South Greenland - summer 2016

Suddenly I was in Greenland!

Greenland was and is planned for 2017 as long project of about 4 weeks during next summer, but not as a short trip in 2016! I returned from the Faroe Islands and thought that I would have many hours in front of my computer to bring all the files to the market. Two of my lenses were broken and had to be repaired, I needed some rest and summer in Munich is not a bad choice.

All changed with a mail from Juergen, that he could offer me a last minute trip to South Greenland in three weeks. I did not think of it to much, as I had no equipment and as good as the Pentax 645Z is as a camera, as bad was the service in the past. I thought I would see my equipment, if I am lucky, in three weeks (not in three days I usually get with Canon). Pentax changed its service subco from TRITEC (very very poor, or in german unterirdisch) to Maerz and suddenly all was solved after about 6 workdays including asking by phone what to do with one of my ailing lenses. 5 days later I landed on Narsarsuaq airport in South Greenland.

Usually I go to a destination well prepared, with a very good idea what I want to shoot. This time I prepared nothing. A new experience. As it was a cruise on a tall ship, I did not have to think to much about an itinerary, it just happended and they did it very well!

All I did was checking out the north atlantic weather forecast using a highly recommended icelandic page. This forecast is quite reliable and I always used it during my trips to Iceland in 2014, 2015 and 2016. And again it was very helpfull and (unfortunately) quite correct.

The whole cruise was called "South Greenland, Viking Trails" and I was a bit afraid of being forced to look at not very awesome turf ruins for 7 days. Fortunately I was wrong and the tour leaders offered a very good mix of historical sites and (awesome) landscape. I could cover many aspects of Greenland in one trip, not bad at all.

The Ship - s/v Rembrandt van Rijn

The Rembrandt is a 56m long shooner buildt in the early years of the 20th century. She has lots of atmosphere and with the maximum number of 33 pax she is hard to compare with the big cruise ships. She is more a big yacht than what most people would consider a cruise ship! The small number of pax made my life as a photographer on shore quite easy, especially as the south of greenland is free of polar bears and movement on land is not restricted! Boarding the Zodiacs was quick and easy, not much time was wasted....

On board life was very relaxed and with a max speed of 9 knots iceberg watching from the low laying deck was fun and productive. Unfortunately we either had no or to much wind, therefore I did not see her under sail! For long stretches of blue water, she might be a bit slow, but during this trip we sailed most of the time through the maze of fjords of South Greenland, the slower the better....

The cabins are basic and storage is very limited, especially for photographers with lots of gear. Gear and parts of the luggage had to be kept on the berth, the locker was by far to small for my stuff. But thats the only thing I see on the downside. She and the whole trip was very suitable for good photography. If you do not like the pics, it is not the fault of the Rembrandt, her crew or the trip, the problem is behind the camera.

The Vikings or better The Norse in Greenland

Everybody knows the Vikings, the stereotype of seafaring warriors with horned helmets. Only few know of the Norse. Thanks to our historian Isabeau (yes I did listen....) I know now, that the Vikings are Norse, which did the marauding thing they are famous for, but just for a period or periods of their life. The Norse used the term Vikings only for the period(s) in someones life, where he/they boarded their famous longships for wars and trade. After a trip they where just Norse again. And horned helmets are a modern invention!

South Greenland was discovered and/or colonized by Erik the Red, the father of Leif Eriksson, who later discovered the North American continent. The Norse arrived in an empty stretch of land! An Inuit population, which was resident in South Greenland, vanished many hundred years before the Norse arrived. The Norse themselves vanished several hundred years later. One of the great mysteries in the historiy of the nordic countries. There are no Sagas, not documents, no ruins, which could tell a stroy when and why the Norse left Greenland! As it seems, they decided that life is better somewhere else and left Greenland during a period which was very cold and unfriendly to a farming community. We now call this period the Little Ice Age.

The whole trip was somehow dedicated to the history and ruins of the Norse in Greenland. It was interesting, it was fun and I learned a lot. Most of the ruins are just a pile of stones or turf walls, but at some places even walls are still standing. I admit, that I missed most of the lectures at the ruins, photography was more important (sorry Isabeau.....).

Hvalsey Church was by far the best preserved place we visited. Most of the other places like Igaliku/Gardar or Brattalid where far less impressive. All the same with a bit of phantasy one could envison how life must have been 800 years ago! In Brattalid I nice replica helped a little bit as well. I just can tell you, it must have been a hard life!

Finally some Norse milestones:

  • around 900 Greenland was sighted by a Norse ship, but nobody went ashore
  • 986 Erik the Red started the colonization
  • at around 1000 most of the settlements/farms have been established
  • 1406 last written trace, a documented marriage

Nobody knows what happened. End of the story.

The Inuit, to be exact the Thule culture, settled in South Greenland since around 1500, probably many years after the Norse have vanished.

I did not realize , but I covered all Norse stepping stones for their colonization during the last 12 months. Shetland (and Orkney), Faroe and Iceland are the islands, which have been colonized by the Norse. All of them never lost their "Norse population" and have been continuosly inhabited since Norse times. It is very interesting how different these islands deal with their Norse heritage, but that would be a blog on itself....

Farming in Greenland

For me the most surprising sight was the commercial sheep farms in the south of Greenland. I did not see the sheep, which was a bit of a bummer as I like taking pictures of livestock, but I saw the huge farms, the machinery and the bales of hay to feed the sheep during the greenlandic winter. Bales of hay, that is definitely something you do not expect in Greenland! The sheep have been probably in more remote pastures used during the summer months.

