Trip Report: Svalbard 2014 (Day 7 to 10)

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

On day 6 we left our two Polar Bears and Narwhal carcass and fell asleep in the pack ice North of Svalbard.

In case you haven’t been following along you can read the first instalments of our Svalbard trip report by using the links below:

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Day 7

Still locked in the ice, some of us woke up early to photograph the sun at it’s lowest point.

The soft light, slightly diffused through a layer of cloud, made for an almost ethereal scene at just after 01h00 in the morning.  The silence mimicked the mood and was almost overpowering.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

After spending half an hour or so on deck, we headed back to bed to catch up on a bit of sleep which didn’t last all that long.

We woke up again a few hours later as the engine started earlier than originally planned.  Throughout the night the pack ice moved around and our vessel was dislodged from it’s overnight spot on the ice.  With the ice moving around faster than you would expect, the captain decided it would be better to move away from the area rather than risk getting stuck and having to fight our way out of the ice later on.

We were not very far from where we left our Polar Bears the day before, and decided to head back in that direction to see if we could find them again.  Remember though, we were quite close from an actual GPS location point of view, but this environment is dynamic and the movement of the ice can change the landscape literally overnight.   Think of it as a whole bunch of white puzzle pieces that all almost fit together and then get shuffled around every now and then.

Luck, and great weather, was with us and within the first hour of sailing we spotted one of our bears.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

It was great to have found one so early in the morning and the photography was awesome.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

We stayed with our bear for quite some time and followed him around, hoping we would again get some action on the Narwhal carcass.  As it turned out, the ice moved around quite a bit during the evening and we didn’t find the carcass but there was still quite a few birds in the area so we continued to do what we do – wildlife photography!

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

When it became evident that we were not going to find the carcass and that our bear did not have any intention of doing much, we decided to call it and move on.  As we started moving away, our Polar Bear, the last one we would see on this trip, settled in for another nap in the early morning arctic sun.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

There were reports of potential bad weather from the North West so after breakfast we were out on deck again looking for any potential photographic opportunities before we lost our sunlight..  In Svalbard this is not difficult as the landscapes are always changing and make for incredible images anytime during the trip.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Not being a real hardcore landscape photographer, I was always looking out for other opportunities involving wildlife, but I did quite enjoy the wide angle stuff and playing with photographing the landscapes.  Was great to see one of the guests, Stephen, shoot a lot of amazing landscapes and the lines and textures he captured was quite inspirational, art in fact.  Absolutely stunning.

Svalbard is the kind of place where, even as a serious or professional nature photographer, you need to put your camera down every now and then to just experience it.  The feelings and emotions that are evoked by the harsh landscapes and, at times, very inhospitable conditions, don’t push you away but rather pulls you deeper into one of the most amazing places I have ever been to.  Quite often you would see some of the guests, and even the staff, take some time, a quiet moment for themselves and without a camera just stand on deck and suck up the privilege of being, literally, on top of the world.

After lunch we were back on the zodiacs to explore, from an amazingly low perspective, the quiet waters of another beautiful fjord.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

We followed some fresh looking Polar Bear tracks along one of the steep mountains, but eventually they disappeared over the crest of the mountain.  Our focus turned back to birds and landscapes which just never disappoints.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

As with when you visit the Chobe and photograph from a dedicated boat, approaching animals from the water leaves them way more relaxed than if you were foot.  This meant that we could get nice and close to many of the birds we were photographing and you could get away with a focal length of around 200mm.

Searching along the shore and eventually in the drift ice, we were able to get some amazing bird images like this one from Tristan.  Great image!

Being out on the open water is cold.  Very, very cold, so after a good two hours out we made a call to head back to the boat and as we approached there was yet another incredible scene that just begged to be photographed.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

We had a warm drink and dinner and then started heading back in a Westerly direction which would take us into the bad oncoming weather, but get us closer to more areas to explore.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

After dinner we stayed up for a drink or two and then called it a day as the clouds were getting thicker outside and the snow started falling again.

