Svalbard is a place that defies description and is one of the last true wilderness areas on the planet.
A few months ago I hosted my fourth Svalbard photo expedition to this incredible destination and once again Svalbard produced not only wonderful photographic opportunities but wonderful memories which I shared with an amazing group of people.
Sarah Zito, a great photographer and one of my guests in Svalbard, sent us this visual trip report of our Svalbard adventure and as I loaded the images to the blog I was once again reminded of how special the Arctic really is.
Grab a cup of coffee, sit back and and enjoy Sarah’s visual journey through Svalbard.
This is a land so wild and beautiful it will challenge your image of the world and may change you forever. So raw and real that it makes the “real world” that most of us live in seem fake and artificial.
What a privilege to be able to explore this overwhelmingly beautiful wilderness with just 11 other travellers, 2 guides and 5 crew on our expedition ship the Polaris I. We boarded the ship in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northern city….it has a rather frontier and quirky feel to it, added to by the signs asking you to leave your guns outside the supermarket, not to park your dogs here and do not leave the city without a gun…..!
As we boarded the Polaris I the excitement of all on board was palpable! Everyone in our small group quickly got to know each other, despite our introductions being interrupted by our first polar bear sighting! None of us could contain ourselves and we all piled outside onto the deck to admire the female and juvenile bears quietly resting in the golden light of evening.
This was followed by the most incredible polar sunset (well the sun never really set at all but there sure was a light show as it dipped towards the horizon around 11pm!).
As we continued on our expedition, wonderful moments beyond measure or description followed…
When we woke in Magdalena Fjord to a misty snowy morning which cloaked the mountains and laid an air of magic and mystique over the glorious fjord.
As some of us soaked up the atmosphere and admired the delicately beautiful star-like snowflakes falling around us our 3rd polar bear was sighted! The bear was making his way along the shoreline right by our boat, we all watched in awe and wonder as the huge white bear ambled over the jumbled rocks by the ship and eventually disappeared over the ridge in front of us (see footnote re bear and the end).
Using the zodiacs we landed on a spit of sand to visit a large ugly of Walrus basking in the sun (yes, the collective noun for a group of walrus really is an ‘ugly’!!). These cantankerous creatures would intermittently rear up and ‘peck’ at one another with their tusks and some rolled down the beach into the water when they needed to cool off (or scratch!).
Later some walruses swam along with us while we were in the zodiacs, close enough to touch, curious, brave and so agile and confident in the water.
Even the crew were excited when we saw a blue whale and her calf gliding through the water, even the calf was far bigger than our ship! Usually once they dive you do not see them again for 20 minutes, if at all, but these whales fluked and dove many times, perhaps the mother was teaching her baby to dive?
An absolutely magnificent sight, especially against the glorious background of pristine snow covered mountains in the distance. Something that I never thought I would be lucky enough to see but that will remain in my memory forever.
We were able to experience the incredible sights and sounds of huge glaciers calving with the booming thunder and enormous splashes!
The serenity and beauty of the magical Arctic land and seascape was astounding.
Our Svalbard adventure continued as the Polaris I headed up the coast of the Spitsbergen Archipelago dropping anchor along the way in particularly beautiful and interesting places so that we could head to shore in the zodiacs to explore.
We hiked through incredible scenery and made the most of opportunities to photograph the unique birdlife.
As we headed further north we admired walrus hanging out on the ice flows that became ever more common and scanned the shores and ice flows for signs of polar bears.
As we cruised along the coast and through the ice flows scanned the shores and ice for signs of polar bears.
We visited the research center of Kenvikken and hiked up to the top of the mountain through deep pristine snow to an incredible 360 degree view. It felt like we were at the top of the world with the tiny ship bobbing in the bay below giving scale to this vast place.
It was made even more special by laughing with friends at the top at our (mostly) failed attempts to get a leaping group photo….too weighed down with gear and tired from the climb to do a decent job!
After particularly cold days out on the water or hiking we would come back to the ship and have chocolate krakens (a delicious hot chocolate and spiced rum drink we came up with!) and in the evenings we would have dark and stormies and whiskey with glacial ice and all share lots of laughter and fun with our new friends.
During the days we had great opportunities to practice birds in flight photography with the ever-present Northern Fulmars accompanying our ship. Gerry was always close at hand to give excellent photography advice and encouragement!
As we got close to the pack ice we marveled at the incredibly soft and beautiful light at the top of the world.
One morning it started snowing and we stood on the ship’s deck looking with wonder at astoundingly beautiful, complex and delicate snow flakes falling all around us, more lovely than I could ever have imagined.
We were treated to almost impossibly beautiful scenes as we travelled. Often seeing marine mammals such as walrus hauled up on the ice flows, adding even more magic to the scenes.
As we reached the pack ice and we cruised our way through the massive icebergs, the ship pushing them out of the way with a very unique crunching sound!
Another wonderful part of the trip was getting to know our fellow travellers, hearing about their amazing experiences and having a ridiculous amount of fun.
Truly I could not have chosen a more wonderful group of people to share this adventure with.
We watched hundreds of harp seals, bearded seals and ringed seals observing us from the ice. The harp seals were often flighty and would slip off the ice and porpoise through the water looking back at us on the ship.
