THE HIGH ARCTIC: The Best Photographic Experience of my Life

15th March 2021

Overcoming a fear of ships to embark on a photographic adventure in the high Arctic was very difficult for me but, in retrospect, my life is substantially richer for the experience. My appreciation of this special and often hostile environment and it’s climatic effect on the rest of our planet has been enhanced. My understanding of the unique bonds created by mutual experiences, be they highs or lows, will inform my future interactions. However, my biggest challenge was to capture in my photographs the emotions created by the Arctic and share them with those who don’t have the same opportunity to experience it in person. 

My irrational fear of ships is based on 90 minute voyages on car ferries across the relative calm of the English Channel and yet I was sitting with my wife, Fre, considering “the adventure of a lifetime” in which we would:

  • Spend 19 days on a 37 metre long research ship, the RV Kinfish.
  • Embark from Longyearbyen, cross the Greenland Sea to explore the high Arctic and the unexplored fjords of the east coast of Greenland and then cross the notorious Denmark Straits to disembark at Akureyri in Iceland.
  • Be chaperoned by an experienced crew of 7 and 2 expedition leaders.
  • Be in a group of only 11 photographers including our good friends, Tony Spencer and Joe Cornish.
  • Have no wifi, no internet, no communication with the outside world.
  • Photograph the amazing landscape, dripping in amazing Arctic light, but would hope to see unique wildlife, including polar bears, in their natural environment. 

Sometimes, especially when the prize is big enough, you have to face your fears. We committed.

The Arctic is the northernmost region of our planet and is characterised by a unique environment for humans, wildlife and plants; hostile, beautiful, fragile, vulnerable and defiant. However, the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on earth, and the World is feeling the effects. 

From a landscape photographer’s perspective, the opportunity to capture this influential and changing environment in a unique way was an interesting challenge.

My chosen equipment was my trusted Fuji GFX50S with the GF 32/64, GF 100/200, GF 110 lenses and the GF 1.4x Teleconverter. My back-up equipment was the Fuji XT3, XF 18/55, XF 50/140 lenses and the XF 1.4x Teleconverter. 

We left the UK on the 28th August, with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation to join the rest of the group in Longyearbyen and become acquainted with the RV Kinfish, our home for the next 19 days. First impressions; the ship is well appointed and “intimate” with our cabin equipped with two bunks, a small wardrobe and an even smaller shower room/toilet.

We join the crew for a safety briefing and six things strike me.

One, the professionalism and friendliness of the crew and expedition leaders; enough detail to make a serious point, enough humour to keep us smiling. We’re in safe hands. 

Two, the journeys across the Greenland Sea and the Denmark Straits will take 3 days and 2 days respectively. Both journeys will only be undertaken if there is a clear weather window which threatens neither the wellbeing of the ship, passengers or crew; relief!

Three, the RV Kinfish has been designed and modified for the task in hand; the large stabilising tank attached to the keel directly under the bridge will slow the roll of the boat in big swells. 

Four, the survival suits are designed to keep us alive for 6 hours and, in an emergency, we have to be  able to put them on within 2 minutes! Based on the demonstration by the crew, I’m not sure I could squeeze into the suit inside 5 minutes!

Five, the open bridge approach meant that we could all visit the bridge at any time to enjoy the views of majestic landscape and wildlife in warmth and relative comfort.

Six, the golden rule whilst on the ship or in the zodiacs is “one hand for the ship, one hand for yourself”; we didn’t appreciate how relevant this instruction would be. 

An upcoming weather window meant we would cruise around Svalbard for a couple of days before crossing to Greenland. Our first dawn presented us with mist, wind, rain and beautiful soft light. Excitement peaked in anticipation of our first landing in the Arctic. 

My big decision before I boarded the zodiacs was the choice of camera; should it be the GFX or XT3? Anticipating more time on land than in the Zodiac, I chose the GFX and Gitzo tripod. It was the correct choice, but I wish I could say that all such decisions throughout the trip were as good!

We launched the two zodiacs and headed to the beach at Alkhornet for our first “wet landing” requiring us to wade from zodiac to beach. The mist and low cloud shrouded the mountains, continually swirling in the wind and providing fleeting glances of the grandeur and exotic geology of the area. Conditions were undoubtedly difficult and uncomfortable but we persevered in the “safe” space created between the two armed expedition leaders who remained ever present, ever vigilant and accepting no compromise as they watched over us. 

Our next stop was another “wet landing” at Poolepynten and the grey conditions provided an appropriate “studio” for our first portraits of the trip as we photographed the lumpy pink faces, huge tusks and curving whiskers of a huddle of walrus. 

Our first day in the Arctic had delivered both emotionally and photographically but Svalbard had more to offer before we departed north across the Greenland Sea. 

Ny London, a former settlement and marble mining plant which was abandoned in 1920, was our chosen destination to create photographic art of the detritus and derelict buildings. Standing on a hill above the abandoned mine workings with the Kinfish at anchor in the bay and the snow covered mountains in the background, I was struck by both the isolation, the scale of the landscape and the challenge to capture it in a meaningful way.  

Our final hours in Svalbard were spent at Ossiansarsfjellet to photograph reindeer and arctic fox, a ship cruise to the glacier at Kongsvegen and the sighting of Minke and Fin whales close to the ship. We were two days into the adventure and we had already experienced and photographed a wide range of subject matter and were ready for the adrenaline rush of the Greenland Sea.

Medication and patches for sea sickness were administered but the swell and rough weather was hard on our untrained bodies and minds.

The conditions became steadily worse and we retired to our cabins to seek solace from the motion and using pillows under the mattress to try and prevent us rolling out of the bunk. 

The ship rocked and rolled, pitched and yawed in the swell and winds of 30 knots. ­The banging, groaning, howling and creaking in the ship created a cacophony of sound accentuated by the darkness. I prayed.

The cabin portholes were disappearing under the waterline; I tried to film it on my iPhone to no avai, and then the ship’s fire alarm sounded. We assembled at the muster station as the crew, calm and professional, dealt with the problem. We relaxed and starting cracking “dark” jokes! 

Eventually, things started to calm down as we reached the calmer water off Greenland and we woke with the ship cruising slowly through small icebergs and brash ice and the sky lit by a beautiful soft pink light; all of a sudden, the discomfort of the previous three days had been replaced by an immense feeling of relief and increased anticipation of the next two weeks.

We cruised slowly north in search of pack ice with the occasional tabular icebergs close to the ship presenting photographic opportunities to capture the most beautiful contradictions of shape and colour.

Standing on the foredeck, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of isolation and then, in the distance, a polar bear is spotted swimming slowly and majestically in the calm water. I find it impossible to describe the tsunami of emotions as the beautiful white furry head bobbed up and down in front of the ship. Elated, we continued our slow progress northwards accompanied by the scraping and groaning of the brash ice against the side of the ship and then, to our amazement, our second polar bear sighting; a mother with her cub were on the ice close to the ship and seemed completely at ease with our presence. Could the Arctic serve up any more excitement?

We continue our slow and careful progress through the ice and then come to a dead halt as two male polar bears approached the ship. They seemed unfazed by our proximity, walking slowly backwards and forwards before putting on a superb display of play fighting. The ice shimmered in the soft light of the Arctic and the only sounds breaking the silence were the clicking of digital shutters and the thumping of our hearts. 

Celebrations for our good fortune were enjoyed in the form of a BBQ on the aft deck with the ship surrounded by brash ice and the sky glowing pink and orange. Reluctantly, we left the pack ice, travelled south down the east coast of Greenland and eventually entered Kejser Franz Josef Fjord.

We were now in uncharted waters with no “tracks” from other ships showing on the monitors. We moved slowly, checking the depth continuously as it varied from almost hull-scraping to 140 metres. The passage is narrow, full of floating icebergs and guarded on either side by magnificent jagged mountains topped with snow and displaying the colours, textures, forms and patterns of the sedimentary layers formed over millions of years that fold dramatically towards the sea. I “basked” in the sight and the time spent freezing on the foredeck for several hours produced some of my favourite photos from the trip.

As we continued up the fjord, we sighted a large iceberg in the form of a beautiful, symmetrical arch. We approached slowly and then the peace and tranquillity was broken by a loud “boom”, supplemented by “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the group, as the arch collapsed into the sea creating a series of large waves. However, any excitement was tinged by sadness that our approach might have precipitated it’s demise.

