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!
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.
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)!
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.
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 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
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
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