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Darren Rees is an English painter and he likes wildlife.


Thanks to him, I can publish this article about his trip to Svalbard which depends on Norway.

darren & bear.jpg

Darren Rees was born in Hampshire in 1961, and he studied Mathematics at Southampton University teaching the subject for a short time before pursuing painting full time.

As an artist he is self-taught. His work has received BirdWatch Artist of the Year, Natural World and RSPB Fine Art Awards. His first solo book Bird Impressions was greeted by much critical acclaim and was a runner up in the Natural History Book of the Year. ( Society of Wildlife Artists )

"Changing Ice and Changing Men"

" I’m a lucky man. I have managed to make a living out of my twin loves, painting and wildlife, and for ten or so weeks a year in my role of tour leader I get to go to some of the world’s spectacular places, looking at birds, whales and other assorted animals.

You notice that I say ‘make a living’ and I’ve not claimed a career in painting and wildlife. I’ve always thought a career sounds a bit grandiose for what I do. Sounds a bit responsible.

Responsibility is something I’ve been thinking of a great deal of late. Nowhere I’ve travelled to has affected me in what I would describe as a profound way. You see I’m not a religious man.

I’d hardly consider myself as spiritual. I’m just not comfortable with the vocabulary of the touchy-feely brigade. I would have to admit to being a tad emotional at times, and, at risk of some tittering from the back row, I’d probably add I’m a passionate man.

Anyone that feels compelled to reach for the brush, pencil or, most recently, the pc keyboard to relate his or her experiences must be, by definition, expressive.

Yet no single destination has affected me in a profound way. That is until now.

bear study.jpg
© Darren Rees - Bear study

Things changed for me last July. In the summer of 2006 I travelled to the archipelago of Svalbard, a Norwegian territory far beyond the Arctic Circle, at places closer to the North Pole than it is to mainland Scandinavia.

It’s a land shaped by the forces of nature, where vast ice caps feed mighty glaciers that force their way through jagged peaks and crash into fjords filling the water with chunks of ice the size of houses.
The scale of this polar wilderness is both a bewildering and humbling experience. Once we had boarded our ‘Little Red Ship’, Explorer, and left the port of Longyearbyen there were no settlements to soften and civilise the landscape.

For eleven days there was nothing but rock, and ice, and species of Arctic myth. Everywhere huge buttresses rise from the sea and their faces can be stuffed with seabirds. Puffins and Brunnich’s Guillemots are commonplace on the steeper cliffs, and on the scree slopes and boulder fields Little Auks nest in colonies a million strong.

Where the daylong summer sun has managed to thaw the low lying tundra, a rich carpet of lichens, mosses and flowers colour the floor and provides grazing for reindeer as well as breeding grounds for shorebirds and wildfowl. Skuas chase Arctic Terns around the clock. Red Phalaropes spin in the shallow pools in the tundra. Long-tailed Ducks and King Eiders muster their broods into the water.

At the head of many of the fjords, glaciers tumble into the cold water. Depositing minerals from the relentless carvings, and adding freshwater to the salty mix, the snout of the glacier is a productive place for algae, fish, and the feeders of fish.

Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls can be found in big numbers (and occasionally Ivory and Sabine’s Gull) working the active edge of the ice, and twice we glimpsed enigmatic belugas swimming through the channels in the sorbet slush.

Blue Ice and Bears jpg.jpg

© Darren Rees - Blue ice


Oh, and there are bears, big white ones.
Bears that would peel you like a banana quicker than you could say glacier mints.

Svalbard is an unforgiving place, and for those species that can eke out a living here, the going is hard, and it’s getting harder.

In 2006 the ice limit retreated further north by 90 miles or so. That’s a lot of ice to just disappear. Polar Bears that have raised their cubs on Svalbard were stranded on the islands, awaiting the return of the ice so they could get out to hunt their primary prey source, ringed and bearded seals.

Most visitors to Svalbard cruise the dramatic west and south coast of the westernmost and largest island in the group, Spitsbergen. Indeed all the larger cruises advertise just Spitsbergen, a wholly more familiar name and destination than Svalbard.

The fact is that ordinarily the ice limit allows access only to Spitsbergen and not the other islands.

