This morning is cold. Most definitely the coolest we’ve experienced. Danskøya Island is on the northwest part of the archipelago and is on the edge of better polar bear habitat. The ice is nearly 80 miles offshore, so any bears that are stranded on the Islands of Svalbard migrate towards the top getting as close to the ice pack as possible. Mark tells me that, “typically the ice is 15-20 miles offshore but this year is unusual.” Surprising how often I keep hearing something similar to “this year is unusual” from people that work in the arctic. That’s been the description for hotter than normal temperatures and the varying climatic changes they’ve caused. Equally amazing is that I first started hearing people talk about the “unusual year” over ten years ago. My wife Tanya is stepping in here to describe our morning and the rest of the day as we head further north and east.
This morning we awoke to a “winter wonderland” of fluffy white flakes falling down… snowy mountain sides and glaciers surrounding us. What day, month is it? Who cares! As I bring my steaming hot coffee outside to the stern of the boat, I sit down and enjoy the tranquility of this distant barren land. This is one of those times in your life where you just “enjoy the moment”.
Despite wishing for warm sun and bluer skies, our group has been very patient with the weather, a natural uncontrollable factor of the trip. We have decided to do most of our travel to the northeast part of the island during the colder, darker days in hope of better weather upon arrival.
After breakfast, we pull up the anchor and start to motor slowly through the fjord. From the corner of the binoculars someone spotted something moving, yes, a bear!
“BEAR! BEAR!” Marianne shouted down from the top deck, everyone started to scurry, geared up, rounding up their cameras. We watched the lone bear walk along the snow-covered rocky beach heading in the direction of the whale bone pile, the favorite “local diner” for polar bears. As he came to the tip of the spit of land, he leaped into the rough waters and swam across the fjord in front of our boat to reach the carcass. Since part of the whale was sitting on the bottom of the sea, the bear dove down, over and over only once coming up with a little breakfast. The bear shakes off, climbs up on the rocky hillside and continues on with his morning stroll. A really nice photo shoot we almost missed.
As we headed out into the big waters outside the fjords the winds picked up, a perfect day to throw up the sail. Choppy waters but oh-so-quiet without the motor. Off in the distance we saw at least 4 blows and a spy-hop, possibly humpbacks, however, there were sightings by another boat of blue whales earlier in the same area. A little too far out to identify. You think in this vast sea you are all alone but beneath the water’s depths the gentle giants live. You might only catch a glimpse of them but they are there. Another good reason why you need to always have your binoculars out on this trip.
Our guest, Sarah Street took over steering the boat. She sailed regularly with her family in England as a child. Despite the cold air and winds Sarah endured. Many guests joined her on top deck outside, photographing the Northern Fulmars in flight while traveling. Hot chocolate with Bailey’s Irish Cream helped control the chill and create smiles. Engaging conversation and laughter amongst the group. Another great day amongst the islands of Svalbard.
August 16, Liefdefjorden 49F
After our night off the shores of Moffen Island we motor for another three hours heading for Woodfjorden. It was a beautiful day with calm seas, mostly cloudy, shafts of sunlight penetrating the broken clouds to reach the placid waters of the Arctic Ocean. About 2:00pm we arrive near the mouth of Liefdefjorden and there on one of the several small islands we see a polar bear. It’s a huge male hunkered down behind the topmost ridge.
As we move our ship in for a closer look the bear keeps raising his head. He gives a quick glance just before his eyes and ears drop down behind the berm. Up, down, up, down, our eyes connect for milliseconds as his gaze breaches the terrain that hides his exploits. As we slowly approach, he’s fully aware, yet not concerned. His behavior is a bit strange. To get a better view we trace our imaginary tracks in reverse, turn the boat to the east and make our way to the other side of the island. There at the feet of this massive carnivore is a bearded seal, a chunk of its neck missing and in the beginning stages of consumption. It’s obviously very fresh. We’ve possible just missed the hunt by only minutes, maybe a couple of hours.
This is the second kill scene we’ve witnessed this month. More importantly it’s the second kill we’ve come across that has taken place in an area completely free of the normal ice pack I’ve been told polar bears need for hunting. How are these bears killing seals? Is it happening as the seal is caught unaware, laying on the sandy beach, taking a snooze? Are bear and seal swimming leisurely along and running into each other? It seems likely the seal’s life is ended in one of these two ways but without an actual witness, who can say for sure? What is certain is the fact two very white, uncamouflaged polar bears have somehow been successful on land, capturing their normal prey, with the ice pack fifty miles to the north.
We spend the next several hours documenting this large male polar bear consuming his feast. It’s not pretty but it is interesting. I had always heard that polar bears typically eat just the blubber and from what we observed, the seal’s fat seemed to be his highest priority. Tugging with his teeth he started from the neck at the point of the original gaping wound. From there, each bite and pull of massive paw drew the hide of the seal closer to its rear flippers. Someone made the comment it was like “peeling a banana” and actually that wasn’t far from the truth. To me it was more like rolling down a turtleneck. Either way, shucking the hide to expose the nutrients was the technique he was using.
I’ve seen many bears eat and it’s never as frantic as our nightmares suggest. Quite the contrary. Each time I’ve been fortunate enough to observe this behavior, whether it’s black, grizzly or polar bear, eating has always been very slow. Never have I seen a bear “wolfing” its food, a very appropriate description for the bruin’s true wilderness brother. No, “wolfing” doesn’t describe any bear’s eating habits that I’ve been witness to and that has always surprised me. Bears are more what I would characterize as dainty, tearing off small chunks of flesh with their front teeth, chewing a few bites slowly, licking the tidbits from their paws, always alert, checking their surroundings for intruders. This big old bear was the same as all the others, doing what polar bears have done for more than a couple hundred thousand years. Quite simply he was just making a living. Nothing different than what we all do in our own daily lives. In the bear’s world there are no middle men who take care of our dirty but necessary deeds. No, we’ve circumvented the system by paying others to create meals. It’s cleