A white line, the ice; on the horizon the profile of the mountains. From the porthole of the plane, I admire the landscape gradually materialize below me. The beauty of the lands we fly over leave me, once again, breathless. I’m back to Svalbard after had lived here with my wife Stéphanie and our children for over a year, between 2018 and 2020, to work on the book “A different world” (ed. Ylaios, 2021). This time my stay will be shorter, just a couple of weeks, but it will it is a new experience: I will drive a group of eleven “students” for the First Edition of The Photography Masterclass (a second edition is planned for 2023).

The boarding day on the MS Malmö (the small Swedish boat that will take us to discover a part of this wild archipelago) the excitement among the participants is palpable. Time for introductions, a quick briefing on safety on board and, after arranging the luggage in the bunks, we set sail. We all go straight to the deck to stare up wonder at the wonderful landscape: despite being mid-May, it still feels like winter. The mountains are covered with snow, the fjords locked in the grip of ice. However, migratory birds are returning to the Arctic. Flocks of little auks swiftly cross the sky, fulmars curiously approach the boat, on the sea noisy groups of common eiders and black guillemots. We’ve just left the small harbor of Longyearbyen, but the opportunities to take photos are already plentiful. The aim of the expedition will, of course, to be able to immortalize the undisputed king of these lands: the polar bear. To identify the mythical marine mammal, we will have an “ace in the hole”: Leica and their extraordinary binoculars. We have at our disposal eleven Ultravid 8×32 HD- Plus, one for each student, a Noctivid 8×42 (I immediately take possession of it!) And a Noctivid 10×42, which will be highly coveted among the guides who drive us. This is the “gift” that Leica (already our partner for the “A family in the Arctic” project) gave us for the Masterclass. Leica provided the students with the most important (but too often underestimated!) tool for nature photography: because take photos mean first finding the subject. And it is even more true when there is a polar bear to be found …

We head for the far south of Spitsbergen Island, where we hope to find some bears. The sea ice is still abundant and prevents us from going up along the east coast. We spend hours with binoculars scanning the horizon: no trace of bears. Only about three hundred animals have been registered throughout the archipelago: finding one is not an easy task. We decide to focus our efforts on Hornsund, and it is in the southern part of this great fjord that we finally can see at long distance a bear sleeping on the ice: little more than a “yellowish” spot many kilometers far from the edge of the free water. We can’t get closer, and we don’t have a chance to make good pictures. However, we decide to drop anchor and wait. We found our first bear!

It all happens during the night, that during this season is already illuminated by the “midnight sun”. The male awakes and begins his slow and silent hunt. We observe in disbelief the capture of a seal. We seem to be into a documentary film, the scene we are witnessing is so extraordinary, bloody, and unique. The binoculars now stored in the backpack; the cameras go into action.

Stefano Unterthiner.

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