Polar Bears, Walruses, and
SCOUTING TRIP REPORT, 2012
Please Note: Our 2013 trip is already booked full. We will be doing this trip
again in 2014 and we suggest you contact our office immediately
if you wish to join us on this 10 participant photo expedition!
Svalbard, a large archipelago north of and belonging to Norway and far above the Arctic Circle is famous for its polar bears, walruses, spectacular scenery. I must confess I knew relatively little about the area, including its name. As it turns out, Svalbard is now the official Norwegian name for the island archipelago that was once known as Spitsbergen. Now, only the largest of the three big islands that make up this area is called Spitsbergen, although old timers sometimes lapse and still refer to the entire area by that name. We were on a scouting trip for next year’s tour to this area, and the following is the day-to-day account.
The trip was extremely successful and although quite frustrating at times, since we were truly on a tourist boat geared for nature tourists, not serious naturalists or photographers, we still managed to obtain far more great images than we possibly expected and we had some wonderful observations. Most importantly, we learned what we needed to know for our own, serious small group photography trip next year. We had a chance to visit our chartered boat, had a great chance to evaluate the various guides, and we now know what to expect, in every way, for our own voyage.
Above,top, a cropped pano of our last polar bear encounter, with the ridges of Spitsbergen visible in the background. Above, amale Walrus curious and inspecting us at a haul out beach.
Day 1, Svalbard. Spitsbergen.
We arrived in Spitsbergen in early evening, after a 4:30PM departure from Oslo where we had a 6 hour lay-over and perhaps the most expensive lunch, or perhaps even meal, we’ve ever had. Two hamburgers and two beers, and $95 before a tip. The burger was good, but I’d take a What-a-Burger over it any time, for 1/30th the price!
We flew to Norway on Continental from Newark, choosing this carrier over our usual Delta-KLM-Northwest because the latter flew to Amsterdam where we’d have to change planes to continue on to Oslo. Continental flew direct, and this was a huge mistake. We upgraded to Economy Plus, giving us extra legroom for $79 and $99 for a middle and window seat, but we were not informed that those seats did not recline, so the entire flight was spent in an upright position. Their attempt at comfort, with a curved headrest, was positioned so that your head (for both Mary and I) was pushed forward, not nestled comfortably inside the padding. Mary ended up slouching down to be lower than the headrest, and I just tilted forward. I spent the 7 plus hours watching movies, as sleep was impossible.
The dinner meal was surprisingly tasty but the morning snack was barely a mouthful; beer or wine was a priced item, not free as with KLM, and the beverage service was the poorest, slowest, and most minimal I’ve ever had on an international flight. We will fly KLM next year.
En route to Svalbard, on our SS airline, we stopped at Stomtro, the largest city that far north. Although we continued on that jet, we had to take all of our hand-luggage off the plane as we did another customs check, and had our passports stamped for the second time since we arrived in Norway. We’d heard all sorts of stories about luggage limitations, and one tour operator suggests that people buy an expensive Pelican Case to check their long lenses. Since this would eat up part of a luggage allowance, this could be expensive. We compromised, and Mary didn’t bring along her 500mm, figuring she’d do fine with her 400 f5.6. I hope so.
At any rate, when we arrived for this final flight to Svalbard we found several people carrying Keboko bags, one of which we did bring along but packed in our luggage, Lowepro bags, and various sized ThinkTank bags. No one had any hassle. Later I asked a tour guide about the Pelican case recommendation and he said that was because that operator has virtually a plane-load of people carrying big lenses. However, even with that, there would be room beneath the seat if the overhead bins were full.
For our travel I ended up carrying 27 pounds in a ThinkTank Shape-Shifter bag, inside of which I had 2 Canon 1D Mark IV bodies, a 70-300mm, and a 24-105mm in their dedicated pouches, and my lousy Dell 17 inch laptop in the special sleeve, and, in front, a Kindle and some accessories. The over-all size is smaller than the Keboko, and I didn’t expect any hassles and, of course, had none. I hand-carried my 500mm in a nylon stuff sack, which worried me, as this was new and I fretted about forgetting it somewhere. Mary had 2 Mark IVs, and her 28-300 in a small Day-Trekker Lowepro bag, which worked great for her. We packed our 400mm lenses, and wide-angles, in the checked luggage, and all arrived safely.
