Long Beach Animal Hospital Informational Articles

Back to Borneo

Dateline: October 2012

In 1991 I went to Borneo to work with the orangutans in the rain forest at Tanjung Puting National Park. It was a fascinating trip that I have chronicled on this web site already. Reading about this prior trip will allow you to get a good perspective when you read this page on my recent trip. You can access my 1991 trip by clicking here.

Hard to believe it has been several decades since I examined this little guy, or should I say, he examined me!

 In 1991 I never dreamed I would go back, so my trip in October of 2012 was part nostalgia and part new adventure. I am glad I went back to see the changes and experience it all over again.

 What I encountered on this trip were a group of dedicated individuals taking action to help this highly endangered species.  Most were local Indonesians, the rest were volunteers from all over the world. They are putting forth substantial time and effort to save the orangutans in the face of strong palm oil and timber interests that are devastating the forest and all the creatures that live there. The future for these creatures is not good and they need help from all of us.

Since several people have asked, this is the same place that Julia Roberts went to in 1997 when she made her Camp Leakey video seen on TV. The dominant male at that time, who physically accosted her, was Kusasi. You have to wonder why the director let her get anywhere near this powerful animal and risk physical injury.

Present day Borneo

Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world, is made up of 3 countries; Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest of these 3 countries. The Indonesian part of Borneo is also known as Kalimantan. We were in the southern part of Kalimantan near a town called Pangalan Bun. We stayed with a Dayak family just outside of Pangalan Bun in a smaller town called Pasir Panjang. We stayed here because it was across the street from the Orangutan Rehabilitation and Care Center, and we could literally walk there in 5 minutes.

Since I sometimes get blank stares when I tell people I went to Borneo.  Here is a big picture map for the geographically challenged!

Borneo is on the equator, so there are no seasons like we are used to (except rainy and rainier), and it is hot and humid all the time

This map shows the 3 countries that make up Borneo. The green arrow in Tanjung Puting National Park points out where we spent all of our time

This map shows more details of the area and Tanjung Puting National Park:

From Jakarta we flew into Pangalan Bun (you can see the airport symbol).

We stayed at a house in Pasir Panjang (PP on the map) for 2 weeks

I took 2 boat rides up the Sekonyer river, past 2 Feeding Stations (FS) and all the way to Camp Leakey (CL)

In Borneo you will encounter many Dayaks, people that have a profound understanding of the rainforest. All are exceptionally friendly. When walking down any street they will shoot past on their scooters (sometimes a family of 4 is on one of these scooters) and yell “hey mister”. It does not matter whether you are male or female, everyone gets the “hey mister” scoot-by. Click on the 6 second video below for an idea of how friendly they are as we walked around.


Some things in Borneo are a constant over the decades:

  • You better like rice because it is served at almost every meal
  • You will be barefoot when indoors (and most of the time in general) because all shoes are kept outside
  • It is hot and humid all the time, so plan on being wet or damp continuously. Your body will start adjusting within a few weeks, although it is draining, and you will move slower just like the local people.
  • Its better to be there in the dry season (late spring to early fall) because there are less mosquitoes, less leeches, and less water to slosh around in when walking in the jungle. On my current trip there was a drought during the summer so we encountered few mosquitoes, which means less chance of exposure to malaria.
  • You are on the equator, so bugs will be a part of your life. They are a fascinating part of life on this planet if you are not squeamish. Do not go to the equator if you find insects icky.

This praying mantis found our fan a convenient place to hang out one night

  • Scooters are the mode of transportation. They drive on the left, although they are reasonably conservative drivers, far removed from drivers in Naples, Italy, where driving is a high speed video game.
  • Fuel is rationed due to a lack of refining capacity, so lines at gas stations are long, and it can take up to 2 hours to fill a small scooter tank.
  • Prices are very inexpensive compared to what we are used to. An hour at an Internet café when we tried to reschedule our flights cost only 40 cents. The room at Pak Sia’s house, which included 3 meals per day, was $100 per person for 2 weeks.
Rupiahs are the local currency. This 50,000 rupiah note is worth a little over $5 US.  To get the best rate exchange your money at the airport in Jakarta.

Pasir Panjing is populated mostly by Dayaks, almost all of whom are related. Whenever any community event is involved everyone is invited, including us. In our 2 weeks we went to two going-away parties and one wedding. Children can walk the dark streets at night without any concern.

We stayed at Pak Sia’s house in Pasir Panjing and were welcomed like we were family.

Pak Sia welcoming us with refreshments upon our arrival

His family welcomes worldwide volunteers that work at the Care Center across the street. These are usually young students or young conservationists, paying for this on their own, so Pak Sia charges them a minimal price for room and board.

His knowledge of the area and the orangutans (he can look at a picture of any orang from decades ago and tell you its name) is impressive

Being a veterinarian, and having been there before, I had access to orangutans at the Care Center that is not available to most people.  This page will show you many pictures of orangutans in the wild and at the Care and Rehabilitation Center outside the park.  Pace yourself, because there is a large amount of information on this page if you follow all the links.

