In the land where the summer sun never sets, where ice and fire engage in a perpetual waltz, I embarked on the photography journey of a lifetime. The destination? Svalbard—an Arctic realm of mystery and marvel, the northernmost reaches of our planet. With Backcountry Journeys, we set forth on a photographic expedition to explore Svalbard’s treasures and capture its enchanting wildlife and landscapes.
Svalbard’s natural history is nothing short of extraordinary. This remote archipelago, nestled deep within the Arctic Circle, occupies a unique place in Earth’s geological history. Its rugged terrain, dominated by glaciated mountains and vast ice caps, serves as a living testament to our planet’s tumultuous past. The fjords and valleys of Svalbard bear witness to the ebb and flow of ancient ice sheets, while exposed rock formations narrate Earth’s geological evolution over millions of years. The Arctic ecosystems here, adapted to the extreme conditions of eternal daylight in summer and ceaseless darkness in winter, harbor a surprising diversity of wildlife. From polar bears and Arctic foxes to walrus, other marine mammals, and a plethora of bird species, Svalbard’s rich biodiversity makes it an ideal locale for both wildlife and landscape photography.
Our journey commenced in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement, serving as the portal to our Arctic adventure. Our group of 14 photographers boarded a small ship, casting off into the frigid Arctic waters for an 11-day expedition. We couldn’t have anticipated the awe-inspiring experiences awaiting us.
Our compass pointed north as we ventured out of Longyearbyen, setting our course for the rugged northwest fjords of Svalbard. As we delved deeper into this untamed wilderness, we found ourselves surrounded by some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth. Fjords filled with ice, towering mountains, and tidewater glaciers that eclipsed any prior encounters.
From the northwest, we embarked on a quest to follow the receding sea ice northward, in the hopes of encountering the king of the Arctic—the polar bear. Polar bears, revered as iconic symbols of the Arctic, are known to track the sea ice as it moves north during the summer months. This journey is driven primarily by their reliance on the sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, their primary food source.
After a full night of travel, we awoke to an otherworldly scene. The world outside had transformed overnight, unveiling a landscape that felt simultaneously ancient and alien. Our ship was ensnared in a sea of floating ice — a sensation entirely unlike anything we had ever experienced.
And then, we spotted them — polar bears. Over the course of our expedition, we spotted 12 polar bears. The quality of sightings was unexpected. Each encounter was nothing short of astonishing, as we observed these majestic giants from the safety of our ship and Zodiacs, at times just 5-10 feet away.
In one unforgettable moment, a polar bear ventured right up to our ship, its curiosity bringing it to the stern. This heart-pounding encounter served as a stark reminder of the wildness of this place and the intimate connection between these Arctic mammals and the sea ice. Witnessing these polar bears in their natural habitat was a privilege that few will ever experience.
As we journeyed northward, the sea ice became an imposing companion—a testament to the Arctic’s unwavering hold on this remote wilderness. Upon reaching 82 degrees north, we approached the very precipice of the world before commencing our southward journey to complete our mini circumnavigation.
Each day brought new horizons, filled with breathtaking landscapes and wildlife. We explored the remote island of Kvitøya, steeped in Arctic history and mystery, shrouded in fog and ice. This desolate island bore the scars of past explorers who had braved its unforgiving terrain.
Next, we ventured to Nordaustlandet, the second-largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, home to the world’s third-largest ice cap. Here, massive glacial waterfalls cascaded over vertical ice walls, presenting a captivating spectacle of nature’s power.
Another highlight was the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, where during the breeding season, hundreds of thousands of thick-billed murres and Brünnich’s guillemots precariously nested on sheer cliffs, filling the air with their cries. Our visit served as a vivid reminder of the rich biodiversity thriving in this harsh environment.
Returning to the northwest fjords of Svalbard, we arrived at the renowned Kongsfjorden, boasting perhaps the most dramatic landscapes in all of Svalbard. The mountains stood like ancient sentinels, draped in colossal tidewater glaciers.
But Kongsfjorden offered more than just breathtaking landscapes; it provided a front-row seat to Arctic drama. One evening, we sat in our Zodiacs at the face of the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier and bore witness to the largest glacial calving any of us had ever seen. It began with an ice bridge collapsing, destabilizing two separate 300-foot ice pillars, which shattered before exploding into the waters below.
Our visit to Kongsfjorden also yielded more wildlife highlights, as we were fortunate enough to witness two Arctic foxes engaged in a spirited battle over dinner. Their interactions served as a stark reminder of the harsh realities of life in the Arctic, where every meal is a hard-earned prize, and competition is relentless.
Our expedition sailed on, and as if to culminate our extraordinary journey, we encountered a pod of over 100 beluga whales in the fjords of Longyearbyen. These white whales were a sight to behold. Our Zodiacs found themselves surrounded by this feeding congregation, joined shortly after by humpback whales that surfaced right next to our boats, curious about our presence. This encounter was especially fortunate since only around 500 belugas inhabit the waters around Svalbard, and a significant portion of them joined us that day.
Our mini circumnavigation of Svalbard stood as a testament to the spirit of exploration and the enduring enchantment of the Arctic. As we sailed away from Svalbard, we carried not only images but also indelible memories and cherished moments.
Our journey into the Arctic expanded our horizons, deepened our connection to the wild, and left us with a profound appreciation for the enduring magic of Svalbard. It reignited our spirit of exploration and instilled in us a sense of responsibility to protect and preserve this fragile yet magnificent part of our planet for generations to come.
Personally, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many corners of the world for photographic endeavors, but I’ve never been as moved and touched by a place as I have by Svalbard. It is truly magical, and if you ever have the opportunity to experience it, I have one word for you — go.
About the author: Matt Meisenheimer’s photography revolves around capturing unique moments and exploring locations that few have seen. He enjoys merging his passion for outdoor adventure and photography. Matt is also a Director at Backcountry Journeys, a specialist in landscape and wildlife photography tours, workshops, and safaris.