Text and photo by Roy Mangersnes
When I first started thinking about Svalbard the only thing that went through my mind was the thought of missing the opportunity to see Polar bears in the wild. It was back in 2008 and people, at least some of us, where already seeing the changes happening to our planet as temperatures had started rising and the annual sea ice had started retreating. I knew I needed to get up there to see the King of the Arctic before it was too late.
In March 2009 I went on a private expedition with my good friend Ole Jørgen Liodden to spend one week in the field. They speak about the “Arctic bug” and I was immediately bitten. Already on the plane back home I was planning my next trip.
My passion for this Arctic wilderness have brought me back on multiple expeditions, I have spent roughly a year exploring the archipelago and seen well over 250 Polar bears and I am still thinking about my next adventures in the Arctic realm.
In the last years I have also made an effort to share my passion for the Arctic by opening an office and a fine art gallery in Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen. Together with my colleague Liodden I am now running WildPhoto Travel, a travel company specializing in photography adventures. What other way to share my passion than to host photographers from around the world, so they can spread the word and share their love for this place when they return home?
Gateway to the north
Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent settlement; with an airport, an international cruise ship harbour and roughly 2000 people living in the administration centre Longyearbyen. It is therefore quit obvious that Svalbard is the most accessible area in the high Arctic and also the preferred gateway into the region for many travellers.
Compared to other places in the northern hemisphere, on the same latitude as Svalbard, the archipelago has a very mild climate. Normally, and even more so in the last years, the sea around Svalbard is completely ice free. The warm water currents from the south allows people to live comfortable lives here, when you in North American and Russia would struggle with extremes not suitable for living. Though the winter can be harsh, with temperatures in the low 30’s and howling winds, people have adapted in order to exploit the recourses in this area.
In the first years these recourses were mainly whales, but for many years up until today coal was the main source of income for the people living here. Both Norwegian and Russian companies where excavating the black gold. Strangely enough, and also quit ironic, the only coal power plant in Norway is located in the most fragile environments in the world, namely the Arctic settlement of Longyearbyen. Today most of the Norwegian mining activity has shut down due to economy, and perhaps the global view on coal as a dirty source of energy.
Now with mining gone, the main sources of income to Svalbard are research and tourism. Several cruise ships are visiting the islands during the summer, but the majority are taking part in so-called eco-tourism activities during the summer and the late winter months.
Many of my guests and fellow photographers ask me what is the best time to visit Svalbard. For me this is almost impossible to answer as nature has its own rhythm up here, and with it the light. The summer is intense with breeding birds and lots of wildlife activity, with the midnight sun lasting from 20th of April and until 21st of August. The winter is the extreme opposite with an island in hibernation as the sun disappears from Svalbard already 26th of October and it doesn’t return until 14th of February. On the edge of winter, especially late winter, the characteristic blue twilight is very evident. This magic light is worth a visit to the Arctic on its own.
For obvious reasons the Arctic light is known for its high quality and diversity. Nowhere except in the equivalent southern hemisphere, do we see the range of light as we do in the Arctic. Not only do we see the extremes from midnight sun to polar night, but also rapid changes from heavy clouds clinging to the ragged coastline, suddenly clearing and ending up with blue skies within a couple of hours.
I almost never set out to document a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a record shot. Light is always the main focus of my photography. It doesn’t always need to be much. A little subtle glow in the horizon can be extremely important for the picture, and perfect to portray the melancholic mood that I love to photograph. During the summer months I turn the day around, working in the night. Mid summer the light can be quit harsh even at midnight, but later in the season it is absolutely stunning.
The autumn is beautiful with nice warm colours and stunning sunrise and sunsets. In September the sun disappears for a few hours, but it never leaves the horizon, sending warm colours to the arctic night sky. This is without doubt the time of light in Svalbard.
The Arctic might seem very demanding at first, but it is actually extremely giving if you are open to receive. Obviously most people travelling to the islands are hoping to see the Polar bear, as I did, but Svalbard is so much more and every time of the year has its own beauty.
If you look closely there aren’t many species adapted to this harsh life. There are only two native land mammals; the Svalbard reindeer and the Arctic fox. There is only one species of passerine, the Snow bunting but in the mountains you will also find the endemic Svalbard ptarmigan. The seabirds are the most numerous with several high Arctic specialities, the Sabine gull, Ivory gull, Northern fulmar, Little auk and Brünnicks guillemot. In addition waders are rather common with the Red phalarope and the Purple sandpiper as the two highlights.
