Spring of 2022 marked the first Vega trip for Pieter-Jan D’Hondt. As a biologist, photographer, and nature guide, he specialises in biodiversity and ecology, with Arctic biology as one of his most beloved subjects. The perfect companion to tell you all about the ecology of Svalbard and take your photography skills to the next level!
As a child, Pieter-Jan was always interested in nature. He grew up as a member of the Belgian nature organisation for youth, and his father shared the same passion. “I was always intrigued by nature and travel, as was my father. And when I was 11, photography was added to the mix. Once, when my dad returned from one of his trips to Africa, he discovered he’d never inserted a memory card into his digital camera. So he had zero photos, which made him so angry he wanted nothing to do with that camera again. Much to my joy, I inherited it.”
After he started a student job at age 15, Pieter-Jan bought another camera and lenses. “That was the year I met Yves Adams and Rollin Verlinde when I enrolled in their nature photography course. I learned a lot from Yves, and we became really good friends.”
University Centre of Svalbard
It didn’t take long before Svalbard caught Pieter-Jan’s attention. “My brother-in-law, who was older than me, got a trip to Svalbard as a graduation present from his father. Seeing those pictures and hearing his stories really triggered my imagination. Svalbard has been on my radar ever since. So, when finishing my bachelor’s in biology, I wanted to go to Svalbard during the Erasmus student exchange project. But this required the University of Ghent to sign a bilateral agreement with the University of Tromsø, which the University Centre of Svalbard is a part of. I discussed this with my Professor of Ecology, who was in charge of the projects. It wasn’t easy, but he understood my passion and made the necessary arrangements.”
Pieter-Jan spent 6 months in Svalbard, with only 2 full months of class at the University Centre. A fantastic opportunity for exploration, which he grabbed with both hands. “I took two intensive courses with lots of fieldwork: Biotelemetry (tracking animals to monitor their behaviour and habitat) and Arctic Plant Ecology. The Arctic is a wild and unique ecosystem. Summer lasts only a few months, and the maximum temperatures equal our winter temperatures. Add phenomena like the Midnight Sun and Polar Night, and you will understand that Arctic plants need very specific mechanisms to reach blossom. This really intrigues me.”
Encountering wildlife in beautiful light
I was so immersed in the Svalbardian nature and landscape; I really fell in love with it. That same year, I got the opportunity to guide some trips for a big American company. I joined them for three trips around Svalbard. This was a very intense practical test for me, including zodiac overall safety and VHF training. Since that year, I have guided more than 30 trips, with Svalbard remaining my absolute favourite destination.
Travelling with a big American company left me hungry for different experiences. When you travel with a hundred people, you eat a hot meal three times a day, visit mostly the known hotspots and sleep during the most beautiful light at night. I felt I had missed many opportunities to discover and document the essence of the Arctic. Previously, I had joined a University Cruise with the students of my Arctic Plant Ecology course, and this was a totally different experience. A small group of friends, a smaller boat, taking lots of time at each stop … We sailed from south to north, studying plants we found along the way. This is basically also how Vega Expeditions works, but with a team that specialises in ecology, wildlife, and photography.
Since my Erasmus student exchange, I have been guiding my own winter photography expeditions in Svalbard, but my hunger for ship-based adventures remained. So, when Vega asked me to join the team, I needed no persuading. Guiding nature photography tours in Svalbard brings all the pieces of the puzzle together for me. I’m very excited to share the experience with other nature enthusiasts! If you are curious about what an expedition with Vega is like, I invite you to read my blog about our April trip last year. It gives you a good idea of the magic of our trips!
Country of origin
Biology, Ecology and Biodiversity – UGent
Arctic Biology – University Centre of Svalbard
Drone pilot, happy to help out guests working with drones
Loves every season. The arctic is beautiful all year round!
All regions sub-zero!
On my bucket list
Camp with the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica