Trip Report: 2013 Svalbard Photo Safari (Day 7 to 10)

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

After a few weeks of travel I have finally found some time to work through images for the final part of my Svalbard trip report.

So, if you haven’t yet check out  the first and second parts of the trip report, grab a cup of coffee and join me for the last few days of a trip that left me in awe.

So after quite some time, here we go…

Day 7

We were well into the second half of our Svalbard Photo Safari and after a pretty quiet day 6, we met for breakfast after which the photographic goal  for the morning was… walruses!

Up until this point we have not had too many opportunities to photograph walruses but as soon as we got off the zodiacs we knew that this was about to change.

The clouds were opening up and there was an ugly of walruses – yes that’s what it’s called – on the far side of the beach, so the next few hours of our morning, photographically speaking, had just been filled up.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Now personally I find walruses pretty… strange.

They’re large, smelly and they just lay there not doing much and initially I was not too excited about photographing them.

Oh boy, was I wrong.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife PhotographyGerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

We spent a good 4 hours on the beach photographing these massive beasts from every conceivable angle and it was awesome.  We shot everything from portraits and abstracts to wider shots of the group of walruses on the beach and scenes of the large, lumbering mammals making there way from the ocean to their communal resting spot.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

I always love to see how people get lost in the moment when they are on a photo safari.  Initially there is a buzz of excitement as you get to know your subjects but then, a little while later, a calm descends and everybody gets stuck into their own photography, their own little photographic world.

It is great to see!

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

The amazing thing on this trip, and every other photo safari, was the amount of photographic opportunities available at pretty much any point in time.  This is especially true if you are in your photographic world and look at nature with the intention of creating images for yourself, and as we were walking back to the zodiacs we found ourselves pointing our cameras at some Arctic Terns who were hunting on the shore.

Bright white clouds in the sky.

White and black bird flying around.

Yes, the shutters were clicking away!

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

When we got back to the boat, lunch was served and we set sail for the famous bird cliffs in the Hinlopen Straight, a nesting site of more than 200,000 common Guillemots.

Sometime during the afternoon we had visual of a single polar bear on top of a glacier but it was very far away so we spent a few minutes photographing the female, who stood up once just to find a new resting spot, before continuing on our way.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Most people spent the afternoon having a nap or working through their images.  The ocean was pretty calm and the mood on the boat was very chilled and relaxed as the photographic action thus far exceeded most people’s expectations.

The plan was to get to the bird cliffs just after dinner, shoot from the deck for a while and then go out on the zodiacs to get nice and up close to all the action.

We arrived just after 21h00.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Even from a few miles away you could start seeing the chaos in the sky and the noise got more and more intense.

The cliffs on their own are prety damn spectacular but initially the true spectacle of almost half a million birds is difficult to comprehend.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Until you get a little closer…

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

You would imagine that with so many photographic subjects around the photography would be easy, but damn… there is so much going on that it was actually quite difficult, at least initially, to focus on any particular shots.

As we approached the cliffs you could not help but shoot birds in flight and I can tell you that we shot them in every conceivable way possible.  Once we anchored the zodiacs were launched and from here the real fun started.

With the zodiacs we got, literally, within touching distance of the cliffs which not only made for incredible photo opportunities but was an experience that blew me away.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

See the Zodiac at the bottom left of the screen?  Yeah, the cliffs are huge!

We spent a good three hours drifting next to the cliffs photographing the Guillemots.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

With the number of birds versus the number of little ledges on the cliffs you can just imagine that there must be quite a bit of arguments and territorial ‘discussions’.  As we watched the continuous take offs and landings two males, who had just engaged in one of these discussions crashed into the water close to us.  The action, both photographically and otherwise was awesome!

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

These two Guillemots were seriously upset with each other and went at it for a good 5 minutes.  And they did not hold back!!

After they finally called it quits we noticed a number of other fights breaking out but none lasted as long as this one.

We continued working our way along the base of the cliffs and the photography just kept going.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

This was my last image of day 7 of our trip but since the sun never sets during this time of year, we just kept going…

Day 8

After another hour or so of Guillemot photography, and we got some awesome images, we started heading back to the boat.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

We got back to the boat around 02h00 and made our way directly to the dining room for tea and crackers, our standard post-zodiac-trip snacks.  It was a thing of beauty.

By now our idea of day and night was a bit messed up and most people ended up sleeping through breakfast.  Lunch was spent on the open ocean as we made our way west towards the Monaco glacier, where our next zodiac excursion would take place.

After lunch some people went back to bed but everybody ended up back on deck when a Blue Whale was spotted.  The world’s largest animal was always on our wish list  but to see one for myself was an amazing experience.  Even Roy, an experienced Svalbard guide, had only seen a Blue Whale once before so we all knew how special this was.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

We spent a good hour or so moving along with the massive animal before continuing on our way.  I did a post about this sighting in this blog post.

The rest of the our afternoon was pretty chilled and the plan was to have dinner before hitting, photographically speaking, the Monaco Glacier.

You can just imagine the excitement of the South Africans on board when we heard that dinner would be… a braai!

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

A braai, for those of you that have not had the pleasure, is basically a barbeque where you grill meat on an open fire.  Yes, it is awesome!

I remember standing at the back of the boat, having a beer, next to a braai and looking out over snow-capped Arctic mountains – it was priceless!!

With our braai done and dusted it was time to wrap up, board the zodiacs and once again head out in search of photographic opportunities.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

The initial stages of the zodiac trip was a little bit rough and very cold but it was most definitely not enough to, excuse the pun, dampen our spirits!

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

The goal for this trip was blue ice.

And yes, we got blue ice!

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

The colour of the large floating pieces of ice is almost hypnotic and the bright, diffused light made the blues so much more deep and intense.  It was beautiful.

Once we had some landscapes we started looking for subjects to photograph on or in front of the blue ice.  First prize would be seals or, dare we even think it, polar bears but we started with what we could find.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

The diversity of birds on and around the glaciers was quite astounding and we had many great photo opportunities.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

The Ivory Gull, above, was one of our target species for the trip and during this zodiac trip we had incredible photo opps of this pure white gull.

After about 3 (very cold) hours, and no polar bears or seals, we started making our way back to the boat, and as we made our way back I took the last image of day 8 of our arctic adventure.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

Day 9

As we got back to the boat I spent some time on deck shooting the mountains around the glacier.

Coming from Africa snow holds a unique fascination and I was continually amazed at the simple beauty of the area around us.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

As we sailed out I took one more image of the drama we were leaving behind.

Gerry van der Walt -Wildlfe Photography

The rest of the evening and good part of the next morning was spent sailing west and eventually south down the west coast of Svalbard.  This meant another relaxed day either sleeping or sorting out images.

After dinner it was again time for a quick zodiac trip with the goal being Long-Tailed Jaeger, one of only Skuas we have not seen on the trip thus far, and hopefully some seals on ice.

We didn’t have to go too far before hitting our first target.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

The ice and mountainous backdrops made for amazing photography and we spent a lot of time circling our subjects as we worked the scene for unique and different images.

We continued deeper into the fjord, and towards a large blue glacier and then we spotted him…

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

He was still very far off but we started thinking and talking seal photography.  What to look for, how to photograph them and how the guides will approach in order to give us our best angles.

This old Bearded Seal was, and we could tell this from pretty far off, not keen on being photographed and kept on lifting his head as we slowly approached.   Eventually he decided that he was not interested and slid beneath the blue waters never to be seen again.

As we continued to move towards the glacier, we moved closer to the shore and ticked off two new species for the trip.  The photo opps were not great but half the fun on a photo safari is seeing animals in their natural environment and this was no different.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Both the Arctic Fox and Svalbard Reindeer made for great sightings but did not really play along photographically so we decided to keep heading to the glacier in search of another seal.

As we got closer we came around one of the larger pieces of drift ice and we saw him…

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

This young Bearded Seal was extremely relaxed and, compared to the large guy earlier on, was very happy for us to approach.

Our guides manoeuvred  the zodiacs through the ice stopping every now and then for us to get a few shots just in case the young seal changed his mind about being photographed.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

What followed was one of the best ‘photo shoots’ of the trip as we spend a fantastic, all be it freezing, hour with the seal.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

This youngster was so chilled, (apologies for the pun) and had absolutely no issue with us circling him to get some amazing images!

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

By the time we decided to head back to the ship my hands and feet were absolutely freezing but this could not take away from the amazing photographic experience we had just had.  The Polar Bears in the beginning of the trip were awesome but this little guys was stunning!

I shot the last image of the seal at 01h57 so by the time we got back to the boat it was tea and cracker time followed closely by bedtime.