I wished I had my Point n Shoot camera out for the flight in to Svalbard. Once we cleared a carpet of dense clouds that cover mostly of the sea from the continental coast almost to the islands, we were treated to a truly beautiful landscape of scalloped snow-covered mountains. In a way, though, I’m glad I didn’t, for I’d be posting those shots with this report and the sight was so unexpected and pretty that it may be best seen with fresh eyes for the first time.
We’re here eleven days before the summer solstice and the sun, at its lowest point, is at about the point in the sky where we’d see it in Pennsylvania at 6PM. It won’t get dark, and locals, who we photographed while they barbequed and then joined for a chat, told us that the sun keeps that relative position all day, but just circles around the sky. They say they sleep in November, when they are in total darkness.
Svalbard is the relatively new, native Norwegian name for what was formerly officially known as Spitsbergen, which is Dutch for pointed or spikey mountains. Today it is known by the new name, but people confusingly use the names interchangeably.
The town is surprisingly large, hemmed in by tall snow-covered mountains and lining the shoreline of the bay. Houses are quaint, colorful Cape Cod-like constructions, and many blocky large apartments. We left our hotel to try to not replicate another hundred dollar meal, and up-town we stopped at a small pizza shop where two local skiers were eating, and who assured us the burgers were good. They were, at half the price of our Oslo burgers, but the meal was still almost $50.
We ended our day, a very exhausting 40 hours or so that started with our drive from central Pa. to Newark and then the sleepless overnight flight, with a walk down to the waterfront road where we saw Arctic Terns and a stout, white, short-legged Spitsbergen Reindeer. This round, almost sheep-like deer is a subspecies of the much larger and lankier Barren-Ground Caribou we see in Alaska, but this subspecies seemed almost dwarf-like in comparison. We took some shots and headed up to the lodge, whereupon the reindeer moved closer and sat down to choose its cud, prompting me to backtrack and shoot a few more images in the angular, slightly warm light of what must have to pass as evening in this land of a midnight sun.
Day 2. We had the morning and early afternoon free, before a 4PM boarding of our ship, the Ocean Nova, a 73 passenger boat. Fortunately the boat isn’t full, and only about 50 passengers are aboard, so crowds shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Check out from the motel was 11AM, and luggage loaded shortly after into a truck. I was concerned about our gadget bag and computers, the latter placed in a ThinkTank Shape Shifter that I used for travel. The staff assured me everything would be safe, and one guide said he’d personally carry the gear. I assumed he’d keep my fragile items with his, but as he carried it to the truck and dropped it off, placing it to the side where, I thought all of the fragile equipment would go, the guy loading the truck picked up my Keboko and sort of tossed it onto the top of the luggage heap. My computer case was next, and I yelled to the loader to stop, seconds before he would have tossed the second bag. We decided to carry the computers at that point, and after being told that more luggage might get piled on top of the Keboko, and not knowing how it would be unloaded from the truck or brought on to the boat, we decided to carry that, too.
Originally we were told that anyone wishing to take the bus to the boat could do so, and with the two heavy packs we planned on doing so. No bus arrived, and we walked the mile with the packs. We were pretty disappointed, as Mary’s knees were aching and we wondered how some of the other passengers, if overweight or troubled with joint problems, managed. Both of these issues – no transportation and a cavalier attitude about valuable equipment, spoiled our first impressions of the company – things we’ll address for our trip next year.
We spent the late morning and early afternoon at two locations. About 2/3rds of a mile from our motel there is a large Common Eider colony, with females nesting within feet of the road and males strutting about at frame-filling distances. Distances here are deceiving – at least for the guides, as we were told the walk was about 600 yards, but I’d at least double that. It took us 20 minutes to walk back, and that’s close to a mile for our pace. En route we also had Arctic Terns and a Parasitic Jaeger, and above us, perched on poles, Snow Buntings sang, a very bunting-like call not unlike an Indigo Bunting or a lark and quite melodious.
