Legendary sailing photographer Rick Tomlinson leads a wildlife expedition sail in Svalbard searching for polar bears and stunning scenery to capture

It’s 0600 and I hear movement down below, our guide Marcel going for his shower. I’d woken a couple of hours earlier when I knocked a pillow covering the window and bright, bright, sunlight came streaming in. I couldn’t get back to sleep, we were in an area where polar bears had been recently sighted and I could feel they were out there right now.

Marcel came up, took one look around and calmly said, ‘There’s a bear.” Where? I’d been staring at the same area for two hours and seen nothing, in fact I still couldn’t see it!

We were aboard the expedition yacht Qilak in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard on a photographic expedition that was originally planned to mark a 60th birthday two years ago, but got rescheduled due to Covid. Qilak is a 66ft purpose-built high latitude expedition yacht owned and skippered by Belgian Philippe Carlier, whose unique concept came about after he bumped into designer Merf Owen in a pub in Hamble.

Built at KM Yacht Builders in Holland in aluminium, and launched in 2016, Qilak incorporates many of the skipper’s own ideas as well as the design teams and KMs input. She is distinctive by her outline, tough and functional, yet with a few more comforts than some of the other expedition yachts I’ve worked on.

Qilak spent most of the pandemic in Norway and Iceland and had sailed to Svalbard a few weeks before we joined her in Longyearbyen. At 78° north this is the most northern town in the world with a population of just over 2,000. When you look at a map, first find the top of Norway, then go up another 500 miles – that’s the Svalbard archipelago and Longyearbyen is on the island of Spitsbergen.

It’s just over 600 miles to the North Pole. By comparison the cruising area on the Antarctic Peninsula is around 63° south, some 1,600 miles from the South Pole such is the effect of the Gulf Stream on northern climates.

Qilak would be our base, our accommodation and our transport, and it was with great excitement we all met on board after two years of contact only by email and Zoom.

The guests were a German family, friends and adult children, the parents both very keen photographers who each year would take an extended photography trip for their vacation. For this birthday they’d signed up for a ‘Rick Tomlinson Photography Expedition’ via Qilak’s website.

Stepping ashore for a hike. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

Looking after us and keeping us safe on board the four crew consisted of owner/captain Carlier, Spanish first mate Carlos Torre, Czech Tomas Lindovsay on the interior, and local specialist guide and gun handler Marcel Schütz from Switzerland, which certainly made for an international group.

Wild subjects

May is still early in the Arctic and this year the pack ice was well established a long way south so venturing onto the north coast was impossible.

Given these limitations we made our way north to explore the Lillehookfjorden and Kongfjorden, stopping on the way to photograph the walrus colony on Sarstangen. At around 100 miles it involved an overnight passage, but you wouldn’t have known it as we sailed in 24 hours of daylight. This was the only day of poor weather and we were set to enjoy nine days of sunshine, blue skies and mirror-like waters as a large area of high pressure dominated the area.

Walrus colony photographed at Sartstangen on the way to Lillehookfjorden. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

Once in the fjords we’d approach the glaciers and drift with the brash ice, or anchor Qilak in a safe location then use the Zodiac RIB to take people ashore to hike, or use the Zodiac to explore around the ice and islands.

Temperatures were around 4° but in the sun it would feel much warmer. However, there was still a lot of snow on the ground lying up to a metre deep which could make walking onshore quite difficult. Also ashore was the very real danger from polar bears, so guide Marcel carried a flare pistol and shotgun whenever we were on land.

Photographers can never be sure quite what they’ll see during an expedition to the Arctic, but bearded seals make for ideal subjects. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

As the photography guide I would talk through what I was seeing, which lens I was using and why. I’d offer more help to the less experienced in the group and let the more experienced do their own thing, but always on hand to answer questions and discuss techniques.

In the evenings we’d edit our pictures, then share them on a big screen in the saloon. Usually the whole group would gain something from this, including me. The temptation with wildlife is to fill the frame with the subject, but it’s also important to show the environment and habitat they’re in – otherwise you could be shooting in a zoo!

However, as with all rules in photography, those rules are made to be broken. By coincidence we were all using Nikon gear – my favourite lens is the Nikon 200-500mm zoom. To keep the pictures sharp with the long lenses a fast shutter speed is needed, usually at least 1/2,000 sec with ISO 400.

Qilak anchored in the mist at Svalbard. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

With wildlife you can’t guarantee what you’ll see but thanks to Marcel and the experience of skipper Phil we were able to make the most of the opportunity. For a trip like this polar bears are generally at the top of everyone’s wish list, but you have to be realistic and it’s not a certainty that you’ll see them. That said, on my five trips up to Svalbard we always have.

