had slightly different plans.  The first, a large male, moved smoothly across the packed ice, right past us, and went to another tundra buggy to suss it out.  Fantastically exciting, but it was just the start.  The second bear, thought that ours was the buggy that needed the sussing out, and came to see what we were about.  This made my very cold shutter finger come to life, and click away furiously.  The true joy of seeing such a magnificent bear up close was enough to keep me just warm enough to stay out and keep shooting.

 

This pattern of being kept out in the cold by a bear keeping me entertained basically lasted for the next two and a half days.  However, after an hour in the gusty winds and minus thirty-degree temperatures, I did have to take an opportune moment (i.e. the bear took a quick nap) to get back inside the tundra buggy and warm my hands and face.  A rather snazzy (and first for me) fireplace in the actual buggy kept things toasty, and brought the life back to my frozen digits.  As if on cue, the bears would wake up just as I had recovered, and back out I went.  I did take a moment on more than one occasion to wonder how these bears deal with such harsh conditions.  The one bear that was out and about during an actual blizzard just carried on like nothing was happening.  Incredible.

 

To join me on a safari like this, or any other safari, check out www.50safaris.com!