Beautiful soft light in the fjord created a kaleidoscope of crazy colour reflected from the majestic mountains and, yet again, I had to make the call on which camera system to take in the zodiac to cruise the iceberg graveyard i.e. GFX or XT3? 

I chose the GFX. Would I regret it? Within five minutes of leaving the Kinfish we found a relaxed, bearded seal lying on a small iceberg within 8 metres of the zodiac. Wrong camera, wrong lens, but a wonderful moment seen directly through my own optics for a change!

A very cold dawn landing delivered what was described as the equivalent of a “geological lunatic asylum”! The vibrant bands of colours and textures were overwhelming; trying to unravel the chaos and find simplicity in a composed frame proved difficult. It would have been easy to start shooting abstracts, but the soft morning light would gradually disappear and I chose integrated compositions using some of the amazing geology in the foreground and snow-capped mountains in the background.

We continued south and landed at Ittoqqortoormiit, one of the two active Inuit settlements on the east coast of Greenland and home to 350 people who live in the scattering of small and brightly coloured homes which punctuate the barren landscape. 

Fighting cabin fever, it was a pleasure to roam, free from armed guards, in the presence of the smiling, friendly Inuit. Kennels housing huskies are attached to each house, traditional dog sleighs lie dormant and skidoo’s, “garaged” on skids and sheathed in thick plastic covers, await the big snows. The main mode of transport in the summer months is the quadbike which the locals use to charge around the rough gravel roads at impossible speeds without due consideration for the wayward traveller, especially those with a camera stuck to their eye.

Back on the Kinfish, we continued our journey south to Røde Island with high expectations of the reported basalt columns that punctuate the sandstone and flow dramatically into the sea; they didn’t disappoint but, for the first time, the hours spent in the zodiac resulted in a very, very cold experience and, by the end, our core temperatures had dropped, our hands and feet were numb and our brains were screaming to find warmth and release us from the pain.

However, as we cruised around the icebergs our spirits were lifted as we spotted a hump back whale which breached and blew 3 times before the fluke rose out of the water as a prelude to a dive. 

Landing on the north side of Røde Island, we climbed to the summit and basked in the splendour of a vista that displayed nature at it’s most primitive and beautiful as huge icebergs, surrounded by brash ice and enclosed by mountains spread before us. This place was to be our last landing in Greenland and it was truly magical, even mystical. I walked along the cliff top to the extreme point of the island where I was completely alone with the view, my camera and my thoughts. I felt privileged. I felt blessed. I sat, taking strength from the sound of silence and the view in front of me. I cried. 

We boarded the zodiacs and meandered back through the icebergs on our return to the Kinfish knowing that we should savour the moment as we would be very unlikely to return. The light on the bergs was beautiful and the dried salt on my cheeks bore witness to the emotions that had overwhelmed me. I make no apology for repeating, I was blessed and fortunate to be there and share these moments with Fre and good friends.

We left Greenland and crossed the Denmark Straits to land, 2 days later, at Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland.

We had embarked on a true adventure with the objective of capturing amazing landscape photographs from uncharted waters and untrodden land. We had seen polar bears, musk ox, arctic fox, deer, walrus, bearded seal, whales (Orca, Fin, Sperm, Humpback) and birds too many to mention. We had enjoyed the total absence of pollution and connection to the outside world. We had seen the crew “skinny dip” for our amusement and some of the group participating in surf boarding behind the zodiacs dressed in orange survival suits. Twenty one people had spent 19 days on a small boat, enjoyed the highs and lows and bonded in a unique way. Emotions were running high. We hugged. We cried. 

As humans, we are only on this earth for a very small amount of time and yet we do our utmost to try and destroy what has been created over millions of years; would the world be a better place if more people could share the experience and emotional high that we’d experienced? 

I can’t answer my own question, but suffice to say no amount of photos or eloquent writing would, or could, capture the emotion,  provide justice to the experience and reinforce our individual responsibility to protect the climate. 

This was truly the best photographic experience of my life.

Photos from the trip can be found on the Hocking Photographic website

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