For kicks I will at times contrast photos from my most recent trip to those in 1991. This will give you a good idea of the quality of digital cameras, and illustrate the changes that have occurred over 21 years.

This extensive page has many photos broken down into several major summary sections. Within each of these major sections are links to much more detail on that section:

  • Do you really want to fly this far?– the logistics of getting in and out of Borneo
  • Klotok ride upriver– taking a boat into the rainforest and seeing the wildlife along the way while visiting feeding stations. This section has a special link on the proboscis monkeys and the gibbons, two other primates in the area.
  • Camp Leakey– the final destination on the klotok ride where Dr. Galdikas did her seminal work, and where I spent all of my time over 2 decades ago
  • Doyak and Tom– the dominant males that hang around the feeding area
  • The Orangutan Care and Rehabilitation Center– do not miss this section. Make sure you click on the links for additional photos if you want to see babies, babies, and more babies.
  • Orangutan Foundation International– how to contact them for more information on how you can help the plight of the highly endangered orangutans

This time I brought professional digital camera equipment that was not available in 1991. For you photo fans here are my tools:

  • Canon 5D Mark III- used for most of the static photos, especially the babies at the Care Center and some of the orangs at the feeding stations
  • Canon 1DX- used on the klotok ride upriver, the feeding stations,  and any time I anticipated action shots. I paid off when shooting the proboscis monkeys jumping from tree to tree.
  • Canon 24-105 MM IS lens- used mostly with the 5D Mark III, and mostly at the Care Center and somewhat at the feeding stations
  • Canon 70-200mm F/4 IS lens- used mostly with the 1DX at the feeding stations and on the klotok shooting wildlife along the river
  • Canon 100mm macro with ring flash- used mostly with the 5D Mark III for portrait and insect shots
  • Canon 400 mm f/5.6 lens- used on occasion and with both cameras to shoot wildlife
  • Canon 1.4X teleconverter- used on the 70-200mm f/4 IS with the 1Dx on the klotok rides

Do you really want to fly this far?

Getting there is an adventure in itself.  Borneo is over halfway around the world from California. This is the second time I have flown Cathay Pacific and I find them to be outstanding. The flight leaves Los Angeles at 1:30 AM and arrives in Hong Kong 14 hours later (don’t forget you cross the international date line and lose a day).

Even though it is midnight at LAX, the anticipation of our upcoming trip has us smiling for this photo. From left to right my travel companions are Jade Chang, Ann Ichikawa, and Natalie Hipskind.

The airport in Hong Kong is beautiful, busy, modern, and filled with high end perfume and clothing stores. When you arrive you walk past a nurse with a surgical mask holding a thermometer. She is there to take your temperature if you want. Interesting custom to say the least.

After a 3 hour layover in Hong Kong its another 5 hour flight to Jakarta. We spent the night at the Sheraton in Jakarta before continuing on to Borneo and Pangalan Bun the next day.

We had an interesting time finding the gate to our flight from Jakarta to Pangala Bun then next day. We had an even more substantial problem when our flight back two weeks later was cancelled. For more details on this and to understand how crazy things can get in Borneo, click on this link.

Klotok ride upriver

Even though we stayed  at Pak Sia’s house directly across the street from the Care Center, we did not go to the Care Center for 5 days due to quarantine protocols. We took advantage of the time and took a 3 day klotok ride up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey (I took a second klotok ride a week later). This camp is where I spent all of my time when I was last here 21 years ago to the month.

Taking a klotok upriver is the usual trip for most tourists to watch the semi-wild orangutans being fed and see the wildlife along the river. Many tourists from all over the world take the klotoks up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey. Even though it is touristy, the 2 night 3 day trip is worth it, and a must see for any trip to Borneo.

My klotok in 1991 as we left the port of Kumai and approached the Sekonyer river mouth

The current ones are bigger and nicer

 The wildlife along the Sekonyer river are elusive and move very rapidly. I had to be in front, on the alert, and ready to shoot, to be able to capture the photos you will see on this page.

An interesting animal we saw along the river was the proboscis monkey

Beautiful bird life abounds along the river, including this stork-billed kingfisher

You might even get to pull the tail of a long-tailed macaque as you motor slowly by in the klotok

This is your first chance to see a semi-wild orangutan

When an orangutan approaches keep an eye on your possessions, because their philosophy is “what is yours is mine”

As the sun sets you get your chance to see the flying foxes (huge bats) and even get a firefly show

Camp Leakey

In 1991 I spent all of my time at Camp Leakey and did not go to the Care Center. Much has changed since then, and even though research is ongoing, it is geared more towards ecotourism. It is quite popular for tourists to watch a feeding put on by the park service at the feeding stations.

That platform in the distance is the current entrance to Camp Leakey

The welcoming committee on the dock at Camp Leakey in 1991

The greeting this time was a little more vocal

Keep an eye on those guys in the hairy red outfits- they are sneaky! Oh sure, they look innocent hanging on to a tree and pretending not to notice you.