At 4 we boarded the boat, and our cabin was fairly spacious, with foldable top bunks that we’re using to store and keep gear. Each cabin has a private bath, with a narrow shower with very warm water. After unpacking, to an extent, Mary and I went on deck to photograph the Northern Fulmars that cruised by continually, reminding us of Antarctic giant petrels as they passed. We tried both fast shutter speeds and slow, and Mary did OK with the slow speeds but my rhythm was off and I doubt if I got any keepers. Mary had her first Atlantic Puffins, and we had several views of Black Guillemots and Common Murres, and some Common Eiders flew by.
Dinner was great, with a choice of fish or excellent rare beef, with ice cream for dessert. We had a few safety briefings, including an on-deck demonstration of life jackets and survival suits, but we weren’t asked to put on either and, I fear, if a real emergency ever developed we’d all be screwed as people panicked and fought with unfamiliar gear. Hopefully, that won’t occur!
Still not completely caught up from our hellish flight over, we got to bed by 10 and slept until 6. Both of us had dreams, and although I normally enjoy bizarre dreams I was having one where I was losing my memory, like Alzheimer’s, and that was so unsettling I woke myself up.
Day 3. We anchored in a quiet cove adjacent to 14 July Glacier, surrounded by 1,000 meter peaks and where, on nearby cliffs, a modest colony of Common Murres or Guillemots as their known in Europe. High overhead, soaring and wheeling around the sharp-edged cliffs, scores of Black-legged Kittiwakes sparkled against the black rocks. A few Atlantic Puffins flew in and out of the cliffs, and a lone Razorbill shared a ledge with the Murres before heading out to sea, dropping almost to water level before catching air and flying off. Black Guillemots with their bright wing patches and red legs periodically pounded into a cliff, while others floated in the calm waters around us.
We watched for bears and foxes but the only terrestrial mammals were five Reindeer that were climbing the scree and talus like mountain goats. Granted, reindeer are in four-wheel drive, but as I looked up at the scree and its steepness I really doubted that I’d have been able to climb that slope.
We headed towards the 14th of July glacier face where the ice cliffs stretch upwards about 150 feet. As we neared, brash ice, small, playing card-sized squares and scallops and rectangles of ice carpeted the bay, punctuated here and there by large mini-bergs from recent calvings. On one of these a Bearded Seal lay quite unconcerned as we circled it from about the legal limit of 30 meters.
We had one small calving and although we were reasonably close to the glacier – about 300 yards – the bow wave it produced simply became a swell that lifted us gently about 5 feet higher as it passed beneath us. Along the shoreline a whitecap curled wave swept along, a tidal wave in miniature.
Lunch was great, and in the afternoon we headed up Kongsfjorden fjord to Ny Alesund and the King Harbor Research Station where several countries, including Great Britain, Norway, and, not surprising, China and India, all maintain research stations. The US was notable in its absence. As we listened to a predeparture briefing a group of at least eight Beluga Whales appeared, eventually swimming fairly close to the boat before moving on. Arctic Terns were common and easy to photograph as they claimed future nest sites along the roads, and in the water impoundments nearby Oldsquaw Ducks and Red-throated Loons nest, but apparently we were too early.
Sadly there is no United States presence at the research station, but China and India are here. A trash dumpster indicates how social activities must play a big part in the community.
After dinner and a brief glimpse of a Minke Whale we headed up a fjord to the Lilliehookbreen Glacier where, fortunately, the sun broke from the clouds and we were treated to some great light for our landscapes. Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls flew about, and small flocks of Murres buzzed by. By 9PM the light had failed and Mary and I headed back to our cabin to edit as we sailed on, away from the glacier.
Day 4. For the first time since leaving Longyearbyen we had sunlight and our morning seemed wasted as two landings to historical sites were planned. Fortunately the plans changed when a Polar Bear was sighted near one of our landing sites, Smeerenburg, or Amsterdam Island, and all six zodiacs headed out for the bear. At first it did not look promising, as the bear seemed to be leaving the shoreline and heading inland. The zodiacs idled far off shore and we waited, and eventually the bear moved within forty yards of the shoreline where it lay down to rest. We motored about, fighting a bit of a breeze and current, and shot repetitive images of the lounging bear.
Eventually all the zodiacs moved closer and whether that annoyed the bear or not, it got up and started walking, presenting some great shots. After ten minutes or so it angled down to the shoreline where, along the steep cut snow bank it slid forward on its belly, breaking away the edge and, finally, sliding down to the water’s edge. From there it ambled along over the rocks before slipping into the sea and starting a slow swim along the shoreline, veering off after a few dozen yards to start a crossing that had to be at least one mile wide.
We left the bear then, but later, after spending time with some harbor seals, I could still see the bear in the distance, still swimming and still only a bit further than half-way across the water. We tried working some Harbor Seals but never got very close, although a few curious seals popped up close to our zodiac but too fast and unexpected for me to get any shots.
We continued on to one of the historical sites which now consist of some congealed, heat-fused sand that marks the remains of the whale boiling pots from an old whale station. A baby Harbor Seal lay nearby, just a few hundred yards from where the bear had passed and surely doomed had the bear followed the coastline where it was first spotted from the ship.
Dutch whalers originally set up a station here, on Virgohamma, starting with a 7 man team that over-wintered in an experiment, seeing if people could in fact survive the winter. They did, although they were terrified by the Northern Lights, the work of the devil they believed, and to forestall any evil from that source the whalers set out eight place settings for each meal, thus welcoming the devil should he arrive. The next year, based on this first success, the Dutch over-wintered another seven men, and all died of scurvy. The whalers came on base at the end of the Dutch winter and with the dearth of vegetables then, they were already vitamin C deficient. Now, although they spent the summer in the high Arctic they found that there was no Scurvy Grass, a low herbaceous plant used to ward off scurvy. Wild game, and thus fresh meat that also contains vitamin C, was scarce as well, and the men died a miserable cold death.
This point remained active for nearly 200 years, manned by as many as 200 whalers who in the course of time depleted this section of the Arctic. I wonder, though, how much damage they did compared to the incredible carnage inflicted upon whales in the last few decades of whaling, when modern, fast ships equipped with explosive harpoons wiped out more whales in most places in twenty or thirty years than was done in all recorded whaling history.
When we returned to the boat I discovered that Mary’s zodiac almost missed the best part of the polar bear show. A few people in her zodiac were cold, and were bored with watching the bear and wanted to move on. Their salient comment, that we’d be seeing lots more bears, spoke of their own naiveté’ and, sadly, the lack of guidance on the part of the zodiac driver/guide. Mary, not wishing to make waves, remained silent but another passenger expressed an interest in getting closer, like the other zodiacs were and by doing so they didn’t miss the best action.
Later, Mary and I spoke with that guide and we felt as if we were talking to a stubborn closed-minded wall. We felt it prudent if the guides would in fact let the passengers know how rare and how difficult it is to get close to a bear and not allow misconceptions to prevail. Perhaps then impatient tourists might be willing to wait and enjoy the unique experience. Her (the guide’s) answer or reply was that tourists have many agendas and for them maybe they had had enough. That’s fine, but what of those people – truly the majority on the cruise – who came specifically to see bears? Her reply was perhaps we were stressing the bear and shouldn’t be too close, although that wasn’t even the issue here, it was their leaving prematurely. We cut the conversation short, realizing we were against a dead end.
Later we spoke with another guide about this, and he empathized, emphatically, with our position and the frustration he too feels for how some situations are handled. He disagreed, with incredulous shock, the suggestion that the bear was stressed and, as he put it, the bear approached us, then swam in the water before us, something a stressed bear would not do. Later, he said, he returned to the bear after the other zodiacs had moved on, and the bear had crossed the strait and was now on shore, hunting seals. He said the experience was special, and regretted that we, too, had not had that opportunity.
This, sad to say, is why our scouting trips are so important as we learn the ropes, discover the good guys and learn to avoid the poor ones. While I’m sure all of the guides have the clients’ interests in mind I believe too many have a real tourist mentality, a show and tell or ‘check ‘em off’ philosophy that indeed might work for the average tourist boat. We’re probably on one, but next year, with our dedicated group on a small boat, that type of attitude simply wouldn’t cut it.
Harbor Seals, in the most northern part of their range, well above 80 degrees North. This same seal can be found off the coast of Maine and on a beach in San Diego, California!
After lunch we headed up two different fjords to some pack ice where we hoped to find seals or more bears. We found both, but both bear encounters were quite distant. One was a lone bear below a glacier, and as a critter in habitat shot it was passable. The other, a mother bear and small cub on a seal, was visible through a spotting scope only. Later, the Expedition Leader announced that this is the normal viewing of bears, and that this morning’s bear was indeed the exception and quite special, but I think that message – on how people should be patient and appreciate a ‘bear in hand’ – was not delivered.
After dinner we headed to Muffet Island, a protected sand spit the guides called an atoll, with one side curved in a long, sweeping crescent. Immature and old male Walruses use this area as a haul out, and we had to view the walruses from the ship which kept our distance rather far, perhaps 300 yards. A few curious males swam within perhaps half that distance, and we managed a few shots as the walruses bobbed in the sea. One of the guides spotted a very rare Sabine’s Gull amongst the walruses, and after a few minutes study we located three birds as they fluttered about, their striking black and white wings, an exaggerated version of the common Bonaparte’s Gull, giving them away, and with that we could see the distinctive black heads. When the breeze was right, even at a quarter mile you could smell the oily, fishy stench of the walruses – we couldn’t imagine what that must smell like up close.
In the late light, with clouds obscuring the sun, we finally had a good view of the tiny Dovekie, or Little Auk as they’re called in Europe. These are the smallest Alcids and fly rapidly, and their coloration is similar to that of the larger Murres. Fortunately a flock of Dovekies flew by in the company of their bigger cousins, making identification easy.
Day 5. We cruised all night to arrive at Hinlopenstretet, a long strait where, on Alkefgellet’s basalt and limestone cliffs towering nearly two hundred meters high, scores of thousands of Thick-billed Murres nest upon the steep cliffs. Mary felt that the sight rivaled South Georgia’s penguin rookery for the sheer spectacle, and surely, seeing thousands of birds wheeling about in the air, framed against the spires of eroded rock, was visually arresting.
I carried two cameras, hoping to ‘go for it’ with flight shots of the Murres flying in from the sea and to the cliffs, but coming straight at me the birds simply were too fast, and the zodiac too rocky, for effective shots. I switched back to my 70-300mm lens and did much better.
When we shut off the motor and drifted, flocks of Murres swam close by, most unconcerned by our presence. A few Black Guillemots also swam close, sometimes almost frame-filling, but in the chop it was truly scattergun shooting, hoping to get something in the frame and sharp. The same applied to most of the flight shots, but with the shorter lens it appeared a bit easier to capture birds in flight. We were able to move quite close, sometimes with our zodiac touching the cliff edge, and Murres sat upon the cliffs nearby, completely unconcerned.
The company’s sister ship passed us and relayed some communication, as we headed north again into dense but broken ice pack at Lomfjorden. One of the guides spotted a bear (or did they know one was in the area?) that took me several minutes to find. I’d been looking too far out, but regardless, when the guide spotted it all he could see was a small section of cream-colored back, so it was an impressive spot nonetheless.
The bear was sleeping and our ship inched forward to within about 80 yards, with the bear doing nothing. We backed out, and approached again at an angle, and again the bear did nothing. We approached again at another angle, a bit closer this time, and while we idled in this position the bear eventually woke up, sat upright, approached the water and laid down again. A few minutes later it stood again, moved to the back of the tiny ice floe, and scraped out a comfortable bed where it again settled itself and fell asleep. We quietly drifted passed and away, leaving the bear very much as we found it.
The shots, during this entire period, were spectacular. Shooting from the upper deck gave us a nice perspective in both catching the bear’s reflection but also in getting the relief, with patches of water and interspersed with ice. When the bear sat up to face us, or angled in an alert position, we had one of the iconic images I hoped to make on this trip.
After lunch we headed to Torellneset where we hoped to find Atlantic Walruses hauled up on the sandy beach. The area was similar to where we’d seen walruses yesterday, but here we can land and approach. Nearly everyone came ashore, but the guides did a good job of briefing and keeping everyone in check, and the entire herd of us moved forward slowly to approach the walruses lolling about on the sand. We were not especially close when one decided to move, and the entire group followed, returning to the sea. We thought the shoot was done, and the guides took some of the people back to the ship while the majority went for a long hike. Several die-hards, Mary and I included, stayed with the walruses, hoping they’d return. They did not.
One of the guides moved down closer, approaching the beach and eventually motioned us closer. From there we had some great views of one of the bulls, and later, when we moved closer to the water’s edge, walruses as they swam or moved in close to investigate us. Eventually they swam around the point, where we had beached the zodiacs, and when we arrived back to our beach the walruses joined us again, making for more unique angles including one stretch when a light snow blew through the frames. As we headed back to the ship a big group of walruses again moved in close, but by the time I grabbed my camera from the Keboko they were done, and all I managed was a bunch of flipping tails as they dove.
Today, however, marked a spectacular day with the Murre rookery, the Polar Bear, and the Walruses. Essentially all that we came for we had today, so whatever lies ahead will simply be gravy for this trip.
Day 6. Last evening we had a surprise Barbeque on the deck which met with mixed reviews as some people minded the cold and felt it silly or stupid. We loved it, and along with our Dutch friends we were the last to leave. The food was great, and, as usual, I gobbled in like a famished sailor and my esophagus problem, where food gets stuck at the end of the pipe before entering the stomach, kicked in big time. This requires an indelicate evacuation of that tube, and it must have been packed as this took a while, and afterwards I felt as if I had strained muscles or pulled something. This morning, as we started the day, by trunk around my diaphragm was in real pain.
We boarded zodiacs just after nine in a channel called Lagoya, on a flat calm sea whose surface would have rivaled a small farm pond. The water was like glass, and we headed into broken pack ice not knowing what to expect. Bears hunt these areas, and walruses haul up on the ice to rest, so we had hopes. Mary and I were in different zodiacs and both of us started with just shooting ice, fighting the boredom with something. Soon, however, both of us came into subjects, with Mary getting good Red Phalaropes and later a frame-filling Dovekie or Little Auk, and me with some Black Guillemots. Soon Mary had a group of six Atlantic Walruses swimming around their zodiac, sometimes moving so close they could almost touch them.
My zodiac came into a big male walrus that slept most of the time but occasionally raised its head, with great reflections. We circled the walrus for several angles, and later another smaller walrus that was shy, before ending with a group of six, including one four-year-old that had tiny tusks, and offered more great shots. By the end of the zodiac ride everyone was cold, but both Mary and my boat hung in there for the duration, and both were rewarded with good images.
After lunch we headed north to the edge of the pack ice where we hoped to find a Polar Bear hunting the ice. We found a mother with cub, but the bears stayed far off although we paralleled them for a long time, hoping that eventually they’d move to the ice edge and close to us. Still, it was very interesting watching the seals move, and slip into the water to swim across the open stretches. The cub trotted along behind, sometimes nearly a hundred yards further back, but the mother would turn and wait, letting the cub get close before it continued on.
Toward late afternoon the ship stopped for the much anticipated Polar Plunge where several people, each tied by a line to the boat, jumped or dived into the frigid sea. I was tempted, but after my purge yesterday, and still with a sore diaphragm, I wisely chose to pass. Those that did jump in said the water was, of course, frigid and it took their breath away, requiring them to breath from their diaphragms, so I felt a bit better on skipping. After the short stint in the water, however, they said a second or two after getting out they felt very, very warm, and whether that was from the exhilaration or the new ambient temperature they couldn’t say.
The landscapes around Monaco Glacier were spectacular, but look closely at the bottom right image -- the mother Polar Bear and cub against the spikey mountains of Spitsbergen, truly an iconic image of this landscape.
Day 7. We anchored in a broad bad surrounded by snow-capped mountains, at Liefdefjorden, with the Monaco Glacier in the background. We took zodiacs out, and Mary almost passed on going since we expected a rather mundane cruise for more snow-capped peaks, ice, and landscapes. But you never know and so she went, as of course did I.
The first half of the cruise was as expected, with pretty landscapes scenes and a few birds. Mary and I were in different zodiacs, and Mary spotted a Reindeer walking across the sea ice. Her guide had never seen that before, and while they watched Mary identified what another passenger thought was another reindeer as a mother Polar Bear with a young cub! It was climbing up the hillside, pausing to roll back down the snow banks in play. We quickly joined Mary’s zodiac but by then the bears had rounded the hill and disappeared.
We paralleled the island, hoping for another view and soon the bears reappeared. They performed wonderfully, walking along the crest of the slope against a blue sky or mountain backdrop (depending upon our angles), then climbing down the slope to the water’s edge. The bears climbed out on to some small rocks where the little cub complained while the mother waded in, and then began swimming. Mary’s boat was a bit closer than mine, which is one of my biggest frustrations on this trip as various guides have varying ideas about distance, even when, as in this case, the bear obviously did not mind our presence. Still, we achieved different angles and between the two of us got off about 1,000 shots apiece during the show.
We left the bears when they began a swim across a large stretch of open water where, with time, they beached on another island where the bears hunted the upland for Eider and Arctic Tern nests. We did manage a fair view of a King Eider, and Mary was close enough for some shots. One of the zodiacs had missed the entire show and had just arrived, and now moved in for their views of the bears. I asked if we could go in as well, as the bears were now in another great location, but we were told it was time to go back, lunch was at twelve! Most everyone, and these all being tourists, were completely satisfied with this but I did find this frustrating. Given the choice between lunch and bears the answer is obvious, and I will make that clear to our guide next year when we have our own small boat chartered.
That said, we did manage a lot of great shots but there are always more, and with an unstressed animal I don’t think you’re ever being greedy. Later that day I spoke with one of the other guides who also expressed some frustration in our leaving the bear. In that guide’s words, ‘I’d have stayed there a week!’ The guide also felt that comments like ‘It’s time to leave the bear alone’ implied that our presence with the bear was stressful, and that we were intrusive, when, in fact, the bear was completely unconcerned by our presence. The guide also pointed out that no one seems to be fazed by our zodiacs approaching birds that then would fly away, and these animals were obviously bothered by our presence. But as the guide said, everyone just thinks of them as birds, and when animals rise on the cuteness scale suddenly they get these anthropomorphic qualities that leads to premature exits from great animals. That evening we watched a BBC film on bears where their zodiac was within fifteen feet of a bear hunting and attempting to break through ice for seals. The bear was oblivious to the zodiac, as was our bear that actually entered the water and began swimming in our direction. So … our feelings were not unique.
After lunch we cruised to another fjord where we cruised about looking for King Eiders and, hopefully, another bear.
We did not find a bear but did manage a lot of encounters with Eiders, including some Kings and one very exciting bird (for our guides), a King/Common Eider hybrid. The bird flushed but actually flew towards us and then circled, giving me two chances where I succeeded in getting some fairly decent images that our guide used in the evening for the recap.
Later that evening, as we sailed south, the crew spotted a Humpback Whale which stayed too far out for anything but a poor record shot as it dove and flashed its tail.
From top: A King Eider in flight; a male King Eider and Common Eider; a male Common Eider in flight; a Glaucous Gull in flight.
Day 8. We anchored at a small peninsula where the group went for a hike on the tundra. We stayed on board, editing, as the excursion seemed rather unexciting, the weather was dreary, and the potential subjects – fox and reindeer – seemed quite unlikely for photographs. Okay, we are wimps! But we wanted to catch up on editing to provide some images to the Purser and to folks who had made the Polar Plunge.
That walk ended up to be something of a bust, with a distant reindeer or two spotted, and some flowers. The weather was overcast and dreary, and we were happy to have remained behind.
After lunch the weather cleared and we disembarked for a final landing where we hiked toward a bird cliff and an Arctic Fox den. The wind changed, and we were forced to land at a new location which then required about a mile walk, up a steep hill for a few hundred yards and then across the boggy tundra. The sea cliffs with the birds were quite distant, and from what we could see comprised only kittiwakes. Someone spotted an Arctic Fox high on the cliff and after considerable searching we saw the brown dot as it moved through the talus. Later we found another, closer and sleeping, at the site of last year’s den but with 60 or more people in tow it was fruitless to even try approaching closer for a photograph.
