After multiple connecting flights and several days of travel I flew into Longyearbyen, an extraordinary settlement on the edge of the universe.
Longyearbyen is located in the Longyear Valley resting on the shore of Adventfjorden, a bay of Isfjorden, located on the west coast of Spitsbergen, of the Svalbard Territory in Norway.
I tend to get more excited when I’m venturing into the unknown. The more extreme and remote the unknown; the more exciting it becomes.
As I’ve come to realise it’s my ‘journey’ that is the most alluring part of what I do and the more diverse and extreme the journey the more gratifying the experience.
A rumour of the world’s northernmost surfer was enough to inspire me to head off on an adventure into the unknown. The lure of the most remote place on the planet, the furthest inhabited location in the northern hemisphere. Connect that with surf and you have an adventure too grand to ignore. All I knew was that there had to be surf up there because I’d heard there was a surfer living up there.
At the time, Jørn Dybdahl was a survival technician who protected scientists and researchers from the elements of some of the harshest conditions on the planet including polar bears. And his penchant to surf in the summer months led me to believe he would be the northernmost surfer in the world.
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
An opportunity arose to join an extreme surfing adventure expedition lead by Mark “Doc” Renneker. Doc and his small crew were heading out on a boat – that sounded perfect to me. It was about as far removed from the average corporate surf trip or organised holiday that you could get. It would be less than comfortable; you could say ‘a challenging trip’. I was in.
My anticipation was amplified flying over some of the most breathtaking landscapes and spectacular fjords that I’d ever witnessed. It is a harsh and mostly uninhabited landscape, where polar bears easily out number humans.
The enormity of the icescape was dumb founding and challenging to translate into one image. The majestic landscapes seemed to engulf us as we explored the west coast of Svalbard as far north as 78° and beyond from our tiny little boat. A local fishing vessel tightly packed with provisions, six travellers, the captain and his small crew.
It’s true when they say ‘Extreme places breed extreme people’ and our guide Jørn was about extreme as they come. To alleviate the cramped confines of our little vessel he volunteered to sleep on deck in a sleeping bag within his surfboard bag. With temps plummeting well into double digits below zero this was quite a personal sacrifice I’d never witnessed before.
Transport from our little boat ashore was via the Zodiac. Where one was only permitted once one was dressed in a full survival suit. The reality of death is constantly present and only moments away if there’s a mishap. This was taking the concept of stepping outside of your comfort zone to a whole new level.
It was a harsh reality on all my senses but the fact that Jørn was required to carry a huge riffle anytime we were on land, reinforced the polar bear threat that constantly haunted my being – it was raw, we were exposed and our experience got very real.
At the same time the mere thought of seeing a polar bear in the wild intoxicated my imagination, it alerted my senses into flight or fight. Polar bears are one of the most amazing creatures to roam the planet and it’s sad to know that because of expected habitat loss caused by climate change, the polar bear is classified as a vulnerable species.
The quality of surf was marginal to say the least on this trip, but the fact that I got to witness surfing at the furthest point north on the planet was an incredible achievement. On a previous trip I’d experienced darkness, and now wanted to shed some light on the possibility of documenting surf in this dramatic environment. In Svalbard there are two seasons: light and dark, one with beautiful sunsets and warm light (a photographers dream) and the other, well it’s just midnight all day.
Svalbard is 600 miles from the North Pole. I’d experienced travel within the Arctic Circle in the northern regions of Norway as well as Iceland several times before. I was familiar with the hardships of operating photographically in such extreme environments, but this was next level.
Years of shooting film in varied locations in less than ideal conditions proved to be a great foundation for this situation. I was constantly making sure lenses were devoid of fogging, a result from such excessive temperature changes as I moved from inside the cabin to outside on the exposed deck.
Shooting film required accurate exposures with no second chances. The low light meant that I had to seek a delicate balance between relatively low shutter speed and a wide-open aperture. For these once in a lifetime opportunities working in film meant an extraordinarily long duration between shooting and knowing if I’d got the shot.
ONCE IN A LIFE TIME
On dusk one evening we anchored in a little bay with a small headland point. Going ashore, we walked over the headland and they surfed an average little wave, which I shot from land. Our boat anchored overnight, we awoke to a see one of the great white bears on the beach who had obviously detected our scent from miles away.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, only meters away and exactly on the same path we had taken the evening before. This magnificent creature that can out run, out swim and definitely out fight any little human with a camera was just standing there looking at us.
I went into a frenzied search for the longest lens I could find, which was a bit difficult given the sub zero conditions while slipping and sliding on the ice-laden deck – I was committed to capturing this special moment.
In the back of my mind was the nagging thought 'would he investigate us even further, how quick could he swim? My priority was to compose myself enough to get the shot and to try to calm my mind.
Fortunately for us it appeared like he was just on a reconnaissance mission, checking out the old fisherman’s hut, investigating food possibilities and mulling around the waters edge.
The credence of 'The closer you are to death, the more you feel alive' seems to fit.
My name is Ted Grambeau, my father was a football coach, my mother and youngest sister were hairdressers, my brother is a meat inspector, and my older sister is now a grandmother to five. I, well, I travel, don’t have a day job and like to take photos – this is what I do. My life is a journey and a wonderful way to live; it’s the only way I know. I celebrate each new day, I’m learning from my past experiences, live for the unknown and dream of adventure. This is my life.