A professional nature photographer has captured stunning images of polar night in Svalbard, Norway, which is so far north, the sun doesn’t rise for four months of every year. Maria Sahai organises small wildlife and nature photography tours in the Arctic and Svalbard archipelago with her husband Karim. She loves to visit Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s capital, which is one of her favourite destinations. It’s the world’s northernmost settlement and home to 2100 people, comprised of almost 50 different nationalities.
During the winter, it’s dark in Svalbard for four months. For a two-and-a-half-month period, there is no difference between day and night, which is called the polar night. This period starts and finishes with weeks where the sun remains below the horizon, but sends beautiful blue and red rays up into the sky, known as “blue twilight.” The polar summer, on the other hand, is dominated by the midnight sun, which is high in the sky 24/7.
“The 24-hour nights are perfect to observe the Northern Lights,” Maria tells Lonely Planet. “I’ve documented the settlement’s history, nature and daily life over the years. When I first visited Svalbard, it was during the polar night and I immediately fell in love with the untouched nature, the people and, of course, the magical Northern Lights. Since then, I’ve been going to Svalbard several times a year. Most of those trips are photography tours, during which my husband and I take our clients on all sorts of experiences. These include dog sledding, snowmobile expeditions in the wilderness, and visits into an abandoned coal mine.”
Longyearbyen is also a home to a school, university and the world’s northernmost church, which is open 24 hours to people of any religion. It has no street names, but instead the roads are numbered. “There are more polar bears on the archipelago than people, and when exiting the boundaries of the settlement, one must carry a gun by law in case of an encounter,” says Maria. “Not to shoot the animal, but to scare it away, because killing a polar bear is a serious offence and must be done only in case of an immediate danger to human lives.”
Maria was born in Russia and is currently based between Singapore and Norway. Her family worked in the Soviet military, and travelled around the former Soviet Union, including lesser-known areas where polar bears roam freely, the Aurora Borealis can be seen for months, and the indigenous Chukchi people live in seal skin-covered yarangas. She says that she has always dreamt of visiting as many of the world’s less-explored areas sharing those experiences with others.
“My mother always had this dream of going as far north as possible, and she was attracted by how remote and unexplored the Arctic region was,” she says. “One day in the 1970s, she just packed her bags and flew to Magadan, a small settlement on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the Russian Far East. A decade later I was born there, and shortly after my family moved back to Kazakhstan. But the Arctic never left my mother’s heart, and bedtime stories were legends of Russian eskimos. I still remember the old books with their illustrations of igloos, polar bears, whales, seals, Northern Lights and icebergs. As you can imagine, as an adult, I didn’t hesitate when I had a chance to visit the Svalbard archipelago, which is situated 78 degrees north.”