I remember seeing the first images of Japan in winter around 10 years ago, but I had no knowledge of the country and very little idea about the wildlife. However, at the start of 2019 I was asked whether I would like to lead Wildlife
Worldwide’s inaugural photography tour to the country, during the snowy winter months, focusing on red-crowned cranes, Steller’s sea eagles and of course the much-loved Japanese macaques (or snow monkeys).
Firstly, if you decide to visit Japan, I can’t recommend Japan Airlines enough - they were truly exceptional. The majority of Japan’s wildlife is concentrated along the main island’s central spine or on some of the smaller, wilder islands such as Hokkaido. This is where my group spent the majority of their time, on the beautiful snowy island of Hokkaido.
We had wonderful sightings of whooper swan and red-crowned cranes during the first couple of days on the island. We had the chance to see a pair of Ural owls in the nearby forests and numerous woodland birds (many of which are recognisable to those from Europe). For me though, the species I was most looking forwards to seeing was the impressive Steller’s sea eagle. Let’s just say I wasn’t going to be disappointed …
We didn't have the best light for our time in Japan, particularly with the cranes - it was either too gloomy or too bright. Fussy photographers are a pain, but it does make such a big difference. It was really gloomy for my time with the swans, so I didn't really get anything worthwhile, but it was lovely just to watch them.
After our time in the island's volcanic interior, it was time to head to the coast in search of Steller's and white-tailed eagle.
After heading out in to the see ice to photograph the eagles, we headed south towards a frozen lake for more eagle photography. There was also an opportunity to enjoy the glorious birdlife around a traditional onsen. The highlights here were the Japanese pygmy woodpecker, the Japanese sable (a member of the marten family) and the Blakiston's fish owl (the largest owl in the world).
After an amazing week on the island of Hokkaido, enjoying the snowy conditions and stunning wildlife, it was time to head back to Tokyo. We spent a night in Tokyo before heading into the main island's centre to the city of Nagano. To be more precise we headed to the town of Yamanouchi, the perfect place to base ourselves for photographing the famed 'snow monkeys' or as they should be known, Japanese macaques. Sadly, there was a bit of a heat wave in the mountains and snow was rather lacking for the most part.
So what can I say about Japan. Well, quite simply, it is fantastic. Don't expect to be on your own, there will nearly always be other people about, but it is still somewhere I recommend highly. For the opportunities to see Steller's sea eagles alone it is worth it. Be sure to join on Wildlife Worldwide's Japan's Winter Wildlife photography tour.
This morning we awoke to big blue skies and headed into the spectacularly beautiful Hornsund. This massive fjord is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks and destructive glaciers. Being so far South, I have to admit I really wasn't expecting to see as much of the truly specialist Arctic wildlife.
Upon arrival in this stunning setting a female Polar Bear was spotted on the shoreline and then moments later another larger bear was spotted on the far shore (perhaps a male). We would be going on a Zodiac cruise to see if we could get any closer to the bears and then on to explore the fjord ... little did we know what was in store for us all.
We all met on the deck and waited to board our Zodiacs for our afternoon cruise, I was with the Naturetrek leader Peter Dunn and expedition leader Jan Belgers. We set off as one of the lead boats and headed toward the small headland where we had earlier sighted the female bear.
As we approached the shore line we realised that the bear had moved on and as much as we were scanning both the water and the shore we were unable to see anything. Peter then spotted some movement on the water's surface way out in the fjord ... it was the bear, it had managed to slip by us in the ice-cold water. The bear approached an island and we all held our breaths as we prayed the bear would be a 'quality' bear.
It was definitely a 'quality' bear ...
The real benefit of the island was that the bear felt completely at ease and we could travel all the way round for a constantly changing backdrop. As a photographer you always want to try and capture that image that stands out and lingers in the mind, this really was the perfect photographic opportunity. Even then this was one of those moments where you just have to put the camera down and really take in the moment!
We slowly moved around the island the backdrop was more than you could ever have dreamt of. We slowly moved closer and closer, all the time keeping an eye on the bear to make sure it was completely at ease. We all go the odd glance and a quick sniff but it certainly wasn't affecting its scavenging behaviour. The bear was obviously search for whatever food it could find, it is known that a variety of birds breed on this island in the summer months.
After a wonderful hour with this remarkable Polar Bear we thought it would be best to leave it in peace and leave it to carry on with its search for food. With a few months remaining until the sea ice returns this bear will really have to try and conserve its energy and find whatever scraps that are available.
We move further up the fjord to see whether we could approach the second bear, he was a huge male but he was not at ll interested in us and remained in his slumber. We carried on towards the head of a glacier to explore the amazing landscapes and the ice-filled water.
I really hope you have enjoyed looking through all of these images and with only one more post left, I think that this is perhaps the highlight of the cruise. This day was quite possibly the most memorable of my life outside of my time in Africa, with jaw-dropping landscapes, danger and unbeatable wildlife encounters I am not sure what can beat it.
Coming up are some charismatic reindeer and a few more landscapes so please keep on reading.
Our planned landing site for this morning was Kapp Waldburg, a site for nesting Kittiwakes in a steep sided canyon. As we arrived at our landing point we heard over the loud speaker that there was a Polar Bear and we would have to head elsewhere to stretch our legs.
From there we headed on towards the tundra habitat at Sundneset, once again as we approached the landing site the Polar Bear call went out again. This bear was very relaxed and the expedition team decided it would be safe to land slightly further down the coast and have the ship keep an eye on the bear's where abouts.
As we landed we were greeted by a truly wonderful site, a stunning pair of Grey (or Red) Phalaropes were feeding only yards away from us. The male was particularly obliging, carrying on with its feeding as if we didn't even exist, the female on the other hand seemed to be rather skittish and wasn't a particularly good poser.
Unusually for the bird world the female Grey Phalarope is actually the more beautiful. The males take care of the eggs and ensure they hatch before raising the chicks, the female visits a multitude of males and lays her eggs with a few of them ensuring that they have the best chance of survival.
As we left the two phalarope to their own devices we headed inland across the tundra and had an unexpected but truly wonderful encounter. A very shaggy Arctic Fox was heading towards us and we were blessed with extraordinarily close views. The fox had not yet lost all of its winter coat and spent a bit of time rolling around doing its best to free itself from its Arctic jumper. There were also a few Svalbard Reindeer within the vicinity but they were all a little nervous around us.
After spending a couple of hours on shore and aware that there was still a Polar Bear within the vicinity it was time to head back down to the Zodiacs and transfer back to the Ortelius. As we reached the landing site we realised that the male Grey Phalarope was still feeding and happy to pose for the photographers in the group.
After another incredible lunch we set sail for Dolerittneset, the ship anchored and we were once again out on the Zodiacs heading for shore. I joined the hiking group and we climbed up into the misty hills that towered above the water. We really didn't see much except for a few reindeer and a couple of ptarmigan and even Stein (our Norwegian guide) seemed to find the climb hard work. I am sure on another day the views could have been superb but on this day the visibility was less then 20 metres.
We eventually headed back down towards the ship and had a look at the multitude of Walrus bones that littered the shoreline. This was once a great Walrus haulout but unfortunately they were nearly hunted to extinction in this area. There were a couple of individuals on the shore but no longer were there the numbers that once thrived here.
Once we were back aboard the ship, we headed for the southern most tip of Spitsbergen and up towards the stunning fjord of Hornsund. This took us all night and most of the next morning but what was in store in Hornsund was something none of us ever expected, it was a day that will stay with me until the day I die ... keep reading to find out what Hornsund had in store.
This day didn’t start after a good night’s sleep … instead, we stayed up until midnight to welcome the midnight sun, the first time we had seen it on our voyage. I had to get a photo of me on the ship’s uppermost deck so sorry about the image below! What made this moment all the more special is that we were in Wahlenbergfjorden, this 50km long fjord is rarely visited and the depths are as yet completely uncharted. This really was an expedition voyage and we only found out, upon our return, that the advanced sonar had been damaged earlier on in the trip … we were sailing relatively blind following a previous expedition’s navigation.