Day 8

After breakfast it was time for another Zodiac trip and we were ready to conquer the cold, cloudy weather waiting for us.  There was some light snow falling – but we weren’t there for a haircut – so wrapped up warm and ventured forth.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

As we hit the ice we spotted a seal in the distance.

We have not had too many opportunities to photograph seals from the Zodiac and since the younger ones sometimes dive under quite quickly, we got ready and slowly made our approach.  Before we were even able to correctly identify our subject, it slipped off the ice but not before we at least got a proof shot.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

With colour variations at different ages and many different types of seals, it was very challenging to, even at this distance, correctly identify this youngster.  After waiting for a while to see if he would pop back onto another piece of ice, we moved along to where a small flock of Common Eider’s were sitting on the ice.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

These guys were, from a photography point of view, awesome to find as they are very photogenic and behaviourally, each time they take off, circle around and  land close to where they took off.   As they flew past us and landed the shutters went crazy and we got some amazing images.

Having access to two Zodiacs for sightings was great and made for enough space on each boat to pan with movement, get really low angles with plenty of space for all our equipment.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

By this time after having spent a lot of time with the Eiders, it was absolutely freezing.  The temperature reading from the bridge was -10 degrees Celsius so it was quite an easy decision to, once our Eiders took off for good, head back to the boat for lunch.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

After lunch we did a quick presentation on sharpening.  It was great to see how easy people were grasping Lightroom and some of them, who have never even though of processing their images, were creating some amazing final images.  Lightroom’s streamlined user interface is amazing, and just again reminded me why so many photographers use this software to process their images.

With the snow coming down ever harder, we got quite comfortable in the lounge as the Lightroom-ing continued.  Every once in a while we would pop out onto the deck and scan the surroundings, and then we spotted them.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

A group of walruses all huddled together on a piece of floating ice.

As mentioned in a previous post, these lumbering beasts are awesome to photograph but in this setting with calm waters and snowflakes adding mood to the scene, we were in for a great shooting session.  It might have been cold outside but the photography was smoking hot and everybody got some amazing images!

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

We played with everything from slow shutter speeds to multiple exposures, and looking back this was one of the best photography sessions of the trip.  Great interaction, lovely soft light and fantastic subjects all made for great wildlife photography.

After leaving the Ugly of Walruses – yes that’s the collective noun – the snowfall continued to get more intense.

Before dinner we spent some more Lightroom time and in between all the snow and Arctic wildlife, worked through some portfolio and competition images for Tristan and Karen.  Was kinda surreal sitting at the top of the world, everything covered in snow, while working through African wildlife images.  Was awesome to see their images and be able to appreciate them with a slightly different point of view.

We continued in a Westerly direction and after dinner spent a little bit of time scanning around for more photo opportunities.  In the end we called it, but not before taking one last image of a small trapper’s hut which again reminded us, purely by looking at it, how harsh the environment around is was.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Day 9

It was cold and snowing quite hard but that was not going to stop us.  We found ourselves on the South Western coast of Svalbard scanning for wildlife with a particular interest in the numerous bird cliffs where we might find Puffins.  These colourful little guys always feature quite high up on the list of species people want to photograph in Svalbard.

Conditions were not ideal but we kept on looking and scanning the cliffs with our binoculars.  In between all of this we focused on photographing some of the landscapes and other story telling images to show the environment of Svalbard at this time of year.

Some of the steep bird cliffs had quite a bit of exposed rocks which made for great contrast in the images.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

After lunch we were all on deck not only scanning for Puffins, but also to see one of the largest glaciers in Europe.

The conditions outside hadn’t changed all that much yet but we kept on shooting and, at this stage of the trip, nothing could spoilt the experience.  In fact, the heavy weather added to the sense of expedition, of adventure, and having to get dressed up each time you leave the comfort of the ship added it’s own unique charm to the experience.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

As we continued our search for puffins, the sun started fighting through the clouds.

