The Trip of a Lifetime: Photographing the Wild Shores of Greenland

Not only is Greenland one of the most remote places in the world, it is also one of the most photogenic. Very little of the island nation’s 836,000 square miles of land is accessible, which means the ice-filled landscapes are best photographed from ships just offshore. Outdoor photographer and filmmaker John Derting’s love of cold weather environments led him to photograph Greenland on board one ofLindblad Expeditions’ newest ice-class vessel, the National Geographic Endurance.

Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Lindblad Expeditions

Growing up on a 360 acre farm in Western Kentucky, John Derting had spent most of his childhood outdoors. Whether it was working the farm alongside his nine siblings or camping under the stars, Derting’s desire for adventure in wild locations started young.

Derting’s love for the outdoors led him to move to Alaska, where the photographer spends the majority of his free time exploring and documenting his adventures in the state’s millions of acres of wilderness. His self-proclaimed obsession with cold weather landscapes inspired Derting to book a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Greenland on board one of Lindblad Expeditions’ newest ice-class vessels, National Geographic Endurance.

Located between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean, Greenland is the world’s largest island. The autonomous territory of Denmark has a population of just 56,000 people, most of whom are of Inuit or mixed Inuit-European descent.

Despite its harsh climate, Greenland has a rich culture and history. The Inuit people have lived on the island for thousands of years and have a deep connection to the land and sea. Today, many Greenlanders still rely on hunting and fishing for their livelihoods.

Greenland’s arctic climate yields long and cold winters and short and cool summers, which is when the majority of visitors arrive to photograph the ice-covered landscapes. In July of 2022, Derting flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he would board the 138 passenger National Geographic Endurance and embark on a 13-day expedition that would take him along the rugged coastlines of Iceland and Greenland.

The route the National Geographic Endurance would take over the 13-day expedition from Iceland to Greenland.

“This has been a bucket list trip for me for years,” Derting tells PetaPixel. “I knew I was in for a treat the moment I first laid eyes on the massive ice sheet from the plane. I later learned that the Greenland Ice Sheet covers about 80% of the massive island’s landmass, and that it is the second largest in the world, only behind Antarctica.”

Approaching Greenland

After boarding in Reykjavik, Iceland, the passengers on board the National Geographic Endurance slept as the ship made its way across the frigid waters of the Denmark Strait, which separates Iceland from the remote shores of Greenland. “Excited about the expedition, I had trouble sleeping that first night on the ship,” Derting says. “So around 3am, I headed up to the top deck, and once I stepped outside, I was in awe. The air smelled fresh, the water was clear. Seeing ocean water that is clear and pristine is a treat for me, because even in my home in Alaska, there are only a few bays where you get pristine, crystal clear water.”

The clear water and fresh air laid under a blanket of dramatic mist that hung low over the drift ice that filled the Denmark Strait. Throughout the morning, Derting continued to find infinite photogenic scenes that he couldn’t help but capture. Humpback whales and seals could be seen in the distance, foreshadowing what Derting was going to experience over the nearly two-week expedition.

“As the morning progressed, the fog began to lift, giving way to a vibrant collection of drift ice as far as the eye could see,” he describes. “Suddenly, this incredible mountainous coastline began to appear in the distance, creating a beautiful panoramic view of the Arctic that I had imagined.”

The ship’s passengers also got their first view of the famed icebergs and glaciers that Greenland is known for. For Derting, however, the most exciting moment came when a Lindblad Expeditions’ naturalist on board spotted a polar bear.

“This wasn’t the only polar bear we would see on the trip, but it was by far my favorite of the sightings,” Derting says. “It was only about 200 yards away, which really isn’t that far for a photographer with a powerful zoom lens. Once I got in close, I could see that it had recently caught a seal, which reminded me of how harsh this environment is for these endangered creatures.”

The ship and its passengers watched the polar bear for almost 90 minutes as she ate her meal, drank from a meltwater pool, and rested. In addition to the polar bear, three ivory gulls, a rare High Arctic species, watched the polar bear, hoping to get a chance at the remaining meal.

Kangerlussuaq Fjord and Back at Sea

After an excitement-filled first day, the National Geographic Endurance began to make its way into the Kangerlussuaq Fjord, just as the passengers began to awake for breakfast at 5:30am. The captain was in search of a large enough ice floe that would allow the passengers to disembark for their first walk in Greenland before heading for clearer waters to the south.

Derting decided to use this down time to attend a variety of the informative lectures from Lindblad Expeditions’ onboard naturalists. On every Lindblad expedition, naturalists will provide optional lectures for guests to attend. The lectures touch on a variety of topics that educate passengers about the history and geology of the region, and how Lindblad Expeditions is contributing to conservation efforts.

The lectures were briefly interrupted when long-finned pilot whales and sperm whales made an appearance close by. “The whales were incredible to see, even if they were too far for great photos,” Derting describes. “We learned a lot of fascinating information about the sperm whales. They can dive for two hours and almost 10,000 feet underwater without coming to the surface. Seeing how these creatures live in the wide open waters off the coast of Greenland was something I will never forget.”

At the end of the day, as most of the guests retired to bed, Derting discovered first hand why photographers should never sleep during the prime time for light. Being that it was summer, and as far north as the National Geographic Endurance was, the sunset and sunrise occur in quick succession.

“The term midnight sun actually applies to Greenland in the summer months,” Derting says. “Around midnight, the low sunlight light began to work its way through the fog, lighting up the dramatic mountains and icebergs that laid in front of us. I couldn’t stop taking photos. There was just that much incredible beauty and light surrounding the entire ship. I looked around and I couldn’t believe that there were only four or five of us on the deck witnessing this incredible moment.”

Gyldenlove Fjord and Torsukattak Channel

The National Geographic Endurance arrived at Gyldenlove Fjord as the early morning sun briefly peaked through the fog to paint the ice-capped mountains a golden yellow. The Gyldenlove Fjord is the exact spot where famed Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen landed in 1888 before traversing the entire island’s interior on cross-country skis.

Following in Nansen’s footsteps 134 years later, the guests disembarked the National Geographic Endurance on small Zodiac boats, where they would wind through the dramatically carved ice before making landfall for an early morning hike among the geology-rich landscape dotted with icebergs and rock formations.

Derting found that one of the most challenging aspects of photographing the iconic ice of Greenland is how to convey the magnificent size of the icebergs through his photographs.

“Telephoto lenses are my go-to photography trick for giving a sense of scale to my viewers,” Derting describes. “However, often that would prove difficult in the landscapes of Greenland. Without an object to compare the massive iceberg against, even a telephoto lens can’t really relay the size to the viewers. Luckily, on a number of occasions, I found large ice formations against the mountainous backdrops that allowed me to show that sense of scale.”

“However, I found that photographing other Lindblad guests on board the Zodiac boats near the ice was an even better solution,” he continues. “Not only did it convey the sense of scale that I was after, it also added a touch of adventure to the scene. In most cases, when a viewer sees a photo of another person or group of people in an incredible-looking location, they envision themselves in that scene. They get the feeling of living in the moment they are seeing, which leads to a more exciting experience for the viewer.“

With so much to see in this area, the passengers also took a long Zodiac cruise later in the day. The water was so clear and pure, a visiting genomic research scientist from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory collected water samples for eDNA testing while the guests got an up-close view of the rich kelp ecosystem.

Tingmiarmiut Fjord

In the early morning hours, as the passengers slept, the National Geographic Endurance entered the Tingmiarmiut Fjord, a stunning landscape located along the King Frederick VI cast. After Derting awoke, he grabbed his camera and headed to the upper deck to capture the picturesque ice-filled landscape as other guests began to board Zodiacs for an early morning tour.

“As usual, the landscapes were stunning to witness,” Derting says. “Icebergs surrounded us. They were vibrant shades of blue, turquoise and white. The overcast skies and gentle rain made for some moody photographs that I felt really told the story of what a day in Greenland is like. It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s wet. But even so, it’s always beautiful.”

As the afternoon approached, the National Geographic Endurance relocated to give its passengers the opportunity to go onto land for a short hike. The unique rock formations have been carved out by centuries of freezing and thawing. As Derting hiked through the otherworldly landscape, he was amazed to find wildflowers and lichens in such a cold and ice-covered location. “Just another example of how Greenland is filled with surprises, each one just as beautiful as the last.”

Napasorsuaq and Skjoldungen Fjords

With over a week at sea already in the books, Derting wasn’t sure that Greenland could possibly get any more intriguing and beautiful than what he had already witnessed. However, some of the trip’s best photographic opportunities would present themselves over the final few days of the Iceland’s Wild West Coast to East Greenland expedition.

As the National Geographic Endurance moved along the coast of Southeast Greenland and deeper into the Napasorsuaq Fjord, Derting was transfixed on the dramatic snow-capped mountains and incredible icebergs.

“You would think that a landscape with so much ice would look repetitive after a while, but the opposite is true,” Derting says. “Even though ice is the dominant feature, every scene looks remarkably different every way you turn. The contrast between the blue icebergs against the white backgrounds, the stunning rock formations, and the ever-changing dramatic weather keeps the photographs fresh.”

After a final morning hike let the ship’s guests experience more of the unique fauna that Greenland has to offer, the reality that the experience of a lifetime was near an end began to settle into Derting’s mind.

“Up until that morning, I hadn’t really kept track of days,” he explains. “I was having such a thrilling time living out a bucket list experience, my mind had convinced itself that it wasn’t going to end. But knowing that this would be the last off-ship hike really shifted my thinking. I knew that, even though I had thousands of great photos and videos, this would really be my last chance to capture the beauty that Greenland has.”

With a number of Zodiac cruises already documented in his camera, Derting was excited that the final Zodiac tours would be in and around the stunning Napasorsuaq Fjord.

“The dramatic sunset that had occurred at the beginning of the trip might have been my favorite moment of the expedition,” Derting says. “However, the last few Zodiac tours among the vibrant blue icebergs and jaw-dropping landscapes that surrounded the Napasorsuaq Fjord might be a close second. It’s not often that I am at a loss for words, but in this moment, I was. I couldn’t stop experimenting with different photo compositions and focal lengths that I felt really captured the rugged and remote beauty of Greenland.”

The Trip of a Lifetime

As the National Geographic Endurance left Greenland and approached Iceland across the Denmark Strait, Derting began to look over the photos that he had captured while he reflected on the experience that the prior days provided.

“Being from Alaska, I was expecting a similar experience in Greenland,” he says. “Cold, foggy, dramatic, and photogenic is what I envisioned. And while Greenland was indeed all of those things, there was something incredible about being among mammoth icebergs in front of pristine mountain landscapes with no one else around. I will always remember that incredible sunset and sunrise early on in the trip. While standing on the top deck, I think I can say with complete certainty that it was the first time in my life that I experienced perfect silence.”

“There is a certain feeling in your soul when you experience those extremely rare moments in life. You feel the butterflies in your stomach. You look at the incredible scene in front of you, void of buildings, people, technology. It’s just the raw beauty of earth, seemingly unchanged for millions of years. In today’s world, those moments are incredibly hard to come by, but I had it right then and there.”

“Not only is Greenland one of the most beautiful places on earth, it’s also one of the least visited. And in that moment, as well as countless others throughout my expedition on the National Geographic Endurance., I realized that, instead of looking at photos in a magazine, there is no greater feeling than to witness these untouched, pristine corners of the world with your own eyes.”

More from John Derting can be found on his website, and Instagram.

Image credits: All photos by John Derting.

Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad Expeditions is a global provider of small-ship expeditions and adventure travel experiences recognized as the category leader for its pioneering, cutting-edge programming and conservation commitment. Lindblad Expeditions works in partnership with National Geographic to inspire people to explore and care about the planet. The organizations work in tandem to produce innovative marine expedition programs and to promote conservation and sustainable tourism around the world. Guests interact with and learn from leading scientists, naturalists and researchers while discovering stunning natural environments, above and below the sea, through state-of-the-art exploration tools.