They wait patiently, and when you are distracted they  execute their plan

While you are looking for your camera they make their move….

….and run behind the klotok

…..and scope out where the pineapples are located

They are career thieves, and the getaway only takes a few seconds

Another group of of sucker tourists robbed by the “pineapple bandit”

Click on the photo below to see lots more of Camp Leakey and the orangutans that are there

Doyak and Tom

Over the course of 2 klotok rides I encountered the 3 dominant (and rival) males in the area; Yani, Tom, and Doyak. We spent the most time with Doyak at a feeding station, although we had an encounter with Tom who decided he did not want us in his territory. We saw Yani as we walked past him while he shook a branch at us in defiance.

This is Doyak.  Click on his photo below to see him in action at the feeding station

This is Tom, click on his picture for more pictures and even a video of him escorting us out of Camp Leakey

Orangutan Care and Rehabilitation Center

The orangutans at the care center range from young to old, and are here for a multitude of reasons. Some have chronic disease and will not survive in the wild. Others are orphans and need a place to call home in the deforested rainforest. Many are only a few years of age. Their mothers were killed because they wandered into the wrong area (usually a palm oil plantation), or their mothers were killed because some citizen wanted a baby orangutan in their house (which is illegal). When this baby is discovered (usually a neighbor rats them out) it is confiscated by the authorities and brought to the care center. The Care Center is not open to the general public.

Some of the babies here are so young they are still in diapers

The dedicated workers are intimately familiar with every baby

They are taken into the forest often to practice their orangutan skills and hopefully be released back into the rainforest

Its fun to hang with them in the forest and watch them play

This is also where they hone their robbery skills for when they graduate to stealing pineapples. They consider any of your possessions to be theirs-you have been warned!

At this stage in their career they start with water bottles. A water bottle is never safe around them, no matter how secure it is in your backpack. 

All they want is the pleasure of bursting your water bottle open in front of you

The goal of this game is not to drink the water, but to tease you into thinking you can get the bottle back

You better be good at climbing trees if you want to get the bottle back

They have strong clinging instincts and are quite powerful for their size when they don’t want to let go. This one was just bottle fed and decided she was not going to let me get away.

Its an understatement to say that working with these babies is an unbelievable experience

This  picture reminds me of one from my first trip

If you are ready for lots more baby pictures, including videos of them in full baby mode, click here and hang on to your possessions.

Some of our group at a going-away-party for the lady in the center who had been volunteering for 6 months. Hopefully we will all meet up again some time!

Orangutan Foundation International (OFI)

It is run by donations and always in need of monetary support to help fend off the palm oil and timber interests. Click on this link to learn more about them and how you can help.

If you have a group that wants a personal slide show on this trip, with photos in much higher resolution than can be shown on this web site, call or email:



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Do you really want to fly to Borneo?

After flying to Jakarta from Los Angeles through Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific we spent a night at the Sheraton Bandara in Jakarta. Its a nice and reasonably priced hotel (for a Sheraton) close to the airport.

 The next day we took a one hour jet flight (it was not a jet in 1991) to Pangalan Bun in Borneo. On my prior trip in 1991 I was warned that this final leg of our journey, from Jakarta to the airport at Pangalan Bun, can be quite unreliable. It will probably take off late, might not take off at all, or might even leave early. Our current flight did leave a few hours late, but that was not a major problem. The fact that we could not quite find our gate is what made things interesting.

Our flight was scheduled for 9:50 AM as you can see from this screen when we checked our bags. When we got to the security area a different screen said the flight was leaving at 8:30 AM. So it was leaving early after all! We scooted to the gate that had our flight.

As you can see from this picture our Trigana Air flight number 708 was gate C3.

We got in line and started boarding at gate C3. When we got to the front we were told our tickets were not for this flight, even though the gate said it was. It was at this time that Jade noticed she had a different flight number on her boarding pass than the rest of us. When we told them of this discrepancy they said “no problem”, and just proceeded to write over the ticket with a pen and tried to turn the 9 into an 8. We shook our heads at each other and said “welcome to Indonesia”!

We are still smiling and enjoying the novelty of our predicament

After one more aborted attempt to board a flight that left an hour later, the ticket agent came up to us and told us that our flight was next. This time we flew a 737 jet, compared to the small propeller plane I flew in 21 years ago.

We made it!

Last time it was not a jet that flew us there, so things have improved (somewhat)

When we arrived we were given a warm welcome by Cas, who arranged transportation for us to Pasir Panjing

That’s Cas on the right. She is a Brit and of course talks in that funny English. She is at the end of a 10 month stint working with the orangs at the Care Center. She had two going-away parties while we were there- a fun one with us (and a few bottles of illegal beer) at Pak Sia’s house, and a formal one with everyone present, including Dr. Galdikas who gave Cas recognition for her dedication.

A note of interest in regards to that flight (the picture of the prop plane above) over two decades ago. When we landed in Pangalan Bun, Borneo in 1991, and were greeted by our hosts, they asked how the flight was, knowing the nature of the flight from their own personal experience. They gave us an interesting fact to allay our fears. As it turns out the mechanic that works on the airplane is require to fly on the flight. Sounds like a good idea to me!

The flights in and out of small airports like Pangalan Bun are unreliable, so plan accordingly when setting up your international flight out of Jakarta by giving yourself an extra 1-2 days to leave Borneo. The late flight and incorrect gates on the flight from Jakarta to Pangalan Bun on the way in was a minor inconvenience compared to our return flight.

When we went to the airport in Pangalan Bun two weeks later to fly back to Jakarta we found that not only was our scheduled flight not flying, but the airport was closed also. Since there was nobody at Trigana Air to talk to it was time for plan B.

Our driver, whose name is Pepper, was a big help and took us to the Trigana Air office in Pangalan Bun. After lots of smiles, blank stares, a few extra rupiahs, and help from Pepper in his broken English, we scheduled a flight from Pangalan Bun back to Jakarta 2 days later. So, back to Pak Sia’s house for 2 more days. They were not surprised to see us return knowing this was not an uncommon occurrence.

Being delayed in leaving Borneo for 2 days of course meant that I missed my Cathay Pacific international flight from Jakarta to Hong Kong and then home. This was where the real problem was. Poor phone service made it difficult to reschedule this flight on Cathay Pacific. Texting saved the day because I was able to contact my staff and they contacted the airlines to reschedule after many conversations and explanations- yea Sandra!

Moral of the story: Even though we had a plan B, and gave ourselves a one day fudge factor in leaving Borneo, in reality you need a plan C, with a 2-3 day fudge factor. Its all part of the travel experience and makes for a good story to embellish when you return home. Thankfully I had my portable computer to start working on the pictures of this web page.

Click here to return to the Back to Borneo home page.

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On Top of the World (almost)

In July of 2012 a group of 11 of us went to Svalbard, Norway and cruised far into the Arctic circle. At the northernmost portion of our trip we were at 82 degrees latitude. The North Pole is 90 degrees latitude, which means we were only 600 miles away.

This was true Arctic, with glaciers, icebergs, tundra, and ice fields. It also included the apex predator that so many people are in awe of, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). We went with Lindblad Expeditions and the National Geographic Explorer, and cannot say enough good things about them. The captain of the boat and his crew of naturalists were a class act.

The two places most people go to get a close encounter with polar bears are Churchill, Manitoba in the fall when the bears are waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze, and the high Arctic of Svalbard. I have not been to Churchill so I cannot speak from personal experience. Some people on our  Svalbard Lindblad National Geographic explorer ship have been to Churchill.  They felt the Svalbard trip was better because you get to see just as many bears, with many of them just as close as being in the Churchill tundra buggy.

In comparison to Churchill though, in Svalbard you get to see the pack ice and go through it on your boat, view the glaciers and ice fields, see the polar bears hunting seals, and see many other marine creatures up close like walrus and whales. If you can afford the additional cost of the Svalbard trip then take that one over the Churchill trip for a tremendous Arctic experience.

This view from the top of the world (courtesy of geology.com) shows the Arctic circle in black, with a black arrow pointing to Svalbard. We are far north of  Alaska (in yellow at the top left of the globe) and almost all of Canada, and only 600 miles south of the North Pole.


Some recent documentaries on polar bears, including the recent Discovery Channel series Frozen Planet, were filmed by the BBC in Svalbard. This 2009 photo in the National Geographic magazine by Paul Nicklen was taken in Svalbard. Once I saw this I knew this was the place I wanted to go to see polar bears.

This trip is broken down into several sections:



National Geographic Explorer expedition ship

Daily activities

Bird life

Tundra walks


Polar bears


Photography equipment and techniques

Parting shots

Future trips

The photos on this page represent only a fraction of the good ones I have from this trip. If you are a photographer this trip is a must see. Click on any photo for a larger version.

A special thanks goes to the captain, officers, and crew of the M.S. National Geographic Explorer. Because of their substantial expertise, knowledge, and contagious enthusiasm, this trip was one of the best ones ever!

Here is a teaser for the polar bear pictures later in this page


Our trip started in Oslo, a friendly, beautiful, yet expensive city. A hamburger at an average restaurant was $25, gas costs between $9-$11 per gallon. In the summer the sun sets at 2 AM and rises at 3:30 AM, so be prepared to stay up late.

Since the cost of living is so expensive people find novel ways to get around. You can literally rent a bike on the streets, ride it to your destination, and then just leave it there.

Courtesy of my nice local friend named Bjorn (the tall Norwegian on the far right), we got a chance to stay out until the sun came up! Not hard to do when the sun comes up at 3:30 AM.

Bjorn also took us on a nice tour of the Viking Museum along with the museum that houses Thor Heyerdahl’s boat, the Kon Tiki.


3,000 of the 25,000 polar bears in the world reside in Svalbard. This is a big reason why many people choose this area to view them, and also to see the Arctic in relation to global warming.