There was also a Polar Bear on a piece of fast ice (ice that is attached to the shore) and it was obviously hunting seals but eventually it was so small that we called it a night and headed off to finally get some sleep.
The next morning the weather was a lovely 5 degrees Celsius with the sun still shining down upon us. It was a morning for a Zodiac cruise and in the night the Polar Bear had come past the ship to another piece of fast ice and was obviously hunting seals. We approached this ice, the Zodiac drivers beached the front of the boats on the ice but the bear was still at quite a distance. We decided to turn our attentions to the magnificent bird life that seemed to be all around us. There were Arctic Terns, Grey (Red in America) Phalaropes, Common Eider, King Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Glaucous Gulls and a Ruddy Turnstone that I just could not photograph! It was an amazing place but not the easiest to photograph in.
We headed off to one of the many glaciers that flowed down into the fjord from the huge ice sheet and a seal was spotted on a small ice floe. This was another huge Bearded Seal, this time with a very red head due to the iron ore deposits that stain the sea bed. As the seal feeds and searches in the sediment at the fjord’s bottom, it manages to stain its fur with this intense natural dye. The next half an hour or so was an amazing close encounter with this large marine mammal and it was only when we got within a few metres that we realised this individual had been through the wars. Its face, as you can see, was terribly scarred as were it sides. It seemed a Polar Bear had once tried to catch this seal but had failed, forever leaving its mark upon its intended prey.
We left the seal alone and made our way through the mass of ice that had calved from the glacier, before heading back to the Ortelius for a spot of lunch. This was truly a wild and remote place, with amazing scenery and fabulous wildlife one could not really have asked for more.
As we cruised out of this stunning fjord we were greeted by the amazing sight of three individual Humpbacks feeding, at times only 25 metres from the ship. After about an hour with these huge cetaceans we had to continue onwards towards Torellneset, where we would hopefully find a Walrus haul-out.
We had an early dinner before heading out onto the Zodiacs and landing on the shingle bank at Torellneset. There we were, on a remote beach in the High Arctic with a large group of Walrus … a truly remarkable experience. We were photographing these blubber behemoths on the beach when our guide Mick waded into the water and started to ‘tap dance’. What happened next was amazing ...
There were already Walrus in the water and Mick's little dance routine (he was really just paddling) seemed to create enough noise to lure in the curious Walrus. They don't really have any natural predators and are curious about things that are in their territory. It was amazing just how close these amazing mammals came and it made for some stunning photographic opportunities. At times, they were so close that I was unable to take any photos ... I just had to sit, watch and enjoy the moment (I can cope with that).
After some extreme close ups of these inquisitive Walrus they backed off a bit and there was even a bit of a scuffle between two individuals. One seemed to have a bit of an itch and started to roll on the rough beach to ease its discomfort. Our guide Mick was still standing in the shallow water watching intently.
What an incredible day it was, it can be so easy to go overboard with superlatives when visiting somewhere like Svalbard but it is the only way one can describe this remarkable destination (you see I just can't help it). The days can be long in the Arctic, this was certainly one of those days but you could never say that it dragged. It was action-packed and the sheer variety on offer was astounding (there's another one!). After a day like today, you wonder what on earth could be in store tomorrow and how could it possibly compete with a day like this? The next day was going to be a little different but still great for photography ...
Having had two Polar Bear sightings in as many days the morale was high among the group but sadly our planned excursion to find the Walrus haulout was a no go. It seemed that nobody was at home and so we moved on to the fhord at Faksevagen. Here we went off on our first proper walk to explore the Arctic Tundra.
We set off with our Norwegian guide Stein and headed up the hillside into the slight mist. Stein was completely relaxed and didn't seem at all worried by the possibility of any bears. We spotted a few Reindeer here and there but they all seemed to keep their distance from us, suddenly we had company ... a Purple Sandpiper. The bird blended in superbly well with the tundra and you can see why they breed in this terrain.
Then at long last the Reindeer came close enough for me to get a few shots, including the lovely male below which had a great set of antlers.
As we walked along the edge of a shallow ridge line we suddenly saw a white animal appear within only a few yards of us. Your reaction says Polar Bear but luckily it was only another Reindeer, and luckily for me he posed nicely for a few photographs too.
At the top of the ridge we had a sighting of the ship surrounded by an ice floe that had been at least half a kilometre away when we landed. It just goes to show how quickly the environment can change in this amazing landscape.
We headed back to the ship for yet another filling lunch before we headed to the amazing breeding colony of Brunnich's Guillemots at Alkefjellet. We were told to dress warmly as we were going to be on the Zodiacs for at least a couple of hours and possibly more depending on the quality of the sightings.
We went out onto the water in our Zodiacs and I had our Austrian guide Barbara (an expert on Glaciers). We made our way slowly towards the cliffs and at first there were just a few hundred birds on the tiny rocky outcrops, where each bird was incubating a solitary egg. However, as we made our way further along the cliffs, away from the ship the sky seemed to be filled with birds. The cliffs were towering above us, stained a mix of white and pink from the guillemots' droppings, and the birds were there in their thousands. The noise was quite amazing and it was an incredible spectacle which I feel truly honoured to have seen.
We were desperate to see our first Arctic Fox at Alkefjellet and when we came to a grass covered scree slopes it was the best chance we would have. We scanned and we scanned but we just couldn't see any movement ... then Barbara spotted one, our first Arctic Fox. She was so excited and we were too, it was a long way off but it was an amazing sighting.
We eventually decided to leave the fox alone and head back to the ship for the evening and yet another meal. Tonight we were heading to a fjord that has only be visited by a handful of vessels, even our expedition leader had never been there before. We were now really on a true Arctic expedition and heading into the unknown.
Having had an action-packed day in the High Arctic does not necessarily mean that the day is done and bed is soon to follow. With 24 hour daylight a wildlife sighting could happen at any time and the camera always needs to be kept close by (in my case it went pretty much everywhere with me except to the dining room). Today was definitely a day when the wildlife watching didn't stop after dinner, in fact were above 80 degrees North and we were in the pack ice.
The excitement of being surrounded by ice had led many of the group to head out on deck and to the bow of the ship and start to scan the horizon for the mammal everyone had come to see ... the Polar Bear. As we were often reminded anywhere in Spitsbergen could be the temporary home of a Polar Bear, even in the far South of the Island. The weather had gone on the gloomy side again after a glorious few hours of Arctic sun but we were not deterred and we were all scanning.
In the mist we noticed a large 'blob' on a small piece of ice, it was so large in fact that for a while we thought there must have been more than one mammalian being in this 'blob'. As we got closer and the mist cleared a little we realised that this was in fact just one large piece of blubber. It was an incredibly obliging Bearded Seal, you would not believe that animal would allow a large ice-breaking vessel to steam right up towards it, only metres away, but it did just that!
So having spent a good 20 minutes with the seal we decided that it should be left alone, having an ice-strengthened ship is probably not a seal's favoured company. The ship carried on through the ice field, trying to avoid the worst of the ice by using the natural channels that form due to the currents and tides.
As we continued onwards into the night there were more than 30 people on the ships bow continually scanning and enjoying the evening light when suddenly there was a shout ... "Bear, Polar Bear!". And sure enough, on the horizon, due North, there was a cream coloured lump among what seemed a sea of ice. The crew turned the ship straight towards the bear and the excitement and buzz that everyone was feeling was very apparent. The slight tension (only slight) that was felt before had evaporated and everyone was there with a smile on their face.
As we approached the bear we noticed that it was watching a seal on the ice and was slowly making its way towards the black blob (there were a lot of blobs on the voyage). We spent what seemed an eternity trying to get closer to the bear, with success, but it soon became clear that this bear did not want company and we eventually decided to call it a night.
As the Polar Bear off towards the icy horizon we were told that the ship would be spending the night in the ice and that we would set sail again in the morning. With our first sighting of this truly stunning mammal it was time to head to bed and hope that tomorrow would bring us further sightings. After all, we had now all been bitten by the Polar Bear bug.