August 8, 2011, Cloudy and 43F
Tanya and I spent the past three days in Lonyearbyen in a small, very European, apartment, catching up on business matters, writing and a little rest before our next group of guests arrived.
The first trip went really well, but every adventure to the field is new, so it’s always in your mind that the the next can be even better. Our boat is full again, housing our eight invited photo enthusiasts that all arrived on schedule. Jeanne, one of our dear and long-time friends, and a retired, 30-year 757 pilot for United Airlines, arrived in Longyearbyen minus her luggage. True to form she had a huge smile on her face and lots of great stories about the turmoil she faced trying to explain to the “lost luggage department” where they needed to deliver her bags once they found them. The story Jeanne described, as usual, was hilarious with the central theme pivoting on the idea that the agent just could not get the concept that the boat she was scheduled to board was something smaller than the typical 1500 passenger cruise ship. And, unlike the cruise ships, there was no port she would be visiting that had an SAS office she could check in with. Suffice it to say, it’s people like Jeanne who take a very bad situation and turn it into a comedy routine, that makes this job so worthwhile.
Yesterday, while Jeanne shopped the high-end outdoor retailers in Longyearbyen, I took the remainder of the group down to the edge of town to photograph Arctic Terns. I was excited to see them myself, since I’ve never had any amount of time to photograph this species on a nest site before. Two weeks earlier I had visited the colony while out for a walk. Arctic Terns are extremely feisty little creatures that belie their dainty, diminutive stature. When anything, including humans, comes close to their nests they will attack, forcing you into retreat by repeatedly diving in to stab your scalp with their sharp, pointed beaks. Alfred Hitchcock would love these guys. Do you remember The Birds? However, like many species of the avian ilk, I found that if you sit down and remain completely still, they quickly lose interest and return to the nest. It was this little nugget of wildlife photography strategy I wanted to share with our guests.
We arrived at the nesting colony and sat down a good distance out from what seemed like the perimeter. From the outside of the colony looking in, we grouped ourselves together and silently waited as the mother tern calmly sat incubating. For the first several minutes the males were quite aggressive, but eventually as predicted, they lost interest. We didn’t stay long but in our thirty-minute shoot we were rewarded with the the site of a mother and a single chick beneath her. He came out twice, showing himself for seconds each, but in the time I was able to get stills and even a little video. I may have mentioned in the first trip blog that I’m currently using two Nikon D7000 bodies, and one of the main reasons is the spectacular video capabilities. I’ll talk about video more a bit later, but in short video is a such a great new advantage to documenting the full story - whatever story you may be telling. I absolutely love this new option.
On our way out through the long narrow fjord of Isfjorden, we occupy our time with photographing Northern Fulmars in flight. It was a beautiful evening with shafts of golden sun piercing through the gray-colored, fractured clouds. For whatever reason there were Fulmars flying all around us. I was shooting my 200-400 hand-held and a Nikon D7000 body. Nikon’s Vibration Reduction built into a lens like the 200-400 is such an astounding technology. Shooting from a moving boat at magnifications equivalent to 600mm’s and getting sharp images is hard to believe. But between the great new technology of VR and Auto Focus, photos of this type are almost child's play in today's world of nature photography. Keeping with technically sound tradition I was shooting with a shutter speed greater than the focal length of the lens I was using. Always a good rule of thumb for action-oriented subjects. On the camera I choose to use a Dynamic AF setting that highlighted 10-12 points on the AF sensor. Before the newer AF capabilities I would often use just the middle AF spot, but as the cameras improve do does the AF capabilities of several sensors working in tandem. The benefit is a larger target within the viewfinder for acquiring your flying subject. If one spot doesn’t get it the others hopefully will. All of this tied to AF Continues and a hot finger on the shutter button gave me numerous pictures of these beautiful albatross-like birds riding the air currents of the Arctic Ocean. Birds in flight is always magic.
Our first anchorage of this trip was in Eidembukta, a little bay about seven hours out of Longyearbyen. Last night we heard from another passing vessel that further north, about three hours, a polar bear had been spotted eating a seal, so that’s where we’re headed. Lots of excitement, people laughing, some cleaning camera gear, everybody anticipating their first bear sighting. Time will tell. You never know with wildlife.