Before we look at pictures of Svalbard lets look at the anatomy (sorry, I mean geography) of the north polar region.

I purchased a Svalbard map at a bookstore in Oslo. It costs $30, an example of how expensive Norway is. We spent most of our time navigating around the left side 0f Spitsbergen, across the top, and part way down the right side until ice forced us to go back the way we came. This map shows you our route and the stopping points each night. We started in Longyearbyen and ended there also.

Click on it for a larger version.

In this NASA satellite photo the yellow line gives you a rough idea of our route. The red “L” marks Longyearbyen, our starting point, which you will learn about. Also marked in red is the Austofonna “Ice Field” which you will see close up pictures of later.

We went in the summer when the pack ice is melting and we could navigate part way around the island. As you can see from the following 2 photos this is ice country when summer fades.

A larger view showing the ice north of Svalbard getting nearer to the North Pole. All of this ice is floating on top of the Arctic ocean, there is no land below the ice on top of the world. For most of the year this is an extreme and harsh climate, and only a few animals are able to survive the winter due to their exquisite (and now vulnerable) adaptation. To a polar bear this ice is heaven!

From Oslo you take a jet for 3 hours north to the city of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where only 3,000 people live. As you already know from the pictures above, a large portion of Svalbard is covered in snow and glaciers. They get continual daylight in the short summer, and then complete darkness in the dead of winter.

Longyearbyen is 4,000 miles away from California and a whole lot higher in latitude

This is polar bear country. This sign warns of polar bears everywhere in Svalbard.

People in Svalbard need to carry hi-powered rifles for protection, especially in the dark winter nights. No guns allowed in the post office though!

Longyearbyen has a truly unique claim to fame. It is the location of the Seed Vault, a depository of the world’s seeds.

Expedition Ship

After our quick tour of Longyearbyen we boarded the National Geographic Explorer for our 6 nights (I should say “days” since it was daylight 100% of the time) of expedition cruising. Expedition cruising means it is educational, adventuresome, ecologically oriented, includes excursions on zodiacs and kayaks, and no gambling or talent shows (yea)!

Our 148 person ship for the remainder of our trip. Isn’t she a beaut!

Oops, wrong boat, must be jet lag!

Don’t say “boat” in front of the captain unless you want to be corrected by him by telling you it is a ship.

This was my room. The light streaming through the window 24 hours was a part of the experience and required adjustment in your internal clock. Lucky the window has special shades to darken the room when you want to sleep. Little tough to sleep when there is so much activity going on due to the continual daylight.

This boat is capable of pushing into the pack ice. This paid off handsomely during our trip when we saw wildlife in the distance and needed to get closer. This much ice in the warmer summer months gives you an idea of just how much ice there is in the colder months and how impassable it is for a ship.

In some areas the pack ice was already broken up due to summer warmth. This is happening earlier each spring and causing stress on the polar bears since they need the frozen pack ice to hunt seals.

From this perspective you can see that the majority of an iceberg is indeed under the water

The captain had an open bridge policy 24 hours a day. It was always interesting to go there and watch how they navigated and to talk with the crew. The crew was always on the alert for any wildlife, and were almost always the first to spot them.

When anything of significance was seen we were all alerted, no matter what time of day or night (night is a relative term up here). The bridge would become a hub of activity as the crew got out the spotting scopes and explained what was going on.

At the end of the day one of the naturalists gave us a slide show on the flora and fauna. They were always enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and had quite the sense of humor. They make the trip worthwhile.

This is John trying to convince us to ignore the polar bears and other marine mammals and only take pictures of the tundra plants. In the foreground is Dominic. At least he is awake this time.

By 10 PM most people were exhausted and off to bed. For those of us that were ready for more we spent a few hours at the lounge chatting and talking about each other. Kinda hard to go to bed when the sunshine is streaming through the windows at all times. After a few days of these late nights you need a nap to catch up.

It was nice to go out on the bow late at night by myself when most everyone was asleep to enjoy the tranquility of the fjords and the Arctic scenery

It was a great boat, and Dr. B got to do her Titanic movie pose at midnight (darn, were is Leonardo when she needs him)!

Daily Activities


We spent our days cruising beautiful fjords with glaciers on the edges

If you are in the right location at the correct time you might get to see one calving

Some of the ice fields are very big to put it mildly. This is the world’s third largest (over 3300 square miles of solid ice), called the Austfonna. You saw it in the NASA photo above.

They even have their own 100 foot waterfalls

This short movie shows this glacier waterfall in action- click on it below.

Glacier Waterfall

Peter and Sharel made their Xmas cards at the glacier

You never know what you might encounter when cruising through the pack ice so you have to keep your eyes peeled at all times. This picture is typical of the area you will find marine mammals in the Arctic (and yes, the polar bear is a marine mammal). This is summer, which gives you a perspective on how much ice is here in the winter.

Our captain and crew had “seal eyes” and saw this Bearded seal off in the distance. There was no pack ice so the ship got a little closer and I took this shot of the seal. Do you see it? It is the dark and horizontal object on the small ice floe in the left foreground.

This seal did not mind our presence so I was able to put the Canon 800mm lens to good use as the captain slowly got us a little closer. Those long whiskers indicate he has been around to eat his share of fish over the years. Click on his photo to see those whiskers.

Bird Life

 Bird life abounds in this area. The arctic tern, the animal with the longest migration on the planet as it migrates from pole to pole, is here in the summer.

Capturing a streaking arctic tern and getting it in focus are a good test of your photography skills.

This is a fulmar

These are kittiwakes

This is a gull

The cliffs were loaded with upwards of one hundred thousand birds (especially guillemots and kittiwakes) at a place called Cape Fanshawe

Their perches are nothing more than precarious rock outcrops

There are no official avian predators like hawks, so the gulls and skuas take over that role, preying mostly upon other birds.

This glaucous gull is attacking a kittiwake

Tundra Walks

Taking a zodiac to the land was a great way to stretch the sea legs and see the flora and fauna up close and personal. It interesting to see how life ekes out an existence in this barren land. Due to the non-stop summer sun there is an explosion of plant life in some areas.

Our excellent naturalists/guides always made sure the coast was clear and no big animals wanted to eat us. They would go on land first and scout out the area, especially for polar bears. When we arrived later our head naturalist Lisa would constantly scan for any danger while we walked around with the other guides. That orange figure in the center  in the distance is Lisa scanning for the bad guys with her binocs.

The guides carried a full complement of equipment . This includes compass, radio, binoculars, and for many of them, a camera (the chocolate is in a hidden compartment). Do you notice the pistol? Its actually a flare gun.

Not getting injured by a polar bear has everything to do with prevention and preparation by our guides. If a bear does happen to appear in spite of their precautions, and approaches us, the guides will use their flares to scare it away. Only as a last resort (which has never happened) will they use their rifles. This is different than the grizzlies and coastal brown bears in Alaska where people frequently fish or hike amongst them. In Svalbard if polar bears are present you do not leave the ship.

Even though they can look cute and cuddly they are an ultimate predator that can move at a high rate of speed on land and water. Some people camping in Svalbard found out the hard way that they are not to be fooled with. It happened in 2011 to a group of students from Britain when a starving polar bear attacked them. The leaders of this group did not take all the safety precautions that were recommended. As a result one student died, four were injured (two seriously), and the bear was ultimately killed.

There is lots of history from prior explorers, hunters, researchers and soldiers. Even though it is a blight on the land everything is kept untouched for historical purposes. This was an old weather station.

A National Geographic photographer named Kim Heacox accompanied us at all times in the tundra. His polar knowledge is impressive.

Because of him I had to put up with botanically oriented ship mates taking plant photos of all things!

You never know what you find underfoot in the tundra. Looks like an Arctic tern egg.

The sandpipers kept an eye on us as we walked along the beach. There are no trees in the arctic tundra, so how do you think this tree trunk got there?

The mothership (and lunch) beckons after our morning tundra stroll


Click on any of the following photos for a larger version

The walrus were molting so we had plenty of time to photograph them while they were basking (and grunting).

They laid in groups of 10-15 and enjoyed the sun

Once in a while one would give us a curious stare

Looks like this one had a rough night

They were comical the way they moved their flippers and groomed themselves

Some decided to keep an eye on us from a safer distance

One more basking walrus before we get on to the polar bears

Polar Bears

For almost everyone the highlight of the trip is the polar bears. Being the iconic and apex predator that they are it is hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm when we came across them. Below are just a few of the hundreds of photos I have of them. Don’t forget to click on the photo for a larger version.

 These are 62 notches on a wood panel in the bridge. Each one signifies a polar bear someone spotted on our trip. The red notches signify they were at a kill. Not all of us saw all 62, and some were far away and had to be viewed with binoculars or spotting scopes. The ones we saw up close put on the show we were looking for.

Time to test your polar bear vision. Do you see anything? This picture was taken with the 800mm lens on a female polar bear with her cub that had just killed a seal over a mile away. I put them in the center of the picture for better recognition. Click on the photo for a larger version of this picture, and also see if you can spot the seal on the left side of the photo.

This male appeared a short time later and followed the sow and her cub from a distance

This one was found moving amongst the ice floes. Click on the picture for a larger version if you do not see it in the center of the photo.

This old guy was far away when first spotted first thing in the morning (from the colorful PJ’s we saw on the bridge it was obvious most guests were asleep when we got the melodious call from Lisa). The captain deftly crept through the ice until the bear felt our presence and awoke.

After giving us the look he slowly ambled away, probably wondering what the heck this hulking ship was, and surely enjoying the smells emanating from our kitchen.

He slowly walked away with his belly sagging from a recent meal of seal blubber

After walking a few feet he rested on the ice ….

…..then trotted away

TIme for another smell just in case he was invited to breakfast

When he tired of us it was time to slowly depart

One more reflection check before plunging in

That’s an easy 1,200 pounds being pulled out of the water

A quick roll on the ice to absorb some water from his hair coat

One last look…..

….and that was the last we saw of him

This 3 year old male decided we smelled good and invited himself to breakfast. These bears are always hungry and can’t resist our bacon fragrance.

So he came a swimmin’

He put on quite the show until someone knocked over my camera and made a loud noise, then it was time to high-tail it out

Our last looks from him

A sow and her curious cub were next on the list

At first they ignored us and played in the snow

His curiosity got the best of him while his wary mother hung back. He jumped in the water and made his way, shaking water off each time he climbed onto an ice floe.

He gave us a good long stare before he got up the courage to proceed

He picked up the pace once he connected with our irresistible smell

The action end of a bear

He came so close I put the big lens down, pulled out the wide angle, and went to the bow for some unique angles. The cylindrical and horizontal object pointing to the left is the front of the keel as the bow pushes through water and ice. You can see the reflection of the boat around this along with some people hanging over the bow for a better look at the cub directly below them.

The sow, at the top of the ice floe, still kept her distance

She joined the cub for a short time before she made it clear to him it was time to go


Towards the end of the trip our captain went to an area frequented by whales. The crew on the bridge spotted their spray in the distance and we headed off in that direction.

This is what you see first when looking for whales in the distance

As we got near the captain stopped the ship and let the whales approach us. This is a fin whale, a very large whale, steaming toward us and starting its dive under our ship.

It re-appeared so fast that I did not have time to chose a wide angle lens so we got a close up of its blow hole

After playing with us for a while it slowly swam away

Our next guest of honor was a Blue whale, my first

It also put on a show before leaving us. This was a great finale to a wonderful trip!


Les and I pooled our equipment and shared the rental cost of the 800mm. This turned out to be a good idea.


Canon 800mm f/5.6 IS lens

Canon 500mm f/4 IS lens

Canon 1.4X version III teleconverter

Canon 70-300mm IS

Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens

Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens

Prior to this trip we were told the vibrations on the boat would make a tripod useless. This is not true. The ship cruises so slowly when wildlife are there, and the captain sometimes turns off the engines, that vibration is a non-issue. For the 800mm the tripod proved invaluable. Don’t leave home without one!

The big lenses, even though a pain to lug through airports, (and up and down the stairs on the ship) are mandatory to get the shots you envision when shooting from the boat. The only time we took the telephotos off the ship and on land was for the walrus shots. Since the 800mm lens is not feasible for most people (we rented ours and shared the cost between the two of us) you can do well with the 500 mm and the 1.4X TC, especially if your camera has the 1.6X field of view crop factor. Our 7D has that, but I preferred using the 5D Mark III most of the time because the images were superior.

When the wildlife came close to the boat the 70-200 was perfect. Many of the whale shots were taken with this lens when they came up to the boat. When we went on the land we always made sure we had the 70-200mm lens. The Arctic tern egg, the close up of the fulmar flying by, and sandpiper pictures were taken with this lens.

 The wide angle lenses were used when taking ship photos, for some scenery shots, for people shots, and a few bear shots. The shot of the young polar bear at the bow was taken with the 16-35 mm and 5D Mark III blindly shooting through the opening for the anchor line. You can bet I kept a tight hold on the camera while it was dangling as far as I could stretch into that hole.

This wide angle shot was taken from the very front of the bow. You can see where we placed our telephoto lenses at the top left.

To give you a breakdown:

The 800mm and 500mm (with and without TC) were used to take over  75% of the 2200 shots I took.

The 70-200mm was used to take 10 % of the shots.

The wide angles were used to take  15% of the shots.


Canon 5D Mark III

Canon 1Ds Mark III

Canon 1D Mark IV

Canon 7D

I did not bring an external flash and glad I did not. With all the daylight you do not need one unless you want some dinner snap shots. 90% of the time we had the ISO between 200-400, with the apertures in the f/4- f/8 range. I occasionally set the 5D Mark III at higher ISO’s with no problem, but did not do that with the 7D.

Shutter speeds were where they should be, in the 1/500th to 1/4,000th range, and occasionally higher. I kept my cameras on evaluative metering. Exposure compensation was used almost all the time when photographing the birds in the sky and the bears on the ice, usually + 1/3 to + 1  2/3. Shot raw exclusively and did basic post processing in LR4. I spent much more time organizing this page than I did editing photos.

On the ship when using the big glass we set up on the highest point of the boat because of a better vantage point and less people. It also helps capture bear reflections in the water when they  jump from ice floe to ice floe.

 This high vantage was ideal for shooting the pictures of the birds on the cliffs because we were almost at eye level

This give you an idea of the angle to the water when you are this high. The pictures of the gull attacking the kittiwake were taken with the 800mm from this vantage point down at the water.

