Seeing Polar Bears has always been a dream of mine, so when I got the opportunity to go to Svalbard with Tusk Photo I jumped at the chance. I had 2 months to prepare and no idea of what to expect! My first step was to find out what clothing I needed, coming from Nelspruit I am not used to cold weather and a pair of Jeans and a fleece will work for most cold days we experience in Nelspruit, but I was told that Svalbard was a bit colder and needed more planning.
I spoke with Wim van den Heever and Ben Cranke from Tusk Photo about what clothing to buy and the possible weather conditions we could expect, cold days with cold winds and then throw in some rain, sleet and the odd bit of snow, together with 24 hr sunlight and warm sunny days, what a combination!
So after lots of consultation and visiting all the Outdoor clothing shops in Nelspruit and a lot of Googling I finally settled on the following wardrobe, for a Base layer I chose a 85% polypropylene and 15 % bamboo base layer (thermal undies) from First Ascent with wicking properties, as a intermediate layer I chose 100 % polyester Straus fleece long sleeve shirts and Boulder Track pants by K-Way, and as a outer layer I chose a pair of XT-2 Soft shell pants made by First Ascent as well as a Discovery 3-in-1 Jacket made by First Ascent, dressing in Layers is the answer with a good waterproof and windproof outer shell. I took along a beanie and Balaclava as well as a Peruvian hat to keep my head warm and for gloves I chose a inner thin pair of thermal gloves and then for a outer glove I chose a Pair of First Ascent Velocity snow gloves that are waterproof and windproof. For Footwear I went online and ordered a Pair of Sorel Alpha Pac boots through Amazon.
After the trip I can say that the clothing I chose worked well and dressing in Layers is definitely the way to go, the Velocity snow gloves I chose made it very difficult to handle a camera so I ended up shooting wearing only the thinner Thermal gloves which was fine in dry weather but in the rain they got soaked and with the wind blowing my fingers quickly got cold and on 2 occasions they were quite numb! Oslo and Langyearbyen had great windproof and waterproof gloves for sale that would have worked much better, the Sorel Boots were great but the outer shell tore on the last day and leaked quite a bit, for next time I would add a body warmer as well as something to wrap around my neck, the Balaclava worked but every time I exhaled my glasses would fog up or the viewfinder of the camera would fog up as my breath was trapped and made its way upwards and condensed on the cold camera and glasses, in the end I used the balaclava very little.
While the search for clothing was on going I got started on the Schengen Visa process, as we were going to be starting in Norway we were required to apply for our visa through the Norwegian embassy in PTA, a relatively easy and painless process done via their online portal, the hardest part of the process was driving up to PTA twice, once to drop off the application and the second time to collect my passport once the visa had been approved.
I was also spending time packing and weighing my camera bag, I didn’t want to get to Svalbard and find I was missing a critical piece of camera gear but I was also mindful of the weight restrictions and paying for excess luggage was not a option.
In the end I went with the following – Nikon D4 and D800 camera bodies, Nikkor 300mm f2.8 lens, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 lens, Nikkor 24-70 f2.8 lens, 2x and 1.7 x converters, SB 910 flash, Monopod, tripod, Gimbal head, flash bracket and flash cord. The weight of this equipment was about 18kg’s so I opted to leave my computer and external hard drive behind, I took 400 GB of card space, I returned home with about 2 GB to spare! I did however spend a lot of time editing in camera otherwise I would have run out of space. Next time I will definitely take more Card space at least 800 GB for a 10 day trip.
I spent a great deal of time before leaving for Svalbard focus calibrating all my lenses with both converters to make sure they were sharp, the monopod was useful on the Zodiacs and I didn’t need to handhold all the time, some people on the trip really struggled using the 600mm lenses without a monopod and handholding the camera in extended periods of Photographing, there were occasions where it was impossible to use the monopods due to the swell of the ocean and the movement was too great, on these occasions I handheld the camera, the tripod was very useful for our landings and setting up the camera on the tripod and waiting at the Arctic Foxes den was definitely the right way to go, the down side is that everything needs to be carried and the more you have the heavier your load is!
The flights had been booked and our itinerary was as follows, depart OR Tambo on the evening of the 3rd July at 7-30 pm, land at Zurich at 6-10 am the following morning and then connect on to Oslo at 6-55 am, this all happened reasonably well although we had a mad dash through Zurich airport and a short train ride to make the connecting flight and although we were the last to board the connecting flight all went well and the timing was spot on.
After arriving in Oslo on the Morning of the 4th July at 9-15 am we grabbed a taxi at the airport and headed off to Oslo, it is about a 40 minute drive and after a few minutes in the taxi is was apparent to all that this was going to be a freakishly expensive taxi ride! And that is exactly what it was! Never take a taxi from Oslo Airport to Oslo Town! Use the train, which is what we did on our return leg.
After checking in at the Continental hotel in Oslo it was time to look around the town and explore. Oslo is a great city, it is also the most populated city in Norway as well as the capital. We wandered around the streets of Norway sightseeing and checking out the Local clothing stores, these guys definitely know their outdoors and stock the right gear for all weather conditions, although pricey once converted into ZAR you could plan a trip to Svalbard and travel with no outdoor clothing and get everything you need right there in Oslo, from underwear to Boots and Rain Jackets.
The following morning we used the train to get from Oslo to the airport, a much more affordable option! The flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen in Svalbard departed Oslo on SAS airlines at 9-55 am and after one stop at Tromso, a town further North in Norway we landed at Longyearbyen at 13-55pm that afternoon. A short bus ride later we arrived at Mary Anns Polarrigg, our hotel for the night! After checking in we went to explore the town of Longyearbyen, a town that was built originally in 1906 for coal mining in the area. Longyearbyen is a small community of about 2000 residents, it is also the tourist capital of Svalbard and we bumped into people from all over the world all searching for the largest land based predator on Earth, the Polar Bear.
The following morning after meeting the rest of the group we walked to the outskirts of town cameras in hand searching for our first photographic opportunities, it did not take long ! Arctic terns, Eider ducks, Barnacle geese and Glaucous Gulls going about their business kept us busy, the sun came out and bathed the surrounding mountains in beautiful golden light providing our first scenic images of Svalbard. After lunch it was time to pack our bags and head down to the Langyearbyen harbour to meet our Expedition Leader Oscar from Vega Expeditions and to board the MS Origo.
Once aboard the Origo and after a mandatory orientation and safety briefing we set sail heading North away from Langyearbyen, dreaming of what lay ahead. After a few hours of sailing we came to the West coast of Svalbard and to the west lies the Greenland Sea, up until this point the ship had been sheltered by the surrounding land but now it was exposed to the open Ocean and the full force of the Oceans motion! So around about dinner time the motion and movement of the boat drastically changed and to the un accustomed as I am from a Land locked Nelspruit, it was just too much! Seasickness is not a nice thing and nor is it a pretty sight to see! At least I was not alone and at least 5 others joined me in feeding the fish. The captain said the rough sea would last for another 6 hours before the land would offer some shelter again, fortunately there was seasick tablets on board and within a few hours most of us were feeling a lot better.
After a relatively sleepless night we arrived at Ossion Sars the following morning to go and see a breeding colony of Black legged Kittiwakes, a cold wind was blowing and we soon came to realize that the cold wind would be our companion for the remainder of our trip. After a safety briefing on the use of the Zodiacs and the right way to get on and off the Zodiac we were on our way to shore, once we had all disembarked on the shore and made sure the Zodiacs were not going to float off on their own it was time to climb the hill and visit the bird breeding colony.
After 5 minutes of walking it became clear why it is important to dress in layers as by this stage I was starting to overheat and it was time to shed the outer layer, 25 minutes later we had arrived on top of the cliff and we stared in wonder at the amazing scenery that lay before us, a spectacular view of the Ocean and Glaciers and our ship at the bottom of the cliff that was about the size of a Matchbox. We could hear and see the Kittiwakes as they flew past, some heading off to fish while others returned with their crops full of fish, for the next 3 hours we photographed the birds as they flew about and fed their chicks in the nest, there was also a small group of Brunnichs Guillemots nesting with the Kittiwakes and they provided great photographic opportunities as they squabbled amongst each other for space on the thin rock ledge. Time went quickly by and soon it was time to head back to the ship again, on the way down we saw our first Reindeer as it moved along the ridge, back on the ship we had a hot cup of Coffee, the Coffee also became a constant companion over the next 10 days, after boarding we set sail once again heading more and more North always searching for the Elusive Polar Bear.
Later that evening it was time to test out the Hot tub on the top deck of the ship, water that has helped cool the ships engines gets diverted up to the top deck and into the tub, the temperature in the tub can get up to 40 Degrees! Myself and 7 others in the group jumped into the tub , it was great watching the ocean go by sitting in steaming hot water, similar to the Japanese Snow Monkeys that sit in the hot springs!
The next Morning we stopped in at the Svifjod Glacier, it was our first decent look at a Glacier and it was a beautiful sight, the Glacier was shrouded in mist which added to magical feeling I got of seeing this massive piece of Ice surrounded by towering rugged mountains. We searched the area for Polar Bears with no luck before heading off North again, our destination was Lagoya Island where there is a colony of Walrus and hopefully a Polar Bear.
24 Hours Later we arrived at Lagoya Island, the ship dropped anchor and we all climbed into the Zodiacs heading to shore scanning for Bears as we went. Once we had landed on the shore the Guides made sure it was safe to walk around and that no Bears were close by, the coast was clear and we gathered our gear and walked off towards a group of Walrus we could see in the distance, on the way a pair of Sabine’s gull were spotted, what a privilege to see these rare birds, after a good long look and some photographs we focused our attention on the Walrus once again. There were some Walrus in the ocean and a large group on the land, we first approached the Walrus close to the waters edge in the ocean, we got down on our stomachs and crawled forward, the Walrus were inquisitive and they swam closer to have a look, what a wonderful experience to have these giant animals as heavy as 1000kg and between 2 and 3,5 meters long swim within a few yards of us, raising their heads out of the water to look at us, I got a good variety of images using all my lenses. After about 30 minutes photographing the Walrus in the water we turned our attention to the sleeping giants on the beach, we approached slowly and crawled the last 30 meters to get within about 10 meters of the sleeping Walrus, careful not to disturb them and freezing whenever a Walrus looked in our direction, again what a great experience to lie down with a group of at least 60 Walrus sleeping 10 meters away! The snoring sounds the Walrus made were amazing to say the least, a moment to remember and a highlight of my trip. After getting enough pictures we slowly crawled away again leaving the Walrus group to continue with their sleep. We spent another few hours on the Beach, photographing a second group of Walrus and a small group of Red Necked Phalarope that were feeding close by. All too soon it was time to head back to the ship and continue our Polar Bear search.
After Leaving the Walrus colony just we steamed Northwards for another 4 hours before encountering the edge of the floating ice floe, what a spectacular scene! Chunks of ice of various sizes as far as the eye could see, here we also saw our fist Bearded seal that had crawled out onto a piece of ice and it was resting there, for the next 8 hours we made our way through and along the ice floe, searching for polar bears but unfortunately there were none to be found! Eventually the captain decided it was time to turn around and go back south again, we left this wonderland of floating ice behind to go and search for Bears on the Nordustlandet Island of Svalbard, sailing through the ice is the farthest North I have ever been, all the way to the 81st parallel and only 950 km from the North Pole.
The following morning we had reached Mumhison Fjorden where the captain slowed the ship down and we worked our way around a group of small Islands searching for Polar Bears, at 6am that morning the first cry of “Polar Bear” was heard, I was on the top deck and when I turned around all I could see was a big White bum of a polar Bear disappearing over the horizon, not what I had imagined my first ever Polar bear sighting to be! a mad scramble followed! The Captain slowed and turned the ship around, the guides and crew rushed to prepare the zodiacs and all of the passengers including myself rushed to our cabins to get on the right clothing and grab our camera gear, about 20 minutes later everyone was super excited and ready to go. We set off in the Zodiacs with a light drizzle falling, it is amazing how far the Bear had moved in a short space of time, it took us about 25 minutes to find her again, she was walking about 500 meters away from the shore and heading away from us, we headed around to the other side of the island and we finally saw the Bear again, this time she was lying down on the waters edge, everyone got their cameras ready, I did a couple of test shots to check my exposure and then we slowly made our way forward to get a better look at the Bear, unfortunately for us the Bear was a nervous one and when we got within a 100 meters of her she stood up and walked away, not the way I had imagined my first Polar Bear sighting, but to see my first ever Polar Bear in the wild was very special indeed, we returned to the ship cold, wet and a little disappointed but nothing that Breakfast and a hot coffee couldn’t fix.
After our bear sighting We headed South West for about 6 hours before arriving at a massive cliff face, I guess it is at least 80 meters high and over a kilometer long, when looking up at the sky there were thousands of black specks in the sky, eventually we got close enough to the cliff to see thousands and thousands of birds perched on the rock face , a mind blowing sight of a Brunnichs Guillemot breeding colony, approximately 60 000 pairs of these birds, I don’t think I have ever seen so many birds together, for the next 3 hours the captain kept the ship close to the cliff face as we photographed the birds in every conceivable way possible, I tried landscapes, in flight images, fast and slow shutter speeds various compositions and a few composite images as well, I think it is hard to capture such a amazing sight in one image, eventually it was time to go and we continued on our journey heading towards Stroya Island, a small Island on the North West tip of Svalbard ever searching for Polar Bears.
The following morning after breakfast we arrived at Stroya Island, it was cold, misty and windy with a light drizzle falling, as soon as the ship had stopped and was busy dropping anchor I was scanning the shore and there sitting on the shoreline was a bear watching us, almost as if it was waiting for our arrival. Within 20 minutes everyone was ready to go, the Zodiacs were in the water, camera bags on board and photographers ready to go. A 5-minute Zodiac ride and we were with the bear, but wait there was a second Bear as well, what a treat! The weather got worse and it was tough going, a choppy sea, mist and rain that was getting blown in by a strong wind, the Bears were searching the shore for food and they walked towards each other, I was unsure of what to expect a fight or did they know each other? The Bears came together and after a brief sniffing of noses they both stood on their hind legs and playfully sparred with each other for a few brief seconds, what a wonderful moment, something I had never expected to see! For the next 2 hours we watched as the Bears walked along the shoreline, as a Wildlife Photographer From South Africa the weather conditions That day were a challenge, the movement of the Zodiac on the sea made it difficult to focus and make any form of composition, I would wait until the Zodiac was either on the top of the bottom of its movement and then focus quickly and fire off a number of shots before loosing the Bear in the Viewfinder as the boat moved, the rain, cold and wind all added to the challenge, trying to keep the front of the lens dry was also difficult, eventually the Bears moved away from the shore and we headed back to the ship, elated by the sight we had just seen.
After warming up and lunch we headed out again to see if the Bears had returned to the shore, the weather had improved a bit and the going was a lot easier, after searching for about 20 minutes we found one of the Bears as it lay amongst some rocks close to the shoreline, the Bear was sleeping and every now and again it would briefly look up at us as we bobbed around close to the beach, just after 5pm we decided it was time to go and we left the sleeping Bear and headed back to the ship, it was time to sail on again, the captain turned us around and we headed back in a South Easterly direction towards Surging Glacier, at 2am that morning we arrived at the Glacier, a amazing sight to see! A wall of ice at least 30 meters high stretching as far as we could see with great chunks of blue ice floating in the water, we searched through the floating ice for any signs of Bears but there were none to be found, we continued heading East away from the Glacier to continue our search.
Later that morning the Captain spotted a Polar Bear on a small Island Called Peschel Island, again we stopped the ship and then I saw a second Bear with a cub that were sleeping high up on a rocky ledge, 3 Bears together on Peschel Island, we headed off in the Zodiacs to the shoreline to get a better look at the Bears, unfortunately the solitary Bear was a little shy and although we got great pictures of her she always kept her distance and she never ventured too close to the shore , once again the weather was against us, strong wind, rain and rough seas, at one point there was even a bit on snow that fell for a few seconds, at this point we went to look at the Sleeping Mother bear and cub, by now they had woken and they were moving through the rocks searching for food, we followed the Bears for the next 90 minutes as the Mother led her cub through the rocks and onto the Shore, these bears were un afraid and they ventured to the edge of the water within 30 meters of us, the Female Bear filling up my frame at 600mm, I had filled up both my CF cards in the camera and I had to put in new cards, a challenging thing to do on a bouncy Zodiac with sea spray and rain , the hardest thing for me was trying to get the card out of its plastic cover with my cold numb fingers, the card was firmly stuck and I couldn’t get it out! Eventually I managed to hook the card out of its cover with my teeth and put it into the camera fortunately I did not miss too much Bear activity while changing cards. After that I took all my cards out of their plastic covers just in case!
Later that Afternoon we again returned to Peschel Island to look for the Bears , all 3 Bears were still there, the mother bear and cub were walking in a Northerly direction and the Solitary Bear was walking in a Southerly direction and they bumped into each other about half way along the Island, the Mother Bear was taking no chances and she turned and ran with her cub close behind, the solitary Bear watched them go but was un interested and she continued her search for food amongst the rocks, the Mother Bear ran for about 500 meters before stopping to look behind her, when she saw there was no pursuit they relaxed a bit but continued to walk away from the other Bear, her cub staying close behind her, all the time we were keeping pace with the Bears in the Zodiacs as they walked along the Island, eventually all 3 bears settled down to rest and we returned to the ship and set sail, this time our destination was the Liefdefjorden about half a days travel away.
We arrived at the Liefdafjorden at about 9am, there was a cold wind blowing but the sun was out, a beautiful day in the Arctic. For the next 5 hours we spent our time exploring the Fjord on the Zodiacs, for the most part I was using my 24-70 mm lens and taking photos of the breathtaking scenery, the clear blue water with the Glacier and Rugged mountains that surrounded it, I took hundreds of images of this amazing Landscape which for me was quite unusual as I don’t rate myself as much of a Landscape photographer but I couldn’t seem to get enough of the beauty in front of me. In between the Landscape photos we did take photos of Black Guillemots, Glaucous Gulls, Arctic Skuas and Black Legged Kittiwakes as they searched amongst the ice for fish and crustaceans, on one occasion a Arctic Skua tried to steal Steal fish from a Kittiwake and the ensuing aerial chase was quite spectacular , the Kittiwake dodging and diving to make its escape and the Skua matching the Kittiwakes every twist and turn, eventually the Kittiwake admitted defeat and dropped the fish it was carrying and the Skua snapped it up before it could even hit the water. While on the Zodiacs we heard a massive crack and a rumbling sound , as loud as a cannon shot, I turned in the Zodiac just in time to see a house sized chunk of ice break off the Glacier and plunge into the ocean, a spectacular sight to see, just as we were about to head back to the Ship Oscar our Guide spotted a pod of about 15 Beluga Whales swimming past and heading to the Glacier front to feed. This was definitely an unexpected surprise and I managed to take a few images of the Whales as they breached the surface of the water to take a breath, unfortunately we were unable to follow as the Whales went right up to the Glacier front . It was time to go back to the ship for a late lunch and then we headed off to a beach a few hours cruise away for a Arctic “Braai” Scandinavian style!
The Captain moored the ship about 500 meters off shore and Oscar gave us a presentation on Walrus and their habits while the crew of the ship set up the braai on the beach, at 7pm they were ready for us and we went ashore, a great setting with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. There was a wooden hut close by and Oscar told us about how the early hunters and explorers would use these huts to overwinter and the hardships they had to endure, I certainly don’t think I could stay in a small wooden room 8 meters square for 6 months at a time in complete darkness and run the risk of been eaten by Polar Bears. Having a Braai at 8pm at night with the sun overhead was also new for me as, the 24 hours of sunlight had certainly been messing with my sleep patterns in the last week, after dinner I went with a few of the other guests to look at a Glacier lake that was close by, there was a patch of snow next to the lake and a few of us took the opportunity to test out our Bodysurfing skills on the snow, fortunately I broke no bones when coming to a very abrupt stop at the bottom of the hill in the rocks! There were at least 5 brave souls that went for a Polar plunge that night, some were more insulated by beer than others but it was something I decided was not for me, I was cold enough with all my clothes on! At 12 pm it was time to leave and the ship departed our Braai spot heading for a Breeding colony of small birds called Little Auks.
Around 7am that morning we arrived at Vasa Stortinden where the Little Auk Breeding colony is, we had Breakfast on the ship and then went to shore at about 9am, after a short 10 minute walk we arrived at the breeding colony. The Little Auks make their nests under the boulders that make up the Island, there are hundreds of birds that nest together, they have been nesting there so long that the black rocks have been turned white by the bird droppings! Everyone found themselves a spot in the rocks to photograph the birds, for the next 3 hours I was taking pictures of the Little Auks as they flew around the nesting site and as they settled on the rocks around us, from 600mm lenses to 24mm lenses were used, photographing the large flocks of birds as they flew in front of the distant mountain and the sun made for some great images. We returned to the ship for lunch and then we set sail to view the Glaciers in Vasa Stortinden, once again the sun was out and we spent the afternoon cruising around in the Zodiacs along the shoreline and eventually around the Glacier front, we photographed a variety of birds as well as Eider Ducks that run over the water when taking off, I managed to capture a few images of the ducks as they took off, close to the Glacier we found a Bearded Seal but it was a bit shy and it slipped into the safety of the water before we got too close. Again the time had flown by and it was time to move on again, this time to Barentsfjellet to look for Arctic fox and Harbour seals.
Our arrival time at Barentsfjellet was 2am that morning, a odd time to get on the Zodiacs and go ashore but with 24hr sunlight 2am looked like 3pm in the Afternoon in Nelspruit! A bunch of Bleary eyed photographers Boarded the Zodiacs and we set off to look for the Harbor seals, after arriving on the shore and a short walk we found a group of about 10 seals swimming in a small inlet, we lay down on the edge of the water and the Seals cautiously came to investigate, the following 30 minutes flew by as I photographed the Seals eye to eye at water level, sometimes they swam as close as a few meters from us I managed to get great portrait images of their faces sticking out the water in the Golden 3am sunlight. After the seals we spent some time walking around the Island looking for Arctic fox, we did see a fox as we were about to leave at 5am but she was shy and the best I could do was get a record shot of a Arctic fox.
After returning to the ship we set sail again for Protektorfjeller where Oscar knew of a Arctic fox den but before we got to the den we had to negotiate the stretch of Ocean that had made me seasick on the first day, I was a bit nervous about this as I did not want to repeat that first evening on the ship again! Fortunately for me and my fellow fish feeders we had all seemed have gotten our sea legs, the sea was just as rough as that first day but we all arrived at Protektorfjeller with our breakfast and lunch intact.
For the last time we got into the Zodiacs and headed to shore, 10 minutes of walking and we had arrived at the den, a rocky patch at the base of a huge Birdcliff. Oscar spotted the fist fox and a ripple of excitement swept through the group, we got into position a safe distance from the den and set up our tripods with 600mm lenses, cameras at the ready, after a brief wait the first of 3 tiny Arctic foxes made their appearance, there was a amazing burst of friendly fire from the photographers as the cubs played and waddled around on the grass, what a precious moment to watch these little bundles of fur going about their business a short distance away. The next 90 minutes flew by as we waited for the foxes appear after short periods when they were hidden from view, every fox appearance was welcomed by Nikon D4’s firing 11 frames per second at them, one of the little foxes even fell asleep no more than 20 meters away from us, what a honor for us that the fox did not see us as a threat. Finally it was time to head back to the ship and sail the last leg back to Langyearbyen.
We arrived back in Langyearbyen later that evening and we spent our last night aboard; we had a special farewell dinner and settled our bills. The next day after breakfast it was time to say farewell to the MS Origo and her Captain and crew, they had looked after us and returned us safely back to Langyearbyen, we had shared a lot together over the past 10 days, we also bid farewell to Oscar and his team, they had also done a great job by showing us a few of Svalbards secrets and its inhabitants, it was only through their hard work and planning that we had seen what we did. Finally it was time to say goodbye to my fellow Photographers who had shared this amazing trip with me, I had arrived with few expectations and looking back on the trip I realize that my Journey to Svalbard had exceeded my wildest dreams and I had taken some great images to remind me of this wonderful place. The last thing that was now left was the Journey home first the flying, 4 hours from Langyearbyen to Oslo, 2 hours from Oslo to Zurich and then 11 hours from Zurich to Johannesburg and finally the 3 hour drive from Johannesburg to Nelspruit, and of course the endless hours of editing that was to follow as well as recalling the wonderful stories of Svabard to family and friends.