The forecast for tomorrow, our last day, was very promising so perhaps this was the start of a great finish to the expedition.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Just after dinner the bridge let us know that they have spotted a few Puffins flying past the ship.

That was all the motivation we needed and an instant we were out on deck with our tripods and cameras ready for action.  The little birds did not make it easy for us and a few did fly by – with some people getting some pretty cool shots – but in the end we settled for cool sightings as they bulleted past the ship and solid proof shots.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

As the sun continued to struggle with the clouds, we called it a day and headed off to bed with a collection of different images from the day to compliment an already very diverse collection from our Arctic adventures.

Day 10

We woke up as the ship started heading into the fast ice in front of a glacier, and as we came out on deck this was the view to the back of the ship.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

It was an absolutely beautiful day in the Arctic!

On this morning, the last day of our trip, there was a calm vibe on board and a lot of people were just happy to just be outdoors and to suck up the experience.

There was no wind, the skies were almost poetic and the landscape around us was perfect.  I cannot recall ever experiencing a scene that was so pure, vast and overwhelming all at the same time.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

We stopped in the ice for breakfast and then headed straight back out onto deck to scan for wildlife and just soak up as much of the Arctic as we can.

As we left the fast ice, we started prepping for our last Zodiac ride which would take us alongside a massive, South facing bird cliff.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Our goal was Puffins but the diversity of birds on the cliff was quite spectacular.  Facing South, this cliff had loads of sun and was the perfect nesting site for a large number of Little Auks, Guillemots and Kittiwakes.

We spent a good two hours drifting along the base of the mountain while grabbing whatever shots we could, scanning for Puffins or just laying flat down in the Zodiac staring at the harsh beauty of the cliff.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

On our third pass by the cliff we spotted one.

Not a Puffin.

A white Arctic Fox.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

The Fox was almost right at the top of the cliff foraging around.  Again I was blown away how any mammal can actually survive, never mind thrive, in a place like this.  You just gotta love nature!

We finally decided to give up on Puffins, even though we still saw a few fly by the boat, and head back to the vessel.

A few Northern Fulmars welcomed us back from our last excursion before we enjoyed a traditional Swedish lunch on the back deck of the boat.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

We had one more fjord to visit before heading back to Longyearbyen, and as we sailed everybody was out on deck.

Scanning the ice in front of us you could see little black specks scattered all over the ice.

Seals.

Lots and lots of seals and as we got closer we passed a few of their breathing and diving holes.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

As we scanned the horizon we saw at least three different species of Seal as well as an Arctic Fox trotting along the ice.  The captain turned the engines off and, for one last time we just enjoyed the silence as a nearby Bearded Seal kept an eye on us.

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Our trip had come to an end and our last dinner was a wonderful way to end a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

From day one the people in our group clicked and, I think I might have mentioned this before, I have never laughed as much on any other trip I have been on.

If there is anything that I will always remember about our 2014 Svalbard Expedition it is without a doubt – the people!

Gerry van der Walt - Svalbard Photography

Yes, we saw amazing things.  Yes, the photography was next level.   Yes, the entire experience is worthy of bucket list status but in this case the whole was much bigger than the sum of all the parts and it was the people that was the special ingredient!

A huge thanks to Ronald and Rupert for your endless attention and information, the staff of the M/S Stockholm who went above and beyond and to everybody who joined Andrew and I on this adventure.

Reading through this post now I almost feel bad for using so many superlatives but Svalbard is like that.  It overwhelms the senses, get under your skin and I think it changes you.  It makes you see that there is a different world out there that, harsh as it might seem, is frighteningly fragile.

By visiting and creating images of this amazing place we have, in a very small way, created an awareness that I hope will not only make you want to visit but also to help protect the white wonderland at the top of the world

If you are keen to join me in Svalbard on our 2015 Polar Expedition drop me an email or stay tuned tuned to the Wild Eye Facebook page as we will be releasing the details for our next expedition in the next few weeks.  And yes, it’s worth it!

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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