After the first three days of our 2014 Svalbard Expedition and a pretty rough night at sea, we were ready for more.
After a night of heavy weather and rolling around in our bunks we met for breakfast. The stormy seas we experienced on the West coast of Svalbard during the evening couldn’t dampen our spirits and everybody was ready for our next morning excursion. We were in a secluded fjord on the North Eastern corner of Svalbard and our morning Zodiac cruise would take us to a bird cliff where thousands of Kittiwakes were nesting.
The water was calm, the skies covered with a thin layer of cloud, and the everything was set for another great morning of photography.
As we arrived on shore we helped Ronald, our expedition leader, pull the Zodiac onto shore and started prepping our photographic gear for what was to follow. Apart from the bird cliff, the chunks of blue ice that was scattered on the beach and around the fjord made for mind blowing visuals.
Our photographic focus for the morning was the large bird cliff which was inhabited by thousands of Kittiwakes, a part of the gull family. The sound was amazing and as we approached the cliff, we knew we were in for a great morning of photography.
Ronald and Rupert, our specialist guide, was always on the watch for Polar Bears which meant that we could pay all of our attention to the job at hand – wildlife photography.
I have had the privilege to photograph some amazing scenes but this place was almost overwhelming in it’s beauty, and I couldn’t help myself step back from my camera every now and then just to suck up the moment. To see our guests being completely consumed by the moment was as special as ever.
The Kittiwakes did not disappoint and in-between their feeding, mating and occasional fights, we were able to get some incredible images.
As with any photographic safari. you should always look for and focus on the small things as well.
While sitting in the snow photographing the feathered chaos on the cliffs, we spotted the only songbird in Svalbard, the Snow Bunting. Throughout the trip we tried to get some images of this little bird and the bird cliffs lived up to it’s name as the shutters kept clicking and the images kept rolling in.
We had yet to see a Polar Bear on this trip, but we would rather find it rather than one of them find us. During our photographic activities on land, Rupert and Ronald were always on duty and making sure we were safe.
After a good hour or so we started splitting up and while some people stayed at the cliffs, some of us moved to the beach where there were more opportunities to photograph the Kittiwakes as they flew in from the water or pay more attention to the amazing icy landscapes!
People were all in their own little photographic worlds – a great place to be – so I decided to sit on the beach and just, well, sit for a while.
Being a photographer meant that I could not just sit still, and when I noticed the Kittiwakes sitting on the nearby pieces of floating ice, I had no choice but to pick up my camera and start again. Bird photography is challenging at the best of times, but their behaviour was quite evident. As they took off they would fly a small loop and then bypass the piece of ice again while on their way to the cliffs behind me.
Knowing animal behaviour and patterns makes a huge difference as you can plan your shots, so for the next little while this was my little photographic world.
We must have spent a good 3 hours on land before it was time to head back to the boat for lunch. This however did not mean that the photography had to stop as the pieces of blue ice are so visually imposing that you just have to photograph them.
After lunch we raised anchor and started making our way out of the fjord. The amazing visual never stopped and we spent most of the time outside on deck either photographing or just watching the white landscapes pass us by.
Our next stop was a visit to Ny–Ålesund, a small research town where 100 people live during summer and and only 35 during winter. Even though the people do great work and must face some serious challenges in this harsh environment, to me it felt like one of those ghost towns you see in movies where zombies basically kill everybody. That being said it was a fantastic experience to see!
We spent an hour or so visiting one of the research stations, a small museum where I bought the obligatory North Pole fridge magnets – the North Pole is only 1,200 from here – before heading to the edge of town.
One of the very interesting things on this trip was the history and how the various expeditions to travel to and discover the North Pole came through Ny–Ålesund. At the edge of town, which took us about 8 minutes to reach, we headed out towards the large tower from where, in 1926, Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and Umberto Nobile flew with 13 others in the airship “Norge” towards the North Pole.
Even now, with all our advanced technology and clothing, I could not even begin to imagine how these guys did what they did. Truly amazing and this little outing gave everybody a whole new appreciation for the area and the privilege we had of seeing the things we were seeing.
We made our way back to town where we took a few more images of the small, colourful houses before making our way back to the dock to continue our journey towards the pack ice in the North. Having not been killed by zombies, the Ny–Ålesund was a historic eye opener of note.
Back on board, we were out on the deck again searching for wildlife and every once in a while a particular iceberg or piece of ice would catch our attention, such as this one with a Northern Fulmar at the bottom.
We kept sailing, and searching, and after dinner we spent a little more time on deck watching the clouds and landscapes paint incredible pictures before heading off to bed.
It was another incredible day.
Even before breakfast we were out on deck.
We had not yet seen a Polar Bear and even though there was more than enough photographic opportunities and amazing experiences to keep everyone happy, we still wanted to see a Polar Bear. The longer the trip went on the more people came out onto deck to help looking.
Just after breakfast we found…
The two large beasts were very relaxed and after photographing them for a short while decided to move on. The weather was not great and the thick cloud cover and mist made for very cold conditions out on deck. We were bound to see more Walrus on the ice so the decision was made to move on.
