Trip report of autumn photo expedition to Svalbard
Magical experiences in Svalbard!
Every time I fly to the north, my heart beats faster. The nature, the landscape and the light are something very special up there. Even more special is a trip to the eternal ice of the Arctic. The light of the Arctic is magical, and the landscapes and wildlife are spectacular in this exposed region. This time, together with Daisy Gilardini and the expedition crew, we lead a group through autumnal Svalbard. The autumn dress suits the unique polar region particularly well: the mountain peaks are covered in white snow and the tundra glows in autumn colours. The sun is low and the chances of fantastic light moods are particularly high at this time of year.
During the approach to Longyearbyen, I look down at the wonderful barren landscape and am very excited to see what experiences await me and our guests on this autumn photo expedition to Svalbard.
Arrival in Longyearbyen
After arriving at Longyearbyen Airport, we take the airport shuttle directly to the hotel. The journey only takes a few minutes and check-in at the hotel is completed quickly. The view of the fjord from my modern room is fantastic.
After a short break, I meet my colleague, Daisy Gilardini. Daisy, a renowned nature photographer, is leading this trip to Svalbard with me. We are a well-rehearsed team and have already experienced many magical and funny moments together in Svalbard.
We meet the expedition participants in the lobby of the hotel. Together we walk through the centre of Longyearbyen to the restaurant.
Dinner in the cosy restaurant is a perfect start to our expedition. The atmosphere is cheerful, and everyone is looking forward to the upcoming adventure in the Arctic.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. The 2,400 inhabitants come from almost 53 different countries and have all been infected by the “Arctic bug”. Longyearbyen is the gateway to the Arctic and, thanks to the large number of visitors, has a very diverse range of activities on offer. It even has its own brewery, a chocolate factory and a greenhouse.
Boarding on the ship MS Virgo
After breakfast, Daisy and I inform our guests about the upcoming Arctic expedition. Daisy gives a detailed presentation about Svalbard, wildlife photography, equipment and much more.
Every trip to the Arctic is always different, even at the same time of year. The crew determines the route based on the current weather and ice conditions. The latest polar bear sightings are also factored into the planning. The route is determined in such a way as to maximise the photographic potential.
In the afternoon, we take the bus from the hotel directly to the ship. A short journey takes us to the dock. We board our ship, the MS Virgo, and are greeted by the captain and crew.
Our expedition ship the MS Virgo is a traditional ship and has ice class 1B. The Virgo was brought up to date in summer 2021 and the interior and exterior areas were renovated and expanded accordingly. A total of 3 spacious double cabins and 6 single cabins are available for a maximum of 12 guests, all with their own private bathroom. Behind the MS Virgo is an experienced team of photographers and Arctic experts who can look back on many years of experience with photo expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The crew takes excellent care of our guests. The chef spoils us with three delicious meals a day. Tea and coffee are available 24 hours a day.
The highlight of the ship is the spacious lounge area on the upper deck. The perfect place for image meetings, image processing sessions, presentations or simply for socialising with like-minded people.
Start of the expedition into the sunset
As we sail through the Isfjorden towards the sunset, the crew gives us a briefing. We receive valuable information about safety on board, the normal daily routine, behaviour towards the flora and fauna in Svalbard and many other details about the upcoming expedition.
Afterwards, the first photo session begins, as our first sunset in Isfjorden is a magical first highlight.
On a discovery tour with the Zodiacs
The next day we wake up in Bjornford. The ship continues through Smeerenburg and we manage to take some great landscape photos from the ship. This north-western corner of the archipelago is one of the most scenic areas and one of my favourite regions. We board the Zodiacs and land in Smeerenburg. Here we observe a colony of walruses up close and take some marvellous photos. A few walruses eye us curiously from the water and come closer and closer.
Later, we take the Zodiacs to Hamilton Bay. On the excursion we photograph birds, glaciers, and the beautiful sky.
Two large Zodiacs are available for our group. On Arctic expeditions, there are usually up to 12 people on a Zodiac. On our photo expedition, however, there is only a maximum of 6 guests and 1 – 2 photo guides. This gives us plenty of space for our equipment.
Polar bear sightings
The next day we reach the island of Nordaustlandet in the east. There is a whale carcass in the area, so the hope of seeing polar bears is high. And there they are! We soon spot up to six different polar bears from the boat. However, there is a lot of wind here and therefore also a lot of waves.
A trip with Zodiacs is not possible in these conditions. We are so close and yet so far away from these beautiful animals. We watch the bears from the ship and hope that the weather situation will change, and the wind will weaken. The crew is confident and informs us that it is worth waiting here. The wind should calm down the next day or the day after that at the latest.
Shorten waiting times with photo presentations and tutorials
The next day, the weather remains the same. We have to continue to exercise patience and hope that we will soon be able to get into the Zodiacs to photograph the polar bears. Everyone agrees that it is worth waiting. So, the ship stays in the region. We watch three polar bears walking along the coast.
We spend the waiting time in our cosy lounge. Daisy Gilardini gives exciting short presentations on various topics. We also conduct several small 1:1 coaching sessions with the guests. They receive valuable tips on image editing, image composition, camera settings and much more.