It was the end of our last full day of the trip.

Day 10

After very little sleep we met for breakfast and got ready for an impromptu zodiac trip to photograph another ugly of walruses.

It was a quick ride to the island and we ended up spending around 2 hours photographing the massive, lumbering beasts.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

Apart from the one large guy that made his way from the water to the pile of walrus on the beach, there was not to much going on.  We stayed for a little while and then made our way back to the boat as after lunch we had one more stop to get to before wrapping up our adventure in Longyearbjen.

As we set out on the zodiacs we sailed through a pod of about 100 Beluga Whales and even though there were no real photo opportunities it was absolutely amazing ‘being  part’ of their world.  We sat for a while watching them interact before heading on to our final island visit of the trip.

We got off the zodiacs and saw this…

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

The misty, lush green island was in stark contrast to the white world of ice where we had spent the last few days.

Our goal on this island?  Reindeer on foot and an Arctic Fox den.  As we approached the island we could already see a small group of reindeer so we headed off towards them first.  As we walked up to them, you could see that they were very chilled so we enjoyed a good hour or so walking around and photographing them.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

In an area with almost no predators, apart from the occasional Polar Bear, I was amazed at how the Reindeer fed.

They would literally drop there head and just keep going.  Even as we walked around them they would only give us half a look and carry on.  Compare this to a grazing animal in Africa who barely has two bites before lifting their head to look around.

We decided that it was time to head back down the hill to go and try our luck at the Arctic Fox den.

Yes, we were lucky.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

As we approached we could see two tiny youngsters playing around the entrance to the den.

They were very aware of us but calm enough to carry on and do their thing as our shutters clicked away.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

It was time to head back to the boat for dinner so we started packing up our gear and reluctantly moved back to the zodiacs.

On our way back people took the time to get some grab shots of the landscapes and scenes such as this.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

I also felt inclined, when we saw him, to take a picture of this little guy.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

The Snow Bunting, I found out afterwards is the only songbird in the Arctic.  Who knew?

So back we went onto the zodiacs and we started heading back to the boat for the last time.  As it always is at this stage of  trip, people started getting quiet as they started reflecting on the past 10 days.

We were about 5 minutes from the boat when we spotted one of the species that, up until now, we have seen but had been unable to get decent shots of.  So there we were… sitting flat on the zodiac with 600mm lenses pointing at the Puffin a few feet away.

It took a few attempts as the waves made for interesting up and down movement – and we were always up when the Puffin was down, or vice versa – but in the end everybody got the shots they wanted.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photographer

And that was that.

The photographic part of our trip was done.  All that was left was the Captain’s dinner to wrap up the trip.  After that we said goodbye to most of the people who would leave the boat just after midnight for their flight home.  A few of us spent the night on board and then, after a relatively emotional goodbye to the ship staff, disembarked.

Thinking back now, and looking through some of the images from the trip, I again realised how special Svalbard is. It is an absolutely mind-blowing experience and regardless of how many wildlife reserves in Africa you have visited, it ranks as one of the top wildlife photographic destinations in the world!

Svalbard touched me deep inside and made me reassess my own photography in a big way.  Whether a different approach or a newfound respect and appreciation for the scenes and subjects I photograph, Svalbard made a serious impression and I cannot wait to get back there next year.

A huge thanks goes to Roy Mangersnes of Wild Photo Travel for his assistance with all the ground handling and logistics on the boat.  Roy is an absolutely amazing photographer and working with him and Ole in arranging the trip was an absolute pleasure.  They are amazing at what they do!  Thanks also goes to Martin Enckell who, as our specialist guide, who knows his stuff and is an absolute pleasure to be around.

To all the guests that we met on board, it was an absolute pleasure sharing this adventure with you and look forward to sharing some more time in the field with you in future!

So that is it.

My 2013 Svalbard experience is now officially over.  It was without a doubt the highlight of 2013 and I cannot wait to, when I find a moment, to get stuck into the images from this amazing adventure.

So, will Wild Eye be returning to Svalbard next year?

And the year after? And after that?

Based on the image and stories in my trip reports… what do you think???

Stay tuned for more…

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

  • Check out part 1 here: http://bit.ly/svalbard1-3
  • Check out part 2 here: http://bit.ly/svalbard4-6
  • Join the 2014 trip here: http://bit.ly/svalbard2014
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Until next time!

Gerry van der Walt

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