In between all the photography we had various presentations on board which ranged from photographic and post processing by Andrew and myself to Polar Bear and history lectures by Rupert and Ronald. Just before lunch, Rupert did an incredible presentation on Polar Bears and Bears in general. It is often said that the more you know the better it gets and this was definitely the case. Even though, but this time, we still had not seen a Bear the information on how they live and what to look for added huge value.
After lunch the clouds started lifting which made for great scenes around the ship.
We kept moving through the ice and eventually found…
This guy was quite photogenic and made for some very funny photographic moments, so after spending some time with him we once again made our way in search of larger, whiter, more furry animals.
The rest of the day was pretty quiet and at around 23h00 we decide to call it. The guys on the bridge were always on the lookout and should a Bear be spotted during the evening they would wake us, so after a few more images of the incredible textures and colours it was bed time.
As I opened the door and stepped outside a few Fulmars, who were swimming around the ship, took off.
The sky was beautiful, the water dead quiet as we got ready to continue our search.
As we sailed through the ice we continued to scan the area for Bears. The vastness of the landscape makes this quite difficult but the power of possibility is what kept us going.
Then we saw this.
In this part of the world these birds are very similar to Vultures or Crows in Africa and are normally found close to Bears where they scavenge of their kills.
Where we getting closer? We continued to scan the horizon with a new enthusiasm when we spotted something.
It wasn’t a Bear but it was definitely a step in the right direction.
We could not see what it was but the red colour of a kill was unmistakable.
If there wasn’t a bear on the kill we were definitely getting closer.
We sailed towards the area of the kill when, off to the side we saw it.
Our first Polar Bear!
The moment of seeing your first Polar Bear really is quite unique and, I believe, one of the truly special experiences in nature. Incredible!!
As we got closer the Bear got up, shook itself off and posed for what was the first of our real Polar Bear images of the expedition.
Great light, great subject. The unspoken, subtle tension that was building had been broken and we were all in our happy place – behind a camera with the largest land predator in our viewfinders.
As excited as we were, our first bear didn’t really want play with us and made himself comfortable behind a pile of snow and, after checking us out one more time, went back to sleep.
Now knowing where he was, the Captain swung the ship around so that we could go and check out the kill which was about 400 meters from where the Bear was sleeping.
As we arrived we could see that the carcass was that of a whale of sorts. Everybody’s first thought was Beluga, which is more common in the area, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a Narwhal! This was quite incredible as they are very rare in the area and, even though it was a dead one, it was the first one many of the crew had seen in Svalbard.
Knowing our Bear was not far away, we decided to spend some time with the frenzied bird activity on the carcass. The Glaucous Gulls owned the area and managed to keep most other species away as they fed on their rare meal.
As we turned the boat around again to return to our Bear, we spotted some Bear tracks which were going in a completely different direction.
Could this be another Bear or has our Bear been doing quite a bit of a walkabout?
We were all on deck scanning the area as the Captain skillfully followed the tracks. It wasn’t too long before we saw our second Polar Bear.
The shutters were going as this Bear made his way towards the Narwhal carcass. The possibility of the two Bears meeting up was very real and could make for some interesting photo opportunities. We decided to stick to the moving Bear as we could just see the other one sleeping where we had left him.
The photography was awesome but eventually we saw that the two would not meet up. It seemed that the two Bears were very aware of each other and were taking turns to feed on the Narwhal. Rupert’s insight into this situation was invaluable and added a lot of depth to the experience, again showing the value of a knowledgable, experienced guide on a photo safari.
Our second Bear veered off and walked away from us, so we decide to make our way back to Bear number one who was busy waking up and looked like he wanted to head back to the kill.
Our Bear was indeed heading back to the kill and by the time we got there, we were in for some amazing wildlife photography.
Even looking past the Narwhal being a very very rare species in these parts, this was an incredible scene.
The Bear must have fed for a good 30 minutes before heading off and swimming away to an ice pack not far away.
We were ecstatic! Not only had we finally found Polar Bears but the sighting, photography and unique nature of what we saw was next level. We compared some images on the back of our cameras and decided to move on. Having spent the best part of the day with these two Bears we were ready to continue our adventure.
Not too long after leaving the Bears we bumped into this.
This Walrus, not the biggest one we’ve seen was looking a bit ‘off” and as we moved around him we saw why.
From the injuries all over his neck and back it seemed that he was the lucky survivor of a Polar Bear attack. Could it have been one of our Bears who missed out here? Either way, the incredible nature of the Arctic ecosystem and how harsh and unforgiving it can be was evident for all to see.
It was already quite late, we had already had dinner, and seeing we were quite far North of land the crew decided that we would just spend the night in the pack ice.
They placed, for lack of a better word, the front part of the vessel on a thick piece of ice and that would then be where we spent the night. Before heading to bed we were in for another great experience – walking on the pack ice!
As you step onto the ice your head does strange things. Remember, there is no land or rocks underneath the ice, and we were walking on snow covered ice only.
It was an awesome experience and apart from a few wet feet and slips here and there it was a great way to end another memorable day in the arctic. We had found bears, the photography was amazing and our group was laughing more than I have on any other trip I have done.
Our expedition was already a massive success but it wasn’t over yet.
We still had another three days to go.
To be continued…
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
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