Virgohamna
After a very rough day at sea, we arrived into the shelter of Smeerenburgfjorden. This was a welcome change to the big swells and the ship banging into the waves. We anchored at at Virgohamna, a unique historical place. It was used as a whaling base by the Dutch in the 1600’s. But what’s probably even more special about this particular place is that it served as a starting point for some very brave expeditions. Two centuries later, a wooden hangar was built there to harbor hot air balloons which were used to attempt to fly to the North Pole. The harsh Svalbardian conditions have since completely leveled this structure but there are still some remains left. Being there, at the edge of the world, I tried to imagine how brave or crazy (or stupid) you need to be to undertake such deadly expeditions into the unknown.
Virgohamna’s wooden hangar used for hot air balloon

Some of the remains of the wooden hangar used to store a hot air balloon to explore the High Arctic.

A group of walrus sunbathing in Smeerenburgfjorden., Spitsbergen.

A group of walrus sunbathing in Smeerenburgfjorden.

A polar encounter
After our landing at Virgohamna, it was time to head back South. Our next goal was Lilliehöökbreen, which is the glacier outlet that has the largest glacier front of Svalbard. At that point, about 6 days into the trip, we still hadn’t seen a polar bear. So, scared out of missing one, I ended up sitting outside on deck most of the time. I remained hopeful to spot this beautiful, but so far elusive, creature.
After a night of sailing towards our destination, we ended up anchoring in a small cove in the Lilliehöökfjorden. The cove itself provided a good base to start our exploration of Lilliehöökfjorden and the Lilliehöökbreen glacier. In the morning, we started with a hike around the cove, towards the location where once there was Nazi weather station during WW2 - a rather curious location. There isn't much left of it today aside from some rubble and scrap metal. Unmaintained, the harsh environment is not kind to remotely located buildings.
Our sailboat located in Lilliehöökfjorden, with a view on the Lilliehöökbreen glacier in the back.
Our sailboat located in Lilliehöökfjorden, with a view on the Lilliehöökbreen glacier in the back.
An excellent stop for a short lunch break, overlooking the area.
An excellent stop for a short lunch break, overlooking the area.
A reindeer we encountered during our hike back to the sailboat.
A reindeer we encountered during our hike back to the sailboat.
After we returned to the boat and had some lunch, it was time to get ready and sail towards the Lilliehöökbreen glacier. Two people in our group and their guide, headed out early in kayaks. The plan was for them to kayak towards the glacier and, as we gained up to them, for us to pick them up again. After we finally lifted the anchor and left the shelter of the cove, I headed to the front of the boat with a radio and binoculars to try and locate our kayaks. After some time, we located the kayaks. As we headed for them to pick them up, I suddenly heard our guide through the radio. "POLAR BEAR, POLAR BEAR, there is a polar bear in the water". What? Was this real? Could we finally see this, so far, elusive creature? This got me, and the whole group, very excited to say the least!
As we headed closer and closer, it became very clear that it was indeed a polar bear in the water. Through the binoculars, I was able to see the white back and head glide through the water. We picked up speed and met with our kayaks so they could safely climb back aboard. To get a better look at the polar bear, we put the zodiac in the water and we went in for a closer look. As the bear kept swimming towards the shore, we followed him from a safe distance until he managed to get to land. We switched off the outboard engine and let the flow push us closer slowly so we wouldn't disturb him. Then he finally crawled out of the water. Just unbelievable to witness this magnificent creature in its own habitat!
After a few minutes of admiring the bear, it became clear he was also interested in us. Time to start up the engine again and get to a safer distance. One of our guides, sitting at the engine, tried to rope start the engine. First pull: nothing, second pull: nothing, third, fourth, fifth, ... Nothing! The engine had given up on us. No time to waste! Immediately, we reached for the paddles underneath the sides of the zodiac, unclipped them and started paddling our way back to the boat as fast as we could. All the time, I just kept thinking about what I read about how surprisingly fast swimmers polar bears are. Maybe not the best train of thoughts in hindsight but it was definitely a good paddling-motivator! After we met up with the our sailboat again, we noticed the bear was walking along the shore, making it easy for us to follow him from the water. We all stood up on the deck, with our longest zoom lenses and admired the bear. After a while, the bear stopped walking and finally dropped himself to the ground for a nap. What a conclusion to the day! 
After all the excitement, we ended up anchoring in the same cove we started our day at.
Our encounter with a polar bear in Lilliehöökfjorden, Svalbard.

Our encounter with a polar bear in Lilliehöökfjorden.

The next day, we headed back to the Lilliehöökbreen glacier as we didn't really look at it much after spotting the polar bear. The conditions had completely changed and the wind had pushed a lot of ice from the glacier, creating some truly awesome conditions to explore the area. We spent the morning sailing and kayaking through the floating icebergs and even had lunch while being all alone in the whole area. An unbelievable experience and I love to let the photographs speak for themselves.
A top-down view of the Lilliehöökbreen glacier front.
A top-down view of the Lilliehöökbreen glacier front.
The massive glacier front of Lilliehöökbreen. This is just a tiny part of it.
The massive glacier front of Lilliehöökbreen. This is just a tiny part of it.
A kittiwake sitting on top of an iceberg.
A kittiwake sitting on top of an iceberg.
Kayaking around the floating ice and near the glacier wall is unlike anything I've ever done before.
Kayaking around the floating ice and near the glacier wall is unlike anything I've ever done before.
Some of the icebergs have some interesting textures.
Some of the icebergs have some interesting textures.
Some of the icebergs have some really interesting shapes and textures.
Some of the icebergs have some really interesting shapes and textures.
Our sailboat anchored near the glacier wall.
Our sailboat anchored near the glacier wall.
Kongsfjorden
After an absolutely lovely day near the glacier, it was time to head towards Kongsfjorden. This fjord was our last stop before heading back towards the South (and civilisation). We anchored in Peirsonhamna, a cove of the Blomstrandhalvøya island. On the island, we explored an abandoned mining village. Again, the harsh climate had destroyed almost everything. The only standing objects were made out of metal. It was rather interesting to see the foundations with only an iron stove standing on it: considering this is in the middle of nowhere! Because we had spent so much time in Lilliehöökfjorden the days before, we didn't really have much time to spend in the area but it was definitely worth the stop.
In the afternoon, it was time to head back towards the South, as we needed to be in Barentsburg, a Russian settlement, in the morning. As we sailed out of the fjord, we were greeted by a whole group of beluga whales. It was an awesome moment. Out of nowhere, 20 or 30 of these white whales appeared all over the fjord, surrounding the sailboat. They were all over the place so that it was difficult to photograph them. I didn't know where to point my lens first. Fortunately, I still managed to get a few captures.
Our sailboat in Peirsonhamna. The zodiac is on its way to pick us up.
Our sailboat in Peirsonhamna. The zodiac is on its way to pick us up.
During our hike on the island, we saw a lot of Arctic cotton-grass.
During our hike on the island, we saw a lot of Arctic cotton-grass.
The view during the hike was absolutely stunning.
The view during the hike was absolutely stunning.
One of Spitsbergen's sharp peaks, engulfed in clouds.
One of Spitsbergen's sharp peaks, engulfed in clouds.
A beluga whale coming up for air in Kongsfjorden.
A beluga whale coming up for air in Kongsfjorden.
A little bit of Russia
After a race against time during the night, we returned back to civilisation and left the raw, untouched nature of Svalbard behind. In the morning, we arrived at the first Russian settlement of our trip: Barentsburg. Barentsburg is one of two Russian settlements in Svalbard and it's the only inhabited one. Barentsburg is old mining village, where the Russians are still digging up coal. It struck me as a very odd place, seemingly being stuck in the Soviet era. The whole atmosphere of the village is indescribably weird. It feels like the town got stuck in time. In the village, we spent some time visiting the mine itself and walking around the town.
After our time in Barentsburg, we headed back to Longyearbyen. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to the sailboat as it was time for the next chapter of our trip. We headed onto a second ship, the Polar Girl, as we were bound for Pyramiden, the second Russian village in Svalbard. This mining village, named after the nearby pyramid-shaped mountain, is completely uninhabited today after a series of disasters struck the people living there. First, many of its inhabitants died in a tragic plane crash. A year later, many of the remaining mine workers died in a mine accident, diminishing the population even further. Today, abandoned buildings are all that are left. In recent years, the hotel in town has been slowly fixed up and you can stay there to experience life in Pyramiden. It's a great and unique experience to stay in this Soviet-era hotel.
Outside of the hotel, nature is taking over. Some buildings are completely leveled because of the harsh climate, others are being overtaken by wildlife or vegetation. Across from the hotel, there is even a building which has been completely transformed into a collection of kittiwake bird nests. While roaming around the town, we spotted several arctic foxes playing around and even reindeer grazing where once a lively city center was. The whole environment has a very post-apocalyptic feel to it.
On the second (& last) day, we did a hike up to the top of Pyramiden mountain. Sadly, the top was engulfed in fog when we got close to it but we still got to do a good hike. After coming down from the mountain, it was again time to head back to Longyearbyen for our last night in Svalbard.
This arctic fox greeted us when we headed back for the boat in Barentsburg.
This arctic fox greeted us when we headed back for the boat in Barentsburg.
A minke whale swimming around our sailboat on the way to Longyearbyen.
A minke whale swimming around our sailboat on the way to Longyearbyen.
The entry-sign when arriving into the abandoned mining town of Pyramiden.
The entry-sign when arriving into the abandoned mining town of Pyramiden.
The sign of the mining company that operated the mines in Pyramiden and still operates in Barentsburg.
The sign of the mining company that operated the mines in Pyramiden and still operates in Barentsburg.
A building next to the hotel in Pyramiden has turned into a birding area.
A building next to the hotel in Pyramiden has turned into a birding area.
One of the arctic foxes roaming around town in Pyramiden.
One of the arctic foxes roaming around town in Pyramiden.
No Russian building is complete without a vodka bottle!
No Russian building is complete without a vodka bottle!
A close-up of one of the arctic foxes roaming around town in Pyramiden. This one is not shy at all.
A close-up of one of the arctic foxes roaming around town in Pyramiden. This one is not shy at all.
The control room for the Pyramiden mine. Completely abandoned.
The control room for the Pyramiden mine. Completely abandoned.
Back to 64° North
After a relaxing day in Longyearbyen, exploring the town, it was time to head back home, back to 64 degrees North. I looked out of the plane window, reminiscing of all the great memories and experiences of the past 2 weeks. Will I be back? Yes, of course! I'm already making plans so stay tuned!

