Greenland Symphony

Andrew James

21 Sep 2018

NWS specialist leader Andrew James shares some of his favourite shots from Greenland

If you are into music, imagine Beethoven’s Fifth, Wagner’s The Ring Cycle and Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell being played in a wild vortex of sound. This is what travelling by boat through the fjord system of Scoresby Sund feels like. Trying to do it justice with a camera is a bit like trying to bail out a leaking aircraft carrier with a whisky glass.

“Epic” is an overused word and one I don’t like to throw around without just cause. Having been fortunate enough to travel the world with my camera and witness some of nature’s most grandiose moments, from the annual wildebeest migration on the African plains to the endless ice and penguin-filled bays of Antarctica, I feel I’m well placed to know when this word can be dropped into a sentence without fear of contradiction.

So, here goes: Greenland, it’s epic on a Tolkienesque scale.

Towering basalt mountains plunging vertically into deep dark-blue water, vast icebergs sculpted by nature into extraordinary shapes, strange animals that look like extras from a Stars Wars film and mile after mile of raw, undiluted geology that makes you feel as if you are experiencing a time before Man started scarring the earth.

In 10 days cruising quietly through pristine fjord after pristine fjord, we saw barely any sign of human encroachment. One sailing boat and an aeroplane high in the sky, as tiny as a mosquito that could be swatted away in an instant. Otherwise, the connected world vanished. We were off the grid and in a blissful state where the demands of email, Facebook and Instagram are utterly forgotten. You should try it, at least once a year.

Having painted such a verbal picture of Greenland I now need to back it up with images, so here, hopefully for your enjoyment, are my top 10 favourite photos from the trip.

We went hoping to see some of Greenland’s polar bears rather than expecting to, and were lucky enough to see an amazing 15 different bears on our trip. We had only one opportunity for really close-up bear shots thanks to an obliging young and healthy male. He was incredibly chilled, first of all having a little body shake and then strolling nonchalantly along on the ice.
For this second bear image I wanted to pull right back and show him walking along the base of the basalt rock face we found him beneath. To my eye, a shot of an animal in its environment is often much more powerful than a frame-filling photo that can lose its environmental context.
Picking our way through the thick ice and around the huge icebergs in a zodiac was an experience everyone enjoyed. Of course the guides are experienced at this and no matter how blocked the way may have looked at times, they always found a route through.
Showing the scale of Greenland’s landscape was a constant preoccupation. That main iceberg is big but the mountains beyond are even bigger. Then there are the “little” ‘bergs in the background. Trust me, they’re about the same size as the first one, just a long way off. Are you getting this scale thing now?
Muskox are one of Greenland’s hidden wildlife treasures, but getting close to them is no easy task. They led us on a merry dance around the rocky hillsides as we stalked them silently, often crawling on the ground to avoid being spotted. In the end, I’m delighted to say we all got some great shots of these truly unique and wild Arctic animals. At the end of one muskox hike, I spotted one relaxing on a ridge and we were able to slip into position behind a large rock. The light was fading but held long enough for a few good shots of these hairy, horned and hooved creatures. That’s a female on the left and a male on the right.
Play spot the group of happy NWS Greenland adventurers (clue: bottom left) and it’ll help you get the scale of this bay and the icebergs that had become grounded in it. The gang at the waterside also found recent polar bear footprints on the shoreline, just to add to their excitement!
It seems crazy to admit, but we saw so many glaciers that they became the norm. But I loved the way this one wound its way through the pinkish rock. Every day in Greenland took me back to Geography and Geology O Level classes at school. If I’d had a field trip like this back then perhaps more of the knowledge would have sunk in!
Some scenes simply took my breath away. I stopped and stared at this one for a long while during a muskox hike. It was only as I started to walk away I thought perhaps I should photograph it. We shouldn’t only see the world through a viewfinder and even though I am a professional photographer, I want to experience everything it has to give, as well as record it and share it with others.

The M/S Freya was our home and I have a great affection for this plucky ship gliding us apparently effortlessly from Iceland, across the Denmark Strait and through the Scorebsy Sund fjord system. This is photographed from a zodiac as we made our way back to the Freya after an adventure among the ice. She looked so small and yet so comforting, and I love how the wisps of mist hung above her and stood out against the dark of the imposing mountains behind.

Light is something that as a photographer I am always watching. I’ll work with whatever the conditions give me, but on this quiet morning the rising sun threw a golden light onto the iceberg and the mist rising off the water made the whole scene otherworldly. This was so early in the day I barely recall shooting it, but I do remember that it took every ounce of strength to drag myself awake and onto the deck of the Freya. Of course the light only lasted for a short time – you just have to be at the right place at the right time.

And finally...

I hope you enjoyed my 10 favourite photos from Greenland. These are this week’s favourites but I’m sure as I look at more of my images I’ll find others I love just as much. Take my advice: if you ever get the chance to explore Greenland’s stunning scenery, grab the chance with both hands. You won’t regret it.

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Phil Abraham

21/9/2018 3:59 PM

If you need a second opinion, read this blog twice, I was a paying guest on this trip and can wholeheartedly echo every word written, only I would add a few more superlatives NWS had picked just the right ship... the crew were as passionate about the trip as we were, nothing too much trouble, and the Captain a regular arctic traveler. The guides were superb, knowledgable, communicative, and with a good eye for an image. An unforgettable experience

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