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The High Arctic: The Best Photographic Experience of my Life


I have an irrational fear of ships 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, listening to Tony Spencer trying to convince us that we should join him on “the adventure of a lifetime,” the fulfilment of a dream that Tony had been working on for three years.

We would:

  1. Spend 19 days on a 37-metre-long research ship, the RV Kinfish.
  2. 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.
  3. Be chaperoned by an experienced crew of seven, and two expedition leaders.
  4. Be in a group of only 11 photographers including our good friend, Joe Cornish.
  5. Have no WIFI, no internet, no communication with the outside world.
  6. Photograph the amazing landscape, dripping in Arctic light, hoping to see wildlife, including polar bears, in their natural habitat.

This story is brought to you by ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is the new monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.

Sometimes, especially when the prize is big enough, you have to face your fears. The combined forces of Tony’s eloquence and Fre’s threats helped to get me over the line. We were committed.

The Arctic is the northernmost region of our planet and is a specialized 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 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 backup 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 of 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 was well appointed and “intimate.” Our cabin was equipped with two bunks, a small wardrobe and an even smaller shower room/toilet.

We joined the crew for a safety briefing and six things struck 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 were in safe hands.

Two, the journeys across the Greenland Sea and the Denmark Straits would take three days and two days respectively. Both journeys would only be undertaken if there was a clear weather window that did not threaten the wellbeing of the ship, passengers or crew. Relief!

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

Four, the survival suits were designed to keep us alive for six hours. In an emergency, we had to put them on within two minutes! Based on the demonstration by the crew, I’m not sure I could squeeze into the suit inside five 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 while on the ship or in the Zodiac 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 Zodiac 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 on 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.

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 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 had already experienced and photographed a wide range of subject matter. We were now ready for the adrenaline rush of the Greenland Sea.

Medication and patches for seasickness 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 a break from the motion, using pillows under the mattress to prevent us from 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 avail, and then the ship’s fire alarm sounded. We assembled at the muster station as the crew, calm and professional, dealt with the problem. Then we relaxed and starting cracking dark jokes!

Eventually, things improved as we reached the calmer water off Greenland and we woke with the ship cruising slowly through small icebergs and brash ice, the sky lit with a beautiful soft pink light. All of a sudden, the discomfort of the previous three days was 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 color.

Standing on the foredeck, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of isolation and then, in the distance, we spotted a polar bear swimming slowly and majestically in the calm water. I found 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 and 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 progressed slowly and carefully through the ice and then came 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.

We celebrated our good fortune with a BBQ on the aft deck, 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 was narrow, full of floating icebergs and guarded on either side by magnificent jagged mountains topped with snow. They displayed the colors, textures, forms and patterns of the sedimentary layers formed over millions of years that folded 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 were 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 its demise.

Beautiful soft light in the fjord created a kaleidoscope of crazy color 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 eight 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 we described as the equivalent of a geological lunatic asylum! The vibrant bands of colors 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 so 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, home to 350 people who live in the scattering of small and brightly colored homes which punctuate the barren landscape.

Fighting cabin fever, it was a pleasure to roam, free of armed guards, in the presence of the smiling, friendly Inuit.

Kennels housing huskies were attached to each house, traditional dog sleighs lay dormant and skidoos, garaged on skids and sheathed in thick plastic covers, awaited 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 of 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 humpback whale which breached and blew three 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 its 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, two 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 participated in surfboarding 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 special way. Emotions were running high. We hugged. We cried.

As humans, we are only on this earth for a very short 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 it to say, no quantity of photos or eloquent writing would, or could, capture the emotion, give justice to the experience, and reinforce our individual responsibility to protect the climate.

This was truly the best photographic experience of my life.

The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine
ELEMENTS is the new monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Freeman Patterson, Bruce Barnbaum, Rachael Talibart, Charles Cramer, Hans Strand, Erin Babnik and Tony Hewitt, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.

About the author: Denis and his wife, Fre Hocking form hockingphotographic.co.uk, and are award-winning landscape photographers who have had solo exhibitions in the U.K. They published a sell-out book, “Yubi – Gentle Beauty,” containing photographs illustrating Zen Haiku to illustrate human sensibility and the love of nature and simplicity. They run workshops and contribute to various magazines. Both Denis and Fre are Chartered Epson Digigraphie Artists. Denis says, “The landscape is my studio” and with that philosophy they offer an expressive interpretation of landscape sought after by private collectors, organizations, and interior designers.