We pull close to the spit that juts out from Eidembutka and there, two hundred yards from shore, standing up on a sandy esker, is a very dirty, fat and seemingly happy polar bear. Right beside the bear is a bloody pile of fur and flesh, the food source we were told we may see. We all collect our lenses and cameras and take a few pictures. However, the bear is a long way in and quite honestly not very attractive. For me the lack of beauty is not such a big deal, but he’s still not close enough to get any real pictures. We collect a few images and then make our way north to back Hornbaekbukta Bay. We had great good luck with Bearded Seals on our first Hornbaekbukta.
August 9, Aavatsmarkbreen Bay, 48F
Another morning of clear skies with the boat surrounded by mini icebergs floating in the surf. Burgy bits they’re called in Alaska. All through the night the wind was howling. Captain said they reached 30 knots or more. Our night of anchorage in Aavatsmarkbreen – by the way, breen means glacier – was relatively calm though the winds did their best to shake things up. Thankfully, our protective harbor in the shadow of the glacier kept matters quite. That is until around 4:00am.
I was laying in my bunk just slightly awake when I felt the first rolling motion of the boat. It was small at first but seconds later one a bit larger followed. Then another, then another and still another. Each swell getting larger than the previous. Last night Captain Mark explained we had to anchor a considerable distance from any glacier due to an accident that took place a couple of years ago. Apparently a reasonably sized ship anchored within a couple hundred yards of a beautiful, scenic glacier was hit in the middle of the night when the massive moving river of ice caved and dropped a chuck of ice the size of a large house. The wave it created swept over the boat, not enough to sink it, but was followed up by the mammoth-sized iceberg crashing into the ship's side. Numerous passengers were hurt but thankfully no one seriously.
So there I lay, one wave gone, two waves, three waves and each one getting larger and larger until I grabbed the boat's structural pipe above my bed to hold myself from being ejected to the floor. One more wave and I was getting out in fear something similar to the story the night before was happening. Then they stopped. All was well and I turned back over to get a bit more sleep.
Our goal today was to go further north. The winds were much more calm in the bay, but out in the straights the whitecaps were rolling. The days travel included a passage through a very shallow area where two points of land nearly meet and the water is only four meters deep. Our keel needs three meters to pass safely, so with rough waters the timing must be perfect. We try the passage early in the morning but the Captain deems it too risky to proceed. He makes the decision to wait until 9:00pm tonight, when the tide is at its peak to make another attempt. The winds are expected to subside as well.
We leave our anchorage at 9:30pm and we clear the shallows just fine. Our original plan was to travel for about three hours to another bay but the captain says winds in the forecast will be high tomorrow so we need to keep moving. On into the arctic night we travel. I hit my bunk about 11:00pm. The travel is rough with swells ranging from 10-12 feet. The boats bow pitches from peak to trough with a roll to the side every other wave just for good measure. For some it's no fun; for me it’s the equivalent of being rocked to sleep like a baby, and so it goes until 4:30am when I awaken to the realization we were STILL moving. Obviously the captain is intent on going as far north as possible. I get out of my rack to see what’s up and there he stands at the helm in the cold, unprotected cockpit in the stern of the ship. Laura, his first mate and cook, is wrapped tightly in cold weather clothing. Both look tired yet awake, intent on making our destination.
I rise to the top of the stairs and call out, “Laura, can I get you a cup of coffee, cocoa, anything?” She replies in her beautiful Italian accent, “No thank you, I’m just fine.” The Captain drags out the dry bag full of red life jackets and pulls two out. He puts one on and Laura dons the other. Not sure what he is planning until I see him clip a lifeline onto the jacket then walk carefully towards the bow of the ship. He stops at the main sail mast and begins to work after clipping his lifeline to the boat. The sail begins to rise and I sit tucked behind the ship's weather shield taking pictures through the mist and water sprayed plastic. It is cold, wet, and they have to be tired to the bone.
Captain comes back and explains we have four more hours of sailing towards the north. The coming day will most likely be extremely windy so he wants to go as far as possible. It was certainly a job beyond what I would have expected. At 8:30am the next day we finally pull into a quiet bay near the island of Danskaya. There the captain drops the anchor. He announces they will sleep until 1:00pm and requests to be awakened at that hour. We let them sleep until he rises on his own at 1:45pm. I suggest he still needs rest but he replies, “I’m fine, just a cup of coffee would be great”. Captain Mark is working hard for all our benefit. I tell him so and offer him a thank you. Off we head for further north.
Interested in joining us on this trip next year?
Please visit 2012 Svalbard Photography Expedition