However, walrus, whales, reindeer, puffins and the many different types of seabird, plus the beautiful glaciers and icebergs are more or less guaranteed. Every day we were lucky to see a lot, helped by the beautiful weather making the ice and glaciers sparkle.

Capturing midnight

I’d brought a drone for one specific shot of Qilak in the ice by a glacier. I’m not a fan of using drones in this environment, particularly around the birds and wildlife, but away from them they give a unique perspective and show what it’s like to be in this remote place. I wanted the light as low as possible for the picture, and at this time of year this meant shooting at midnight. This is one of the great things of a dedicated photography trip on a small vessel – you have the necessary time and when you want to try something everybody buys into it.

At midnight first mate Carlos and I took the Zodiac away from Qilak to launch the drone clear from the mast and rigging. The light had softened just a little, but in photography terms there is only two F stops variation between shooting at midday or midnight up here.

Qilak among the ice. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

Where possible I tend to use a drone purely to get the high vantage point, so I take the RIB out to where I’d normally shoot from and then the drone goes up vertically, I take the shot and then it comes down and we hand catch it – minimising as much risk in flying or retrieving it as possible. I use the DJI Phantom 4 as it has proper legs to catch it with. The downside is it is much larger than, for example, a Mavic and awkward to travel with on aircraft.

The picture was exactly what I’d envisioned, showing Qilak as a small boat in the wilderness. I was really pleased with the result and it’ll feature in my 2023 calendar.

Zooming in to get a shot of a polar bear. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

The bear hunt

When you start a trip like this it initially feels like you have all the time in the world, but suddenly time speeds up and in a few days it’ll be over. I felt we were repeating what we were photographing and we hadn’t seen all the things we wanted to: in particular a polar bear. From our contacts and research most recent sightings were in the fjords closer to Longyearbyen so we made the decision to head back that way.

Again we made an overnight passage and I joined in the watch system, really enjoying the time alone and in charge of the boat. There was no wind so we motored at an economical 6 knots. It was beautiful keeping watch in the pilothouse with autopilot on, coffee in hand.

Sailing to Svalbard in
24-hour sunlight in May. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

Inside Isfjorden we went first into Dicksonfjorden and then into Ekmanfjorden. It was here that Marcel spotted the bear. Even with binoculars I still couldn’t see it. We lifted the anchor and made our way across the fjord. A small expedition cruise ship had also spotted it and was heading that way too. Both vessels drifted by the ice shelf with the bear a long way off in the distance, seeming unaware of our presence.

My mind was racing; would he come our way or walk off? We were watching him for quite a while as he slowly paced back and forth, then suddenly he was within camera range, rapidly closing the distance between us. He began taking interest in the boats, coming right under the bow of the ship, looking and sniffing, then raising up on his back legs to get a better view. Sensing nothing to eat under there, he turned his attention to us.

On a yacht with some open water between you and a bear is a safe place to watch from; the bear can’t climb onto the boat from the water so we were able to maintain a safe position even as he came close, checking us out.

Expedition highlight, a polar Bear in Dicksonfjorden. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

While we see a cute cuddly polar bear, he’s seeing us as lunch. Marcel was happy with our situation so we drifted along, watching and photographing. All you could hear aboard Qilak was camera shutters going off in rapid fire, then a pause to change lenses as the bear became too close for the 500, then 300, then the 70-200 zoom.

As we drifted closer to the ice edge skipper Phil used the engine to keep us at a safe distance. When the bear came close and reared up on his hind legs again, reaching his full height to get a look at us on deck, we used the engine and bow thruster to move a bit further away.

Having had plenty of time to get our pictures we were able to put the cameras down for a while and just watch and enjoy this magnificent creature’s presence until he decided to move off. We were all on a high from the experience and felt so lucky to have had such an encounter. Immediately afterward everyone went below and the saloon table was soon covered with cameras, laptops and ipads as SD cards were downloaded and pictures proudly shown on the big screen.

We still had a few more days to explore and the weather continued to be so beautiful it was hard to go below and go to sleep. We just didn’t feel tired as it was so bright in the sky at 0300. Despite the sunshine, we spent one night at anchor only for the wind and tide to change and bring a lot of ice around the boat.

Carlos and Phil were on watch and decided we should move – but there was a problem, we couldn’t lift the anchor as the chain was frozen to the ice. Lots of motoring and winching and poking with a boat hook later we eventually set it free and moved to a safer place. It was a reminder that despite the balmy conditions we were in a tough environment.

We left the boat and the crew back in Longyearbyen, having enjoyed a fantastic experience. Qilak continued to operate in the area for the rest of the season. On the following trip they didn’t get to see a bear, although they did enjoy some great hikes on the glacier. You never quite know what you’re going to see on these trips, but they’re always memorable!

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