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Braving the Storms - Svalbard Snowmobile Expedition in Late Winter


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Part 1 - Preparation & Arrival


After our expedition cruise around Svalbard with the MS Freya in early summer last year (see https://www.safaritalk.net/topic/22120-into-the-pack-ice-svalbard-expedition-in-early-summer) it was clear to us that we wanted to return to this incredible arctic archipelago as soon as possible. It is true that these islands leave a deep impression in your soul and seem to pull you back.

But instead of a cruise in summer, for contrast and different opportunities with wildlife in winter coat, we really wanted a land-based trip in the snowy landscapes and glorious light of early spring. But to our surprise, this turned out to be rather difficult to organize and required months of preparation.


The first consideration to be made was of course when to go. This turned out to be the first required compromise. The island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago is located in the Barents Sea, with its capital Longyearbyen being barely 1.300 kilometers South of the North Pole. The sun does not rise during the polar night between October 27th and February 17th. The last sunset before the months of midnight sun begin is on April 18th. So you would expect the best light to be found sometime between mid February and mid April.

But then, this is the Arctic. The West coast of Svalbard is warmed by the North Atlantic Current and has remained mostly ice free during winter for the last centuries. This is indeed the reason why all the historic settlements including Longyearbyen are located on this side of the archipelago. The East coast in contrast feels the effect of arctic currents and usually completely freezes over by March. The months of February and March tend to be the coldest ones, with frequent storms. With April normally showing more stable weather and the last days of good light, we decided to plan for early April. But normal was not to be this year, as you will be able to see later.


The second consideration was how to move around. Longyearbyen has just 46 kilometers of roads that are navigable in summer, but that shrinks substantially during winter with snowfall. In addition, these roads only cover the immediate vicinity of Longyearbyen. So a rental car was not an option. Ski or snowshoe expeditions are possible, but with the wildlife not being overly dense in the arctic, this was ruled out immediately. There is of course dog sledding in Svalbard, but mostly as a tourist experience. A group of barking dogs usually does not entice wildlife to stay around for a photo session and so this was an easy one to be discarded. But leaving all these considerations aside, we had already seen the solution of our transportation problem in Longyearbyen last summer: snowmobiles. Nowhere else on this planet have we seen such a high density of snowmobiles. Tourists are usually told that in Svalbard, there are more polar bears than people. But in fact, this is a myth. About 2.500 people permanently live there and it is assumed that only 500 polar bears make it their home. But at least from our visual impression, there seem to be more snowmobiles than people in Svalbard and even better, there are several companies where you can rent snowmobiles. Problem solved.


Going alone deep into the arctic wilderness of course is not a good idea. You need local knowledge of potential dangers and threats and how to best deal with them. This is polar bear country and the Norwegian rules require you to carry a firearm outside Longyearbyen. It is possible to rent a rifle for polar bear protection if the Governor has given you an advance permission. I had to translate all the old papers of my military service records when we applied for it. That being said, there are several companies that offer regular day trips with snowmobiles, but as you can imagine, none are actually focused on the needs of photographers, let alone those with a focus on wildlife. And with overnight accommodations outside the capital being very limited to non-existent at least since the advent of the war in Ukraine (Russia has a state-owned hotel in the old Soviet city of Pyramiden on Svalbard), we instead decided for very long day tours. After long and rather unsuccessful contacts with some of the local guides, we found the guide that fully suited our needs, Stuart Thomson, himself an outstanding and enthusiastic photographer (https://www.stuartthomson.no). Stuart originally holds a degree in Molecular Biotechnology from the UK, but after having worked in pharma relocated to Svalbard permanently some fifteen years ago. He works as an employee of the local university UNIS in Longyearbyen, but what really sat him apart in our considerations was that he is in charge of teaching new students in arctic survival especially in winter and leads them on long snowmobile tours on their frequent research expeditions to remote locations on the islands. This is the kind of knowledge that you really want to have when you go into the arctic wilderness, as polar bears are not the only threat and very likely not the one that you should worry about most. If you want to see more of Stuart's photography, check out his website, or if you happen to be in Longyearbyen, buy his superb little book Long Year Spitsbergen, which has great photos from all seasons and despite having more than 280 pages is small enough to easily fit in your luggage.



Enjoying winter photography on the frigid East Coast of Svalbard



The major dangers during a winter expedition in Svalbard are the cold, breaking through ice and -would you believe it- avalanches. Although being rated as an arctic desert, Svalbard can have heavy snowfall, rapidly changing temperatures, high winds and steep mountainsides. The perfect recipe for avalanches and in fact several people have died there, most recently two tourists on snowmobiles. Once you get buried in an avalanche, your chances of survival rapidly go to zero after just fifteen minutes. So unless you can get immediate help from people in your own group, you are doomed. But they also need to be able to find you and know how to dig you out. The only practicable way to do this is if everyone carries an avalanche transmitter and knows how to use it along with sondes and a shovel. And because we did not have this knowledge, we went on an avalanche rescue course in the Alps before we sat out to Svalbard.

In contrast to this, the cold was rather easy to deal with. You can rent a snowmobile suit as an outer layer, but you need inner layers as well that you need to bring. And while you can also rent a balaclava, mittens and boots in addition to the obligatory helmet and goggles, we decided to bring the ones that we have found after many years of experimentation and this turned out to be a good choice as temperatures went down to -30 degrees Centigrade (-22° Fahrenheit). To prevent us from breaking through the ice with our snowmobiles, which sadly happened to other parties, Stuart was carrying an ice drill to measure the thickness of the ice and we also had metal ice grips to help pull ourselves out just in case.


We flew to Longyearbyen on April 1st, arriving late in the evening. Stuart originally wanted to pick us up himself, but due to him being on an expedition with some researchers, instead he had sent his partner Larissa, who is an associate professor at the local university and happens to be the leading specialist in reindeer ecology. Only later would we find out that I actually went to school with her mother in my hometown, back when I was young. Now, how likely is that happening to you when you meet a professor in a city near the North Pole?


We had heard before our arrival that Svalbard so far has had one of the coldest winters in decades, with record snowfalls and frequent storms. And as we could see from our hotel window, this anomaly seemed to continue unabatedly, with the airport closed down on the day when our first snowmobile tour was planned to happen. But as you know, extreme weather can mean good photos and this will be the subject of our second installment to follow.





Edited by MPS
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Part 2 - White-Out in Adventdalen


Sunrise in Svalbard is at 5 a.m. in early April and the sun sets at 9 p.m. The period of the midnight sun is rapidly approaching and even now it does not get fully dark at night. So when we looked out of the hotel window, we could easily see that a severe snow storm had settled over the island. On the day where we had planned the first of five days out on the snowmobiles.


We had previously agreed with Stuart Thomson that we would start our adventures each day at noon when he would pick us up at the hotel with his car, saddle our snowmobile rides and then carry on as long as the light would be good in the eyes of polar photographers. And when he picked us up the storm had continued unabated and later in the day we even heard that the airport was closed for all aircraft due to extreme side-winds. 

Each day would begin by packing our gear into a Pelican case and a Zarges box that were strapped on a sledge that Stuart was towing behind his snowmobile. The Pelican case took both of our our Nikon Z 800 mm lenses as well as a Z7II with a Z 24-120 for landscape work. We were carrying our two Z9 with the Z 100-400 in our backpacks for rapid access in case we would make a surprise find. And while we also carried tripods, they were never used. We also carried drones, but their deployment would be limited by high winds and snowfall.


Next up in the daily schedule was a discussion of our options where to go based on the current weather predictions, which we soon learned were not as reliable as back home. This day we decided to seek out reindeer in the snowstorm in Adventdalen, a broad river valley that stretches out to the Southeast of Longyearbyen, with the main target to photograph reindeer in the snowstorm.


While my wife Renate already had experience with snowmobiles, I was a total newbie and in fact it would take me three full days to feel reasonably safe in driving these things. On my learning curve there were instances where I got stuck in a snow pit (thanks, Stuart, for digging me out!), and when my goggles froze over during a snowstorm I even overlooked a drop-off and made a nice roll. I also learned when to jump off a snowmobile. That being said, after three days I began to like these machines and can't wait to get back on one.

As you might imagine animals are hard to find during a white-out and this even applies to reindeer that are not colored white like arctic foxes or ptarmigans in their winter coats. So we tried in some areas where they usually hang out in the valley, but only found a few.



Male Svalbard Reindeer resting in a Snowstorm


In reindeer, both sexes carry antlers. The males use them for the rutting season in the fall and then lose them in early winter. The females use them to settle disputes for competing for the sparse food resources during the winter and thus do not lose them until summer. And so while we would have preferred finding females with antlers, it was only males that we found.

We were able to photograph and film them resting in the storm and every now and then standing up and digging for food in the snow. Photography was difficult, with our breath freezing onto both the eyepieces and the monitors of our cameras. But they continued to operate without any problems in operating at these temperatures which were far below those in the specification. No problems with the batteries either.



Svalbard Reindeer watching Photographers




Cleaning Ice Chunks off the Fur


After a few hours of photography we decided to rehydrate and have a proper five-o'clock-tea in the snowstorm, sitting seemingly protected between our parked snowmobiles. See the picture below to see how well covered you can get after five minutes of snowfall.



The Making Of (Photo: Stuart Thomson)


With the light fading quickly, we decided to call it a day. Especially so because the weather forecast for the next day was looking brilliantly good and we had a much longer trip in our minds.




Edited by MPS
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You are intrepid souls!  I'm not surprised organizing this trip was not easy. Love the snow photos of the wildlife.

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What an exciting trip.

Lovely photos of the Reindeer in the snow

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Part 3 - Riding to the East Coast


After the storm, the next day turned out to be a blue sky day at temperatures close to -30° Centigrade (-22° Fahrenheit). We decided to make the long trip over to the East coast of Spitsbergen. As on the East coast the sea always freezes over in winter, it is a prime hunting ground for polar bears in particular when the seal pups are born in late winter. While this then sounds ideal for photography, the environmental laws in Svalbard prohibit you from intentionally seeking out polar bears and approach them. That being said, if you happen to cross a polar bear's path, it is not explicitly forbidden to stop and take a photo, but at the same time, you are a lot more vulnerable on land or on solid sea ice than if you are watching a polar bear from a zodiac on a ship-based expedition. In addition, polar bears are obviously disturbed by the fairly loud roars of snowmobiles. And as a consequence of both of these aspects, many areas of Svalbard are declared to be off-limits during late winter. One popular bay in the East of Spitsbergen is Mohnbukta, located about 80 to 90 kilometers one way from the city of Longyearbyen and this would be our target for this day.

We were told that normally this is a very long but relatively easy day trip. But due to the extremely heavy snowfall of the prior weeks, the tracks were very bumpy and combined with me still being in the learning phase of snowmobiling, it eventually took us a lot longer to get there than we had expected.

On the way out, we passed many reindeer and then also found our first group of ptarmigan. During winter, these birds have to rely on the wind to clear out patches of vegetation from the snow in order to be able to feed on seeds. In this, they are helped by reindeer using their hooves to remove snow and get at lichens below, because once the reindeer have created a hole in the snow, this can then be much easier be enlarged by the forces of the wind.



Male Ptarmigan in central Spitsbergen


We only reached the East Coast close to sunset. Stuart had brought a drill to check for the depth of the sea ice in order to make sure that it would carry our weight. It was more than half a meter and thus considered safe to drive on. Due to changing warm sea currents, the thickness of the sea ice can change dramatically within a day and it is therefore absolutely necessary to do this check before you proceed. A group of snowmobilers who did not pay attention to follow this rule broke through the ice in another fjord and just barely made it out alive thanks to helicopter rescue.


Once on the ice, we had to check for polar bears before proceeding to some attractive frozen in icebergs which we had spotted from a distance.



Scanning for polar bears before proceeding


On the ice, and similar to being in deserts, objects that appear close can really be far away. And so it really took a while before we reached this attractive iceberg with the moon just rising behind it.



Frozen-In Iceberg at Mohnbukta


There were no polar bears or seals to be seen anywhere, presumably because the slightly broken up ice conditions which both predator and prey prefer were now much further to East, while Mohnbukta was frozen solidly. Time flies in photography and since it was already late in the night, we started our 90 kilometer long return trip to Longyearbyen, stopping only once for some landscape photography before it got too dark.



Formations of wind sculpted snow known as Sastrugi in central Spitsbergen


We were back in our hotel at 2:30 am in the morning, happy but very exhausted. But as you will see, this exhaustion laid the foundation for a very successful wildlife photo experience on the next day.


_MPS0177-Verbessert-RR.jpg.346e228dd7d3438d06619911fa12d730.jpgHappy Photographer way past Midnight


Edited by MPS
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"A group of snowmobilers who did not pay attention to follow this rule broke through the ice in another fjord and just barely made it out alive thanks to helicopter rescue."

Dude, this is serious stuff!

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Part 4 - Finding Arctic Foxes


Looking out the window on the morning after our long blue sky day at the East coast we saw a view that was now all so familiar: snow blowing horizontally across the landscape with little visibility. Just another spring snowstorm in Svalbard. But the weather forecast was calling for a temporary improvement later in the day and so we were discussing plans of where to go for the day. My mind was certainly set on less driving and more photography, and so we decided to stay relatively close to Longyearbyen and look for arctic fox at the bottom of a long cliff where we had found numerous foxes in summer last year.

With small mammals being totally absent from Svalbard, food is scarce during the winter. The plentiful migratory birds that they feed on during the short summer months would only arrive later in April and May. And while they do make food caches of birds and specifically their chicks for consumption during winter, other food is hard to come by. The only suitable birds that remain are Ptarmigan that are around all year but are fast-moving birds that are difficult to catch. Then there could be something edible washed on the shoreline. And finally, there are usually lots of winter-killed reindeer, that can provide food for days and weeks and which constitute their most essential diet during winter.

When we arrived on location and stopped our snowmobiles, it did not take long before we could hear at least two foxes making their hoarse barking calls. During summer we had not heard them vocalizing at all. Also, they seemed to be much higher up on the cliff and we failed to actually spot them.

A bit further along the valley we finally spotted our first arctic fox who seemed to have just come up from the shoreline. But again contrary to summer where foxes had been curious about us intruders and had actually come closer, this one was darting away at first sight.

The weather had improved quite a bit and suddenly we saw a flock of Svalbard Ptarmigan feeding on another patch of vegetation that had partially been uncovered by the incessant winds. And while they moved fast, they at least did not seem to be as shy as the flock that we found further inland on the day before. They were mostly females and the one male that we spotted did not yet boast the typical strong red breeding coloration behind the eye. Keeping close to the ground we all managed to get some good shots.



Two Female Svalbard Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta hyperborea) on the move




The feet of the Ptarmigan seem well adapted to move on snow


We drove further along the valley to have a break and search with binoculars. After a while I managed to spot a white arctic fox, and according to how it was moving, it seemed to be on a mission. And while I lost sight of it when it moved behind a hill, the flock of Ptarmigan that suddenly came flying towards us answered the question what this mission had been. We kept looking and scanning the cliffs for the fox for a long time before Stuart was able to spot the fox curled up and apparently sleeping. We decided to approach on foot and when we came up on a rise, we suddenly saw it curled up right in front of us, less than 10 meters away. We were hoping that it had been successful in catching a Ptarmigan dinner when we saw the rest of the flock flying off earlier and was now not somewhat limited in its desire to move around. Thanks to mirrorless cameras being silent, we managed to get tons of photos with the fox barely noticing. After what seemed like an eternity, the fox started to yawn, stretch and roll around in the snow repeatedly before it sat upright for a while and then decided to move off. 



Arctic Fox curled up and resting



A good stretch


And so what began as just another day with a snowstorm became one of the best photo sessions we ever had anywhere in the arctic. Happily we mounted our snowmobiles and began our return leg of the trip because another snowstorm seemed to be moving in. It was then when a movement higher up on one of the slopes caught our attention. Checking with the binoculars we found what looked like a reindeer leg sticking out of the snow with a fox running around. It turned out to be the carcass of a reindeer that probably fall to its death from high up the cliff. Despite the snowstorm now blowing in full force, we decided to climb up to the carcass through the deep snow. And when we got closer it happened as I had feared, the fox darted once it noted us and then to our surprise a second fox ran off in the opposite direction. We then decided to call it a day and return on another excursion, with a different approach strategy, taking into account that they had shown themselves to be very shy.


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wow, absolutely gorgeous arctic fox photos. I'd love to see more!

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Those fox images are stunning! Wow!!! 

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1 hour ago, janzin said:

wow, absolutely gorgeous arctic fox photos. I'd love to see more!


Thank you very much, Janet. We have posted a few more on and will keep them coming on our Instagram page @seiler_wild_nature_photography, https://www.instagram.com/seiler_wild_nature_photography/

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Superb photos of the Ptarmigan and the foxes. Absolutely beautiful 

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  • 2 weeks later...

You met the white on white challenge of the arctic fox and ptarmigan.  Gorgeous.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Caught up on this. I too am keen on a return to Svalbard for a land based trip but I think I will wait for warmer weather. I don't mind cold but not too cold.

Loved that 2nd Fox shot. Absolutely brilliant. I would tolerate cold for that.

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Lovely report and images Michael. As you know I was back in Svalbard in mid-May and we were still very constrained by the heavy snow although things were finally warming up just as we left.

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