Mary and I traveled as light as we felt we could to take advantage of landscape and wildlife, with Mary carrying only her 400 and I carried a 400, another camera with the 70-300, and the 28-105. Dressed for chill weather we were a wreck – the steepness and length of the hike had us overheated and dragging our coats and Mary’s pack, which we then left behind on the trail, hoping that a fox wouldn’t urinate on the gear or run off with something, and then the wind kicked up and we froze. We laughed that this was like something we never did before, we felt so unprepared and amateur. Although we did see the fox, and took completely useless record shots, we were a bit annoyed at the hike as it was merely a forced march. Any time we tried to stop to photograph we were left behind, even by the one guide who ended up walking with us much of the time. Because of the danger of polar bears a guide with a gun has to be with the tourists, and although we were quite certain no bears were about we didn’t wish to annoy our guides, or be chastised, for being left behind as we tried to photograph anything. All told, the hike was a real frustration, and we resolved that if there’d have been more hikes offered, knowing what we now knew, we’d pass. Next year, with our small group of 10, if we go on land we’ll go slowly and stay close, to maximize the photo potential and not just eat up miles.
That evening there was a final champagne toast, a nice slide show (PowerPoint) compiled by the guides of the trip’s events, and a good final meal. We were up past midnight packing, as tomorrow’s breakfast is at 6 and we’ll be on the road by 6:30 or so.
Day 9. Departure day, and all went smoothly. I was a bit disappointed with several of the guides who made little or no effort to say goodbye to individuals. I contrasted that with the departures we have after an Antarctic cruise where Mary and I are guides, and how everyone on that staff makes a real effort to give a warm farewell to the passengers. This was lacking here, and was a let-down. One of the great things about the few times Mary and I are clients and not leaders is seeing how it is to be ‘on the other side’ and how we feel about treatment. It’s great to learn both the good and the bad, especially the bad where, on more than one occasion, we’ve said we’ve learned a valuable lesson today, that we’d never behave like that! That wasn’t the case here, but it was notable that the departure was not as warm as one might hope.
Ironically, at the airport, the same guide who on our first day in Svalbard had assured me that my camera and computer gear would be safe came up and said, ‘See, this is how they handle the gear. It was safe.’ That reminder really rankled me, as I carried the gear on personally. He then corrected himself and recalled that the gear was placed on a truck. I quickly added that was a whole different way of transporting. He wandered off.
Like our flight up to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, we again had no problem with our carry-on luggage, nothing was weighed, and we boarded the plane without event.
Shortly before we left the boat the Japanese film crew that was doing a documentary on the cruise interviewed us a final time on our thoughts about the trip. That answer is a fitting conclusion to this Trip Report as well. We felt that we succeeded far more than we’d have realistically hoped, as we made many of the dream shots we had envisioned – Polar Bear with cub; Polar Bear on ice floes; Polar Bear in good light as portraits; Walruses, both on ice and on the beach and close in the water; and plenty of good birds. The boat staff was excellent and the food very good. The guides were informative and the daily recap of events was appreciated and informative, as natural history facts were relayed regarding the species we’d seen. The guides often joked about being bitten by the Polar Bug and the need to return, and although we had a very successful trip we see what they mean, and we, too, are anxious to return to try for even better shots. As I write this, except for getting some Polar Bears in new situations – at kills, or with mother and cubs on ice, close, I can hardly imagine we could, but as is always the case with nature I’m sure new and unexpected wonderful opportunities will again present themselves. We will be back, and I suspect we’ll do so again and again, but for us, in the future it will be on the small, 12 passenger boat where we’ll finally have some input into the proceedings.
A final thought, two books that I found in the ship's library I really enjoyed and have since purchased. One is a labor of incredible hard work, entitled: The Last Polar Bear by Steven Kazlowski, Braided River Press, Seattle.
The other is by the world's leading polar bear expert:
Polar Bear, A Natural History of a Threatened Species, by Ian Smith.
Both are available on Amazon.