In 2006, with no sea ice, and using a smaller boat with a flexible itinerary, we could circumnavigate the whole archipelago and explore the far north and east regions of Nordaustlet, and Storoya, strongholds for Polar Bear and Walrus, and places seldom seen by man.

With a bittersweet irony we could watch bears as never before.


Mother and Cub, Barentsoya jpg.jpg
© Darren Rees - Mother and cub

Of all the encounters on Svalbard it was the events on Storoya that will stay with me.

We arrived at the island in the early hours of the morning, and having secured a safe anchorage the crew were resting.

I was awake and keen to scan the new surroundings so ventured out onto a deserted top deck. It was an austere vista that greeted me. A landscape of cold, coarse beaches, low-lying grey rock outcrops and a huge white dome of ice that smothered any features of the interior.

The only spots of colour in the bleakest of panoramas were the warm browns from a collection of walruses, and several off-white creamy boulders dotted around amongst the bands of rock and strands of snow.

Just occasionally the boulders would move. More Polar Bears. I counted thirteen across the island, and these were just the individuals

I could see from my vantage point above the bridge. How many were around the corner, or dozing in a hollow, or behind a rock?

After breakfast we boarded the zodiacs to explore the shoreline. Rounding a point of rocks where the first walruses were, we soon drifted quietly in to a small cove. It was like entering an arena with all the key players assembled – more walrus and bears, with Pomarine Skua, Red Phalarope and Arctic Terns having bit parts.

A section of the beach was tight with a group of tan-coloured walruses, comprising of females and young. These were not the huge males that we’d seen earlier in large loafing parties on Moffen and Lagoya. These were slighter tusked mothers and their stubby tusked young. These were altogether more vulnerable animals.

Three bears were in view, two either side of the walruses and one further inland. The tension was palpable. The bear to the left stood to stretch, starting a wave of panic through the young walruses and they hurriedly entered the water. In marked contrast, the more assured mothers just raised their heads. Soon, the first two bears moved over the brow of the beach and out of sight, leaving just one bear to the right.

Then a curious thing happened. The other zodiacs moved away and further along the shore. I asked our zodiac handler Heidi if we could wait a while and see what happens to the remaining bear. My intuition was to be patient and stick with the action in front rather than looking further afield.

She agreed and we moved closer to the resting bear. He was dozing with a few intermittent yawns and seemed unconcerned with us. Then he stood, stretched, and started to walk along the beach towards the walruses. His pace was slow, deliberate and unwavering.

I was expecting a surge, a charge, but at no time did he vary his speed. He calmly walked nearer and nearer, ever menacing like some killer zombie or Frankenstein’s monster, but this was no piece of fiction.

This was real life on the very edge of the world.

Not for the first time in recent years, my video camcorder could capture more than I ever could with some hastily made sketches from a moving boat. I watched and filmed, not knowing what was going to happen, and witnessed a riveting sequence of tense interactions between bear and walrus, where both gave each other the distance and respect which fearsome tusks and claws demand.

It was the most compulsive and inspiring encounter with wildlife I have ever had. But we shouldn’t have been watching.

As the planet heats up the ice is melting. Global warming is happening right here, right now, and Polar Bears are going to be amongst the first casualties.

waiting tif.jpg

© Darren Rees

The video footage I gathered in Svalbard was only ever meant as reference material for paintings, and certainly not video evidence of a world in crisis.

But as birdwatchers, wildlife watchers, eco-tourists and ramblers, we are all now frontline witnesses to the events of climate change. We who watch wildlife have, and cherish, a connection to natural world - a connection that for the majority of people has been fractured by urbanisation and modernity.

Disconnection has lead to ignorance, and ignorance to lack of respect and abuse.

I’ve shown the same film to schools, community halls and even politicians - to anyone who’ll give me the time and space to show it. We have to enthuse and impassion - we have to rant and rave. We also have to heckle the voices of denial.

That word responsibility comes to mind again. Responsibility, like action on climate change, is now a moral imperative.

Before I left for Svalbard my seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, asked me if there would still be Polar Bears when she grows up.

For all our sakes there’d better be."

If you want to know more about Darren, connect to his website :

Creation date : 26/09/2009 : 15:37
Last update : 21/02/2012 : 19:40
Category : ARTISTS - Darren REES, a British painter ( September 2009)
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