Svalbard July 2014 Trip Report

Polar Bears on IceI just got back from an excellent trip in Svalbard, one of the northernmost places in the world. We saw polar bears, walrus, seals, many birds, and more during this 10-day journey. Check out the photos, and let me know if you’re interested in coming with me next year (or on another workshop).

We started off flying into Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement with about 2,000 people. And a Thai grocery store. We spent a day there, arriving early in case of travel delays so that we didn’t miss our boat, and explored around town. Unfortunately we didn’t rent a car, and we were limited to where we could go, but there were still some pretty things to see and do in town. We met our group that night (7 people from India, 3 of us from the US, one guy from Denmark, and our two guides from Norway), had a nice dinner together, and at 11pm, it was still perfectly bright outside! Hello midnight sun.

The midnight sun was quite an experience! You don’t feel like you want or need to sleep, and you just sort of stay up and shoot, then sleep for a few hours, then get up and shoot more, as opposed to being up during the day and then sleeping for eight hours. It was weird seeing darkness when I landed in San Francisco after the trip! Now back to the trip:

The next day, we boarded our boat, the Origo, which holds 12 passengers (built for 24) and 8 crew. It’s a pretty fantastic way to explore, unlike larger boats. We were also focused on photography, so unlike trips that stop at historical points of interest (there’s a lot in Svalbard, from expeditions to WWII-related things), we immediately headed north to a site where polar bears had been reported feeding on dead dolphins (trapped the previous winter by ice). Along the way, we saw belugas, birds, and pretty landscapes!

Day two of the boat trip started with our first polar bear sighting in the distance, on an island at Sørgattet. Unfortunately it was too far away to photograph (leading to our keeping both a “polar bear” and “photo bear” count), but it was a good start! We did our first zodiac ride into Raudfjorden that night, and while we didn’t see bear, we did see the remains of a dolphin.

We headed up into the ice after that and managed to get our first photo bear on ice near the northwest corner of Nordaustlandet, with a mom and her two cubs. One of the cubs was curious and came very close to the ship, but mom didn’t like this and came to collect him before he could get really close. We went out in the zodiac that night at an inlet north of Laubefjellet and again had a great time, with numerous birds and beautiful icescapes, but no bear.

WalrusCrossing Hinlopenstretet, we went to Bråsvellbreen, which is the 3rd-largest glacier in the world and the 2nd-largest glacier front. We had beautiful drive-by shootings of whales (humpback) and waterfalls. We did a landing at Torellnesfjellet with a really great group of walrus. They let us get quite close! I was eventually shooting them with a 16-35.

Next, we crossed to an inlet south of Rungnekampen and took a zodiac ride where we found a photo bear. He (she?) was happily going through a tern colony, eating all the eggs (much to the tern’s annoyance, and they kept attacking the bear). Unfortunately he decided to take a nap shortly after we saw him, so rather than waiting for him to wake up (the background wasn’t amazing), we moved on. This was also my birthday, and the crew made an amazing chocolate walrus cake, with raspberry eyes and white chocolate tusks, that everyone really enjoyed! Not a bad way to spend a birthday!

We went to the bird cliffs at Odinjøkulen after dinner, which were just stunning. The cliffs look like Gaudi’s church in Barcelona but covered with tens of thousands of Brünnich’s Guillemot (and random others). After shooting from the ship for a while, a small group of us braved the swell and went in a zodiac right up to the cliffs. I was lying back, shooting straight up with my 16-35, trying to get the cliffs and a large bird flying in the frame. Of course I kept my mouth closed, with all the bird poop flying, too!

Our next goal was heading up north to the ice to try and find more photo bears on ice. We went to 80° 30” and spent a ton of time looking for bears, but we saw nothing. Our guide suspected that last year, the ice returned pretty late, which caused bears stuck on the northern islands to starve and prevented mothers from reaching the dens on the east islands. Therefore, there were fewer bears in general and fewer doing the east to west migration.

Cruising down towards Spitsbergen again, we managed to find a beautiful photo bear on an island near Monaco glacier. He came right up to us, and we had beautiful shots of him on the permafrost. The ocean current causes plastic to find its way to the arctic, and it was sad seeing lots of plastic waste along the beach the polar bear was walking on. It did make for a good conversation story image, though. There was also a large colony of arctic tern, which were diving right in front of us, and we got some amazing shots of them, too. Everyone was shooting with a long lens (either the 200-400 or a 500/600, and I had my 400 DO with a 1.4x tele-extender). While you need these lenses to get enough reach to get great shots, they do get very tiring to hand-hold while shooting for hours! But the shots are worth the pain :)

Polar CubMonaco glacier was quite beautiful, and we did a zodiac ride through there, seeing some beautiful icescapes, birds, and seals. We also found a dead polar bear cub from the previous season, which looked like it’d been eaten by another bear (it was turned inside out). Our guide let us make a very quick landing to photograph it, which only 3 of us did, and it was an amazing sight. I’m very happy I shoot landscapes like this with a 3-stop split ND filter, as I saw shots from others, and the dynamic range of the scene (bright sky and dark foreground) was pretty extreme. I had the perfect exposure with just one shot.

We received a new ice report, and since it looked promising, we went back up to the ice, but again saw no bears. And it started to get foggy and the wind picked up causing swell, so we headed south. But first, a few of us (myself included) did a polar plunge, jumping into -1°C water in our swimsuits at a latitude of 80° 30”. It was…rather cold.

Back towards land, we went on a zodiac cruise at Fuglefjorden in Svitjodbreen, and we found another great photo bear against a beautiful mountain backdrop. He tolerated us across a couple islands, and we saw him swimming, rolling down a hill, and climbing a rock face (we nicknamed him “yoga bear” watching him stretch). We shot a ton that evening :)

IcescapeThe next day saw two more zodiac cruises, the first at Lilliehöökfjorden. While it was rainy and foggy, and a couple people elected not to go, this cruise was a good reminder why bad weather can be fun to shoot in. I took one of my favorite icescapes, finding a beautiful, clear piece of ice with a nice dramatic sky. The weather cleared for our second zodiac cruise in Kongsfjorden, where the minerals in the water cause the seals to have red around their face. One bearded seal let us get very close (I was shooting with my 24-70), and it was quite fantastic getting him and the mountainous scenery!

The last day, we had hoped to shoot arctic fox, but bad weather and then a broken anchor prevented us from making a landing. Instead, we headed back to Longyearbyen, enjoyed a nice last, Captain’s dinner, and relaxed, satisfied with the thousands of shots we had each taken.

I also want to emphasize how excellent this trip was from a photographic standpoint. Everyone was a photographer, willing to delay meal-time to capture a beautiful subject. We focused on finding good subjects to shoot, and since our guides were photographers, they understood light and how to position the zodiacs. The small group let everyone have ample space for the gear (and there’s a lot with everyone having big & small lenses!), and we could even use tripods to shoot from deck on the ship. This is definitely the right way to go if you want to get great photos!

In case it’s not clear, I had a fantastic time, and I’m planning on heading back next September, 2015 to get arctic light. Let me know if you’d like to join me for this trip or another workshop!