Svalbard: Land of the Ice Bear

Our first meeting in 2014 saw us welcome Hertfordshire Photographer, Simon Hawkins, who gave us a presentation on his June 2012 trip to Svalbard.

Svalbard is an archipelago off the north of Norway and lies around half way between Norway and the North Pole. The name means “Cold Coasts” and first appears in the 12th century, mentioned in Icelandic texts. It measures some 63,000 square kilometres and has a population of some 2,600, 2,000 of whom live in the main settlement of Longyearbyen, which is the world’s northernmost city. It has the Norway’s largest glacier, Austfonna, and is the world’s third largest  icecap after the Antarctic and Greenland.

Simon went on a three-week voyage, via charter yacht, around the archipelago with his Canon 1D MkIV and 500mm f4 lens, 7 other photographers, 2 organisers and the crew of the ship. The trip was arranged by Danny Green and Mark Sissons who run Nature Images.

Illustrated throughout with glorious photos of the landscape, Simon talked us through his journey around Svalbard. His photographs captured the essence of the area with stunning snow-capped vistas and the most wonderful depictions of icebergs, large and small. The colours in some of the ice-scapes really need to be seen to be believed.

Simon presented a range of wildlife photographs starting with a colony of walrusses, a selection of birds, including skuas, gulls and auks and of course, the object of the trip, polar bears.

Whenever the group went ashore in areas where polar bear activity was expected, they had to have an armed guard. One of the ship’s crew went with them and stood watch with a rifle. Fortunately, they never required his services though Simon did show photographs of a polar bear with a leg injury, which appeared to be a bullet wound.

We were treated to a series of photos of different polar bears in different areas of Svalbard. We saw a bear feeding, unusually, on kelp, several bears feeding on the carcass of a walrus. A fascinating selection of shots of a mother and cub within sight of a much larger male polar bear, where the mother charged the male in order to make sure it did not go anywhere near the cub.

Simon got to ‘shoot’ a couple of tagged polar bears and was able to determine the identity of one of them during later conversations with the research station staff up on Svalbard. Photos of the encounter appeared in an article published by WWF in their Polar Bear Update which they send to people who “sponsor” bears. Details of the programme can be found at the WWF Polar Bear Tracker website.

All in all a  fantastic set of photos interspersed with just the right amount of information and background detail made for an enjoyable presentation.

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Simon’s work can be found at his website where you can also see his photos from the Svalbard trip as well as a link to the Polar Bear Update in the ‘Publications’ section.

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