Looking for more?

Spending a weekend in East Iceland
A few months ago I travelled to East Iceland for the weekend. Because the drive to Egilsstaðir (and back) is too long for a weekend trip, I took a domestic flight with Air Iceland. After arriving I rented a car to be a bit more mobile in the area. My main mission during the weekend: photographing puffins up close in Borgarfjörður Eystri. As you can tell by the photos, my mission was successful but it wasn't the only thing I did during the weekend.
2017
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
A lot of people travelling to Iceland, have asked me how to photograph the Northern Lights before. The aurora season has just started last week, so I thought it was definitely a good time to write this journal entry. When you get to see the Northern Lights, it would be a shame if you’d have to waste time on figuring things out with your camera.
2020
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
My top 5 photography locations in Iceland
Over the years I’ve been getting plenty of questions about Iceland and what people should visit. I started answering some of those questions in a series of journal entries. In this journal entry, I answer another one of those questions: “What are my top 5 must-photograph locations in Iceland?”.
2020
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
Highland Light
A collection of aerial and landscape photographs made during several colourful summer nights deep in the Icelandic highlands.
2020
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
Exploring the Icelandic Highlands
Some time ago I planned a trip into the Southern Icelandic Highlands. The plan for the weekend was to explore the areas around Kjölur a bit (one of the F-roads crossing Iceland through the highlands) and afterwards drive around Fjallabak all the way to Eldgjá canyon and back. Ambitious plan but perfectly doable (if you're up for driving some kilometres).
2017
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
10 tips when doing landscape photography in Iceland
Over the years I’ve been getting plenty of questions about photography in Iceland. In this blog article, I’ve tried to answer one of those questions: “What should I keep in mind when doing landscape photography in Iceland?”.
2020
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
Sailing Expedition in the Svalbard Archipelago - Part 1
From 64° North to 80° North. An experience I will never forget. In the Summer of 2019, I finally managed to cross Svalbard off my bucket list. It has always been one of my top 5 destinations to visit. To fully experience the unique and desolate environment of Svalbard, I slow-travelled on a sailboat during this 12-day expedition. In this 2-part series, I will be detailing my adventure in the High Arctic.
2020
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
Geothermal Gems
I recently spent some time documenting and exploring a few geothermal areas from an aerial perspective using a drone. This top-down perspective provides a unique look at the colourful world of Iceland's hot & festering earth. It can sometimes seem like the surface of a different planet.
2020
Written by Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove.
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