The bearded seals were a lot more chilled…..their incredible mustaches were something to admire, often with frozen droplets of water in the little curls at the ends!
Another special moment to savour was being the northern-most people in the world for a time…
One afternoon we used the zodiacs to glide up close to comic and charismatic Harbour seals who lounged and bounced about on rocks watching these crazy wildlife paparazzi with their big lenses taking photos of them!
Next we used the zodiacs to whizz across a glassy flat ocean in zodiacs to watch and photograph the adorable and very photogenic puffins in the water around the cliffs where they burrow.
We learnt about the animals of the arctic and more about the history of the place from Rupert our guide. Rupert is also a fantastic story teller and shared with us all many an interesting tale!
Gerry taught us all heaps about photography, composition and post processing in Lightroom in sessions during the days.
We visited Texas Bar, a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere with an interesting name! Here we hiked up the glacial moraines to the foot of the glacier. On the way we were delighted to see a stunning arctic fox in her winter whites come out from behind a rock near us and skip slowly out over the hills.
We were lucky enough to have an a fellow traveller with us who is intrigued with the polar explorers and the history of the poles. He is also an excellent story teller and shared tales of the adventures of the polar explorers….
Incredible stories of folly, futile heroism, bravery and endurance interspersed by marvels of human achievement. In the same environment it was easy for us to imagine these brave but often ill-prepared men battling to stay alive in this harsh land.
These historic tales were made so real to us when later we landed at Virgohanna, the incredibly rough bolder strewn site of the launch of Andree’s ill-fated balloon adventure. We wandered among the rubble of the explorers’ dreams in this eerie place with bones strewn about amid the wreckage of the camps from polar bears opening the graves and raiding the coffins.
It was quiet remarkable to be immersed in a landscape so epic and immense that even the snow-capped mountains seem small and insignificant because of the scale of the scene. The seascape was so enormous that when we saw a big storm front scud across the sea, it seemed tiny in comparison.
During the trip I felt privileged to watch some masters of photography at work and learn from them as they generously shared their knowledge and expertise.
On the last afternoon before we returned to Longyearbyen we hiked up a beautiful mountain and surveyed the distant snowcapped peaks over the water, the tundra dotted with reindeer, an arctic fox trotting calming across the hillside down to meet some of our group below on the tundra, still in her darker summer coat turning to white as autumn advanced.
We were able to walk with reindeer so chilled about our presence that they would almost walk over you if you were lying down to photograph them and they decided to walk in your direction!
On the final day, after docking in Longyearbyen, we went on a hike for a few wonderful hours through the rocks and tundra watching majestic adult reindeer and adorable babies.
Then we were lucky enough to see an Arctic fox trot across the mountain sides above us foraging for food.
Then the most amazing experience to end…..the magic of an arctic fox, wild and wary but unafraid, coming so close that all we could do was put our cameras down, grin delightedly at one another and marvel at the close encounter with this delicate looking beautiful creature tough enough to endure the harshest of winters.
These are but a taste of the incredible experiences we had in Svalbard. This is a land of almost unimaginable scale and splendor, a place of exploration, bravery and struggle, timeless in its grandeur and beauty and one of the last great wildernesses of the world.
A place of fun, friendship, and adventure and a place none of us will ever forget.
A huge thank you to Gerry from Wild Eye and Rupert from Blue Planet Expeditions for being the most wonderful hosts and guides you could ask for and for giving us all such an amazing experience.
To my fellow travellers – thank you for making this expedition even more wonderful than I could have imagined and I hope to travel with you again in the future!
Footnote: Polar Bear Image
Seeing the polar bear in Magdalena Fjord was an incredible thing to see and yet also heart breaking. The bear was in very poor condition after a summer spent on the land. This magnificent and highly specialised bear has adapted to hunting seals on the pack ice and when on land can only scavenge for carrion, birds and bird’s eggs, they may also eat some grass, kelp, or berries. This means that bears that are stranded on the land eat very little until they can return to the ice. With the climate changing the ice is receding further and further and the time the polar bears are stranded on land becomes longer and longer. This is very hard on the bears and means that many do not survive to return to the ice. This is particularly difficult for the females and cubs. The female almost always dens on land (to keep her cubs safe from males who generally stay on the sea ice) and the cubs are born between late November and early January. The female would normally rely on being able to emerge from her den and hunt on the sea ice near the land for a time before being restricted to land for the summer. It is incredibly hard for the female now that often there is no sea ice near the land when she emerges with the cubs, leaving her to produce milk to feed the cubs for a longer and longer summer with no for herself food. There is a trend now towards females having fewer cubs and far fewer cubs are surviving to maturity. Sadly the struggle faced by the bears and all the other animals of the Arctic is very real and quite obvious. Climate change is warming their Arctic habitat faster than any other place on Earth, with devastating consequences and this trend is projected to continue. If going to the Arctic cannot convince you of this and the need to act now, nothing can. I do hope with all my heart that we can do what is needed to preserve this incredible wilderness and its wonderful and unique wildlife.
Thanks for sharing Sarah!! Look forward to our next adventure together. Make sure to go and check out Sarah’s Intagram feed here for more of her amazing wildlife images.
Until next time.
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