Svalbard Trip Report

Those of you affected by wanderlust will understand. There’s something about reaching the far corners of the globe! It was that way with Svalbard for me. I have been “north” in Iceland, Alaska and Norway, but never this far, and never to see and photograph arctic wildlife at such northerly latitude! On our Svalbard Arctic Expedition, our main photographic target was the Polar Bear, in Norwegian Isbjørn, the latin name Ursus Maritimus. But one of the things that amazed me was the amount and variety of different landscapes and wildlife we photographed in this icy, watery, rocky, northerly corner of the world.

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Svalbard journeys begin in the town of Longyearbyen, and did you know that it is also home to The Global Seed Vault? A cool little town, it seems to be a-buzz with the vibrational energy from all the pent-up excitement from those about to head out on various arctic journeys. But let’s talk about our home for the eight days of this expedition, the M/S Malmö. She’s a sturdy ship, ice-strengthened to handle the rigors of the sea at 80 degrees and higher latitudes. A great base for photography because her main decks sit low in the water, so you can nearly get at eye-level with polar bears on the ice! It’s “our ship”, only for our group of 10 (12 max), and our leaders and the crew. The size is perfect, since we can get to places the big ships can’t, and once there, we have much better angles for photography from the ship. Very comfortable cabins with en suite facilities, big common rooms, plenty of deck space for photographing and relaxing. And the food! Quite simply like nothing else I’ve seen on a small ship like this. Breakfasts featuring fresh fruits, freshly-baked breads, cereals, yogurt, smoked fish and of course the traditional nordic cold meats and cheeses. Lunch was usually soup or a casserole, or sandwiches. Each night for dinner there was amazingness in the form of freshly caught fish, steaks, lamb, chicken, turkey and more. Accompanied by fresh vegetables, salads, and so much more. Desserts were freshly made and to die for! Suffice it to say, you won’t go hungry!

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Now that we are comfortable and well-fed, let’s talk about the photography. The combination of the arctic landscape, the midnight sun and the wildlife is a very unique experience, and provides for unbelievable photo opportunities. The landscape varies first from steep granite mountains that line the channels we sail through, to open sea, to rock-lined nooks and crannies filled with iceberg of all sizes, and finally, to endless sea-ice that stretches out to infinity, every view a different crazy-quilt pattern that is a visual feast. It is so much fun to compose here, and once you start adding wildlife into the landscape photos, it’s even more fun! Even while sailing, the sea birds following the ship make for great subjects against the backdrop of the mountains bathed in the soft light of the never-setting sun. There’s something about shooting at one o’clock in the morning in the same manner that you’re used to shooting during the day! In June, the sun never sets - and the quality of light is just amazing. It’s soft and directional for for the most part, but we quickly found that shooting in the wee hours of the morning provided some of the best light.

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Shooting from the Zodiacs is even cooler! You get to actual eye-level with many animals, and there’s something to be said for the sheer quiet you experience after cruising, and then we shut the engine down. It’s magical. And the ice-scapes! Oh did I mention the zodiac ride to the bird cliff called Auk Mountain? Drifting up and down these 100-meter tall cliffs filled with 250,000 mating pairs of guillemots is an experience not to be missed. On other Zodiac cruises we circle a beautiful iceberg, looking for just the right combination of light, shadow and color. Oh and yes, we take the Zodiacs ashore, and find piles of walruses and of course more sea birds. With two Zodiacs for just 12 guests, there’s plenty of room for everyone and their gear, and most importantly, to get the shots! Zodiac rides are smooth and dry (though we’re prepared for the wet!), and shore landings are easy (step out of the Zodiac onto the beach). 

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We sail the Malmö up the inside channels and turn clock-wise deeper into the archipelago, and also further north to the pack-ice, all the way to 80.5 degrees north. Here we’re on polar bear watch - with the open bridge policy on Malmö, everyone who wants can take a turn with binoculars searching for the bears, though with over thirty expeditions under their belt, our expedition guides will likely find them before you do! We plow the Malmö through thick pack-ice, searching and searching. We found over 15 polar bears on this expedition, but one in particular stands out. We had just finished our starters at dinner when the call from the bridge came: “Isbjørn!” Needless to say, our dinner would have to wait (no problem, our chef is also a photographer and was keen to try out his new Nikon D500 and long lens!). A magnificent male began approaching the ship. Slogging through the ice and puddles of slushy water - stopping every few meters to lift his nose up in the air and sniff to see what we are all about (perhaps he wanted to have some of the amazing dinner that was keeping warm in the kitchen?). Again because of the low decks of the Malmø we are able to get really great angles on the bear, both for close-up intimate shots and for wide-angle bear-in-the-landscape shots. After circling the ship a few times and posting quite nicely for us, he was off in search for seals, so we all, humans and bear alike, went back to dinner.

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Lots of time and plenty of space on board for image reviews, post-processing instruction and individual processing and critique session. Image counts were high on this expedition, and everyone enjoyed both the group sessions and impromptu “hey look at this!” moments as well. Our expedition staff gave great lectures on the biology and behavior of the polar bears and the birds that we saw and photographed.

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But wait, there’s more! As we were sailing back to Longyearbyen on our very last day, again the call from the bridge comes: “Blue whales!” and we quickly got into the Zodiacs to go for a closer look. Little did we know that these amazing creatures, the largest animals on earth, would surface and frolic within twenty meters of our Zodiacs! An experience that was rather exhilarating, for sure. A great end to the week. All told, we saw and photographed polar bears, walruses, seals, blue whales, fin whales, bowhead whales (rather unusual for Svalbard), arctic foxes, reindeer, kittiwakes, guillemots, ivory gulls, arctic terns, and many more birds. We experienced mostly very calm seas, beautiful light twenty-four hours a day and a truly one-of-a-kind polar phototographic and nature experience.

We’re back to Svalbard in June of 2017, with just a few places remaining on the ship. Is one of them yours?

Enjoy (Arctic) photography,

— Andy