Besides sheep, there have been fields of potatoes and some grain. All very interesting and surprising. I have no idea how the economy of Greenland is working! Farming Inuit - that was definitly not on my mental map! I had fun to take pictures of the farming communities and the fields.....

The Ice Shield

Greater a contrast cannot be. During the morning walk we strolled through fields and farming villages at evening we anchored at one of the many outlet glaciers flowing down from the greenlandic ice shield, the greatest mass of glacier ice outside of Antarctica! Good drama and rythm in the itinerary, I must say.

Of course the "real" Ice Shield cannot be seen from the fjords we have been. But we saw outlet glaciers and many, many icebergs! During the flight to Greenland we had brilliant weather and we saw the Ice Shield and it is something very special......

I may be now a nitpicking Geographer, but we did not walk on the Ice Shield (sorry Jordi....), but we walked on the tongue of an outlet glacier, which was impressive enough! Together with the flight to Narsarsuaq you could develop a feeling for the "icy"  and not only for the "green" part of Greenland! For me as a Geographer who once was specialized on glacial and periglacial geomorphology, it was a great experience!

Towns and Villages

South Greenland is not exactly an area with a dense population or big cities or towns. The scale to define a big village/town in Greenland is a bit different. We passed some picturesque villages, visited one (quite bleak, but of great historical importance) and we strolled through one of the bigger "towns/villages". And compared to the extreme northern end of Greenland the South is crammed with people!

Not more information needed, I think, just look at the pictures, and try to get an idea how life is in such an area!

Weather and general Geography

The south of Greenland is not as far north as you might think! The southern tip at Cape Farvel is just at 59° 46?, Vik y Myrdal, one of the most southerly villages on Iceland is located at 63° 25?! South Greenland is not a very rainy region as well. At Narsarsuaq (the airport we landed) the averaged value for yearly precipitation is just 512 mm (Munich = 811mm) and the summer months are rather dry!

Therefore we had, unfortunately, a very unique weather during the week of our journey. It rained for three days in a row, nearly without a break and the land was soaked with water! The cloud level was very low , sometimes it was foggy. At least we did not have much wind during the rainy days!

Of course temperatures have been cool, but by far not as could as in our winter or late fall and during the sunny days I just wore t-shirts. I expected much more icy katabatic winds blowing down from the ice shield, but at least in our area during our stay we did not have any. But I guess we just had been a bit lucky.

The first day was as sunny as a day can be! Having the weather forecast in mind I expected a change and I worked like hell on the deck of the Rembrandt, taking pictures of icebergs in the fjords, juggling with two cameras and several lenses, jumping from starboard to portside and back again. I guess my fellow travellers must have thought that I am a very strange guy.... After a while they got used to it, I hope.

Anyway we could not change it and the Rembrandt was dry and warm. We met some tourists doing a Zodiac based cruise for several days, staying in tents. Definitly not so cosy!

All landings could be done, but the hikers looked very wet and we had been very wet!

The Landscape

Mountains, glaciers, often untouched valleys, fjords with skerries, floating icebergs. In between sometimes little villages or at sheltered locations farmland. Glacial landforms out of a text book!

For my photography it was sometimes a bit difficult. Most pictures have been taken from the Rembrandt or a Zodiac. We had not so much options on land, expecially as I missed the "good" light during early morning or evening on shore. I loved the hike through the farmlands at Igaliku and it was excellent for my stock, but it was not untouched landscape. Moreover the unusual heavy rain reduced land based photography even more, we had been on land at beautiful locations, but it was raining cats and dogs. Composition while beeing on a ship or Zodiac is difficult and limited, the key question is: what to do with the strip of blue water as foreground....

All the same I am still pleased with the results, especially if I include the work on icebergs and glaciers.

If I forget about professional photography the scenery is very often simply stunning and sitting on deck sipping coffee, tea or something with more strength, while the landscape and time is slowly passing by, is a unique experience, highly recommended! The atmosphere of a tall ship enhances this even more. I tried to select some pics to give you an idea how the landscape looked like and how it passed by during the cruise.


They were everywhere, every day, in all sizes and forms!

South Greenland is maybe not the most famous spot to watch icebergs and the really huge fellows are somewhere else, but the show has been much better than I expected! I never get tired to watch icebergs. The forms and structures are just to beautiful and no iceberg looks the same.

We did some Zodiac cruises among floating icebergs, which was really good for taking pictures. It allowed to be much closer to them and added much more options for composition and close up shots.

By the way glaring sunshine is not an easy light for ice (berg) photography. Even with careful postprocessing you loose much of the beauty, which is revealed in more subdued light. Having both is perfect and we had both, only the rain could have been left out.

What else is to say and to show?

South Greenland is a great area to explore, but if you are looking for wildlife, go to another place. We spotted some whales, which was very nice as an experience, some birds, Arctic Foxes (far away). I had lots of fun and I can recommend the area, ship and crew.

Such a ship is a great way for photographers of all levels to visit such an area, where land based travel is limited or impossible. Of course you are not so flexible and storage space is limited for your equipment. Overall it is all the same recommended!

Whats next? Post processing, post processing, post processing and finally some vacation!

Have fun and enjoy the rest of the summer 2016!

Munich, August 2016

PS We are working right now on the South Georgia workshop. South Georgia is an incredible and exciting place! No location is like the island of South Georgia. Check out the workshop pages and forward it to all the people who might be interested!