Welcome to a new addition to our blog for 2021! Happy New Year by the way.
I’m going to take you on an adventure with me to some of the most amazing places on earth. I’m Shannon Wild, the founder of Wild In Africa and a National Geographic filmmaker and photographer.
Today you’re going to journey with me to the Arctic! A region filled with top tier predators, adorable fluffy foxes and even tusked marine mammals.
Now I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a fan of cold weather. Growing up in north-eastern Australia meant scorching summers and mild winters. Now based in South Africa, the climate where I live is essentially the same. So when the opportunity first came up to go to the Arctic, I immediately braced myself and wondered how I’d ever survive.
First job was to stock up on thermal underwear. Now, when I say ‘underwear’ think more full length outfit. Then comes the fleece layer, the ‘outer’ layer and then the jacket. Throw in some thick socks, scarves and gloves, double up on some of the aforementioned layers and 6 layers later I was ready to head north. Despite the fact that as an adult woman I now suddenly looked like a 12 year old boy, I was excited!
I wasn’t as excited about the 4 flights and roughly 24hrs of travel it was going to take to get there, despite being almost directly south of my final destination. Several long haul flights, layovers and a somewhat smaller aircraft connection, I landed in Longyearbyen, the largest town on Svalbard, a Norwegian Archipelago and the world's northernmost inhabited settlement.
On my first trip I didn’t get to explore this gorgeous little town for long as I headed straight for the expedition vessel, M/S Freya. The next 10 days were a magical blur of icey archipelagos, snow and glacier covered islands, 24 hours of sunlight, zodiac rides and hiking expeditions amongst reindeer and arctic foxes.
The species of birds I saw seemed endless including fulmars, puffins, guillemots, little auks, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls as we sailed north to the pack ice, as far as the ship would go as we searched day and bright night for the main attraction … polar bears!
It’s May which means it’s actually summer (hence the 24hr days) and so the temperature, depending on the weather varies from a bit below freezing up to 10˙C some days (which is a balmy 50˙f for those of you in the US). Now I will admit, there were definitely days I was happy to have my six, cosy layers but there were also some perfectly clear, sunny days where I found myself peeling off down to my fleece and enjoying the crisp, clean air on my face.
On one zodiac cruise we were lucky to meet a large colony of walrus right on the beach. I was surprised by how curious these massive creatures are and yet nervous as well. I could see how torn they were between wanting to get closer to inspect me and then splashing back into the water to safety like a nervous puppy.
One evening as the sun dipped as low as it possibly could this time of year I was treated to gorgeous golden hues as a walrus floated past the ship on an ice floe, magical.
Being prone to motion sickness I made sure to pop a pill each day, which did the trick, even with some dicey weather at one point making it a bit difficult to sleep in my top bunk as the ship seemed to roll endlessly.
The further north we got the weather cleared and opened up to some light cloud cover providing a soft diffusion and allowing for some lovely shooting conditions. Not long after, we hit pack ice and the ship couldn’t venture any further, so we decided to spend the next day there.
Then it happened …
Someone called out and pointed into the distance, I squinted and willed my eyes to see further in the whiteout, there it was. A white, moving ball of fluff, we’d spotted our first polar bear!
The next few hours was a flurry of filming and shooting stills and the bear exploring near the ship, it’s sensitive nose working overtime in its search for food. At one point I was shooting with a telephoto lens from the highest point on the deck when the bear came right up to the boat and I had to pull out my phone to get the shot he was so close.
As I moved down onto the lower open deck I laid on the cold metal floor and pointed my lens out of one of the side holes and before I knew it my frame was filled with a curious bear face where I capture one of my favourite shots, the front on, tight bear portrait along with some interesting behavioural shots of how flexible the bears nose really is!
I’ve had the great privilege to return to the arctic several times since this first magical trip, but this will always be the most special. My very first polar bear encounter and still my favourite bear shots to date.
Join me next time as I take you with me to the African island nation of Madagascar!