Our patience gets rewarded
The next day, the wind is finally gone. We have breakfast and head out on deck with binoculars in search of polar bears. A presentation of polar bears is planned for today, but we adapt the programme at short notice to the perfect weather conditions. Now, of course, the priority is to look for polar bears.
And we are lucky: four polar bears are spotted near a whale carcass. Just 30 minutes later, we are already in the Zodiacs on our way to the polar bears. We are able to take a nice photos of a mother with two cubs. What a joy! The feeling of photographing and observing these majestic animals in their natural environment is indescribable.
We return to the ship for a late and quick lunch. Shortly afterwards, we are already back in the Zodiacs, hoping for even more exciting photo opportunities. We are lucky again. As the family retires to the mountain to sleep, another female bear appears. Our guests also manage to take some great photos of this mighty animal.
Back on the boat, we are delighted with this eventful day. The crowning glory is a wonderful sunset. What an amazing day!
Polar bear sighting before the storm
We spent the night at Rijpfjorden. There are still said to be five bears in the region, and we keep an eye out from the boat. We make another presentation to shorten the waiting time for our guests with interesting photography tips.
The light and the reflection on the water is beautiful. Together with the crew, we decide to sail along the fjord to photograph the landscape in the beautiful light. Suddenly there is a polar bear alarm. We quickly get changed, pack our photo equipment and a few minutes later we are already in the Zodiacs. At the time we arrive ashore, we realise that the bear is no longer where it was before.
We wait patiently and get again rewarded! A beautiful and healthy polar bear appears in front of our lens in Thank God Bay (what an appropriate name – thank god we found the bear). We spend three hours with the majestic animal, observing and photographing it in its natural habitat. In Himmelbukta, the polar bear encounters a walrus. We keep our distance so as not to disturb the animals and wait with bated breath to see what happens. The two animals eye each other, the walrus glides elegantly into the water and the two stare at each other for what seems like an eternity. We manage to take some great photos of the two animals. A wonderful experience, like something out of a BBC TV documentary.
Back on the boat, a late lunch awaits us happy photographers. We learn that the predicted storm is definitely heading in our direction. Our current position is far away from everything, and we have to get out of here quickly. The whole north-west of the archipelago is affected. The captain and expedition leader decide on a long journey of over 20 hours to Kongsfjorden. A bay there offers protection from the storm.
Icebergs and reindeer
We sail all night long and wake up in Smeerenburg. The captain chooses the scenic route through the bay. We reach Kongsfjorden around midday.
We take the Zodiacs on an excursion to the glacier and find many beautiful icebergs in different shades of blue. The low sun provides fantastic light and makes the unique blue of the icebergs shimmer. We manage to take some atmospheric photos of the special scenery. Suddenly, reindeer appear and we manage to get some great photos. The photos get even more beautiful in the colourful light of the sunset.
Wildlife and landscape photography in the most beautiful light
During the night we continue to Alkefjellet and wake up the next morning in Trygghamna / Alkehornet. After breakfast we go ashore and set off on foot in search of more reindeers. At the end of the season in September, the days are always very short and the landscape is bathed in a beautiful warm light. At this time of year we have “golden hour” for most of the day.
At 10 o’clock we find the reindeers in the most beautiful light. We lie down on our stomachs and crawl slowly and carefully towards the animals. The reindeers are very curious and even come up to us and look at us. Now in autumn, these beautiful animals are already wearing their winter coats, which are very fluffy. We could not have wished for a better motif for this special lighting mood. We try to capture all the special details and the great light with the camera.
After lunch, we travel a little further to Ymerbukta. The journey with Zodiacs begins quiet and unspectacular. We disembark on a rock formation to take some nice landscape pictures.
Suddenly, three curious seals appear. One seal even swims very close to our Zodiacs and looks at us under the water. We manage to take lots of great photos of the animals.
Many wonderful shared memories together
On our last day, we drive through the Billefjorden and keep an eye out for more polar bears. But they are hiding too well today. We use the time for further 1:1 tutorials on various topics and expand the guests’ photography skills according to their personal level. A final excursion with the Zodiacs takes us to the spectacular Nordenskiölf glacier in Adolfubkta.
In the evening there is a farewell presentation with the guests’ favourite photos taken on the expedition. Daisy shows a slide show of the best photos of all the guests, accompanied by music. The expedition leader makes a short presentation about the expedition from his point of view and praises the Amazing Views team for the great co-operation. All participants of the expedition are satisfied, and it is nice to relive the great moments of the expedition in this way.
After docking in Longyearbyen, we have a farewell dinner together. We then spend one last night in our cosy cabin on the MS Virgo.
Saying goodbye until we meet again
The next morning we check out of the ship and take a taxi to the airport. All our memory cards are filled with many great and special shots of a very special place. My heart is full of many beautiful moments, experiences, and lots of fun that Daisy and I were able to share with other like-minded people interested in photography.
Pictures in this article: Jennifer Brühlmann
Join us on an expedition to Svalbard
Our expeditions to Svalbard take place several times a year and at different times of the year. Every trip is different and each time a very special experience. Our photo trips to Svalbard are fully focussed on photography. We charter a small ship exclusively for our group.