The numbers of species are rather low compared to any other place in Europe and the world, but the marine life is comparably rich. Several species of whales frequently feed in the nutrient rich water of the coast, including the magnificent Blue whale. Especially during the last decade we have observed that the whales are returning to the archipelago. On pretty much every expedition we have Fin whales, Mink whales, Humpbacks, Belugas and even White-sided dolphins sometimes. This is great news as they were all hunted to extinction over a hundred years ago by Dutch whales. Even the once numerous Bowhead whales have been observed after being completely missing since early 1900. Personally I haven’t seen it yet, but maybe this is the year…
The same goes for the Walrus, thought be extinct from Svalbard in the early 1900’s, but now returning in good numbers and reappearing on the historical haul out places along the west coast. Ringed seal and Bearded seal are quit common in the fjords, while Harp seals and sometimes Hooded seal are found near the pack ice on the north coast.
King of the Arctic
Obviously, most people travelling to Svalbard are hoping to see the Polar bear, King of the Arctic. In many ways this charismatic mammals has become the symbol of a healthy Arctic ecosystem. Obviously it has also become an icon of the region and a symbol of a changing environment and warmer climate.
As mentioned, the fox and the reindeer are the only two land mammals on Svalbard because the Polar bear is actually considered a marine mammal, as it spends the majority of its life on the sea ice. Here they find their main food source, seals, and also potential mates. When it comes to the den and the birth of cubs this is done on land in the steeper slopes. Here they find the perfect spot with the right amount of snow, the right angle according to the sun and in safe distance to the big male bears. Historically the eastern part of the archipelago, and especially the protected islands, has been traditional den sites. On some of these, almost a hundred dens have been recorded but in the last years, with the lack of sea ice in the autumn, the numbers have gone down dramatically.
Still the Polar bear numbers of Svalbard and Frans Josef Land, which is considered the same population, is rather stable with about 3000 animals. However, if the ice conditions don’t improve dramatically we will most probably see the effect in a couple of years time.
Without doubt, the Polar bear is one of my favourite animals. Like most bears they are extremely charismatic, very curious and also slightly dangerous. I have had over 250 encounters, most of them from a ship but also from zodiacs and on land. In my experience each and every one of these encounters and also the individuals have been unique.
Even if all Polar bears are curious by nature, most of them will avoid people or at least don’t bother getting close to people. They are basically to busy doing their own thing. Then you have the ones that will approach humans, most likely because they are curious of the smell, the sounds and the appearance of this two-legged stranger in their domain. Of course with such a powerful creature curiosity can lead to dangerous encounters between man and beast, but my experience is that these bears usually keep their distance and will avoid any conflict if you tell them off. However, travelling in their territory one should come prepared with the necessary repellent, i.e. flare gun, and protection.
So what will the future bring for the Polar bear and its kingdom? Without a doubt we are seeing some dramatic changes in the Arctic. Not only in regards of the sea ice, which is retreating, but also looking at the biological diversity in the polar region. In the last couple of years we have seen how new species have invaded the archipelago and the effects of this will be evident in a few years time. New species of birds, like the Meadow pipit and Lapland bunting, will probably not do much harm. The biting mosquitoes will obviously be a pain as they become more numerous, but they can also affect the breeding success of birds and also reindeer.
However, the most fragile environment is without a doubt the marine ecosystem. In September 2013 we saw the arrival of mackerel, and with it pods of Orcas. The mackerel is a potential threat to other specialized arctic fish species as they feed on eggs and larvae of these. The arrival of mackerel is just one of many changes in the oceans around Svalbard, but it is very easy to observe and therefore a good example of what is happening.
I wish I could say that “we need to stop this process”, but I am afraid it is already too late. The volume of sea ice measured by satellites in the summer, when it reaches its smallest, has shrunk so fast that scientists say it’s now in a ‘death spiral’. What we need to do now is to adapt to these changes and take the consequences. What we should do as a courtesy to the world, and the Arctic in particular, is to prevent further exploitation of the Arctic now that the absence of sea ice makes drilling for oil possible in the Barents Sea. The irony of such an activity would be unbearable for us and for future generations.