We used the big glass to shoot the polar bears, and since they were at a distance we were able to get a reasonable angle even though we were high up in the ship

The walrus were shot with the big lenses also, but we were off the ship and at more of an eye level. You can see the walrus in the distance to the right of the photo.To the left is Mike Nolan, one of the guides and awesome photography teacher. He gave everyone great pointers and spread that contagious enthusiasm.

Over the decades I have taken many photographers on wildlife and nature trips, covering all 7 continents (with lots more places to go). Two of my guests have taken their photography seriously, and after working with them (and selling them some of my equipment), I am proud to say they are taking great photos. Looks like they are ready for the next trip! Lets take a peek at them and some of their photos:


He is a wonderful exotic animal veterinarian in Las Vegas that I met in Antarctica. He has a great outlook on life and so far has been on 5 of my trips (and not gotten lost).

Les (aka Mr. Alaska)

 Les has been on two trips with me, Alaska (where he has been at least 40X) and now the polar bear trip. He takes his photography seriously and has progressed rapidly. He will be going with me to the Serengeti in Tanzania in February of 2013. We shared the 800mm lens (I had the honor of carrying it through the airports)!

A few candids to share

The Polar Bears!

4th of July polar bears

Can you guess what time it is in this picture?

The tundra trio on a brisk day

Cindy posing for her Victoria’s Secret job side job

Mona thinking about how much she misses work and wishing this trip was over

 Sharel enjoying the peaceful waters (while the rest of us enjoy the peace and quiet while she is gone)

Peter recovering from a late night of partying in Oslo

Sharel taking the polar plunge in a borrowed bathing suit (don’t ask)

CP trying to impress another victim with his photography expertise


Future trips with Dr. P

My next trip is in October to Borneo with three companions. I plan on going back again in the summer of 2013 in case anyone wants to work with the baby orangutans at the rehab center and look for wild orangs in the jungle.

I am also going to Tanzania in Feb of 2013 to take my animal hospital clients on safari. It will be my 7th time to Africa. I usually limit the trip to 10 (6 have signed up), and everyone is welcome to join me until it fills up. Click the flyer link to learn more about this trip-  Tanzania 2013 Flyer

To see hundreds of photos from prior trips to see where we have gone and how I teach photography (I call it Funography) follow this link

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Penguin Heaven

The rules state we must stay at least 5 meters away from them. Many of the young are going through what is termed a “catastrophic molt”, which is a stressful time for them and we do not need to add more stress. You will see pictures of the young penguins molting in this page. Penguins do do not have the same rules as us humanoids though, and will oftentimes come right up to you. 

A gentoo posing for the camera

Gentoo Penguins



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Gentoo Penguins



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Typical Day for Our Technicians


Our animal health technicians(AHT’s) perform one of the most important jobs at our hospital. Without their help we would not be able to provide such a high quality of medical care. They work as a team, and are very flexible in helping each other. Lets take a look at what happens during a typical (and busy) day……

They start their day early, with at least one of them arriving at work at 6:30 AM. They assess all of the hospitalized pets and given them whatever treatment is needed. This treatment board is their control panel. It allows them to stay organized, current, and to verify that treatments have been completed.

Morning treatments make up a big part of the early morning duties of our staff. Denise is giving fluids to one of our sick patients. He is dehydrated and weak, so the fluids are a large part of his therapy.

By 8 AM one of the AHT’s breaks off from treating sick pets and assists the doctors in morning rounds. She gives insight into the pets’ conditions, makes notes in the records, and carries out specific instructions. By listening to the doctors discuss the cases the nurses can help update clients on their pet’s condition. They also update the pet’s record in the computer, allowing our receptionists to have access to current information.

Simultaneously to the above duties, one of our AHT’s is preparing for today’s surgery. Here is Shannon helping Denise by preparing the medication and paperwork for one of the day’s scheduled surgeries. When she is ready she summons the surgeon who examines the pet and gives any instructions. She is now ready to give a pre anesthetic tranquilizer and set up for surgery.

By 9 AM our first scheduled appointments of the day are arriving. Shannon has already reviewed this owner’s record, and stands by to greet her when she arrives.

Shannon will ask some background questions regarding this pets condition. This history is a very important part of the diagnostic process for our doctors. Our patients can’t talk to us, so we rely upon this information in arriving at a diagnosis.

After she has completed the background questions Shannon performs a preliminary exam. This alerts our doctors to any problems and allows them to thoroughly investigate a pets condition.

When Shannon is finished she alerts the doctor and goes on to the next client. After this client is checked in she reviews the record of the first client to carry out any instructions from the doctor.

Meanwhile, back in surgery, Denise is monitoring one of Dr. Ridgeway’s surgeries. This one happens to be a hernia repair on a Pit Bull named Rufus

While Denise is closely monitoring a surgical patient Shannon is helping her by making a post operative phone call on a prior surgery, letting the owner know their pet is waking up fine from anesthesia.

Our AHT’s also perform treatments on an outpatient basis along with diagnostic tests in the hospital. Here is Terri taking a radiograph on Peanuts the rabbit.

Their day does not end until all medical records are reviewed and prepared for any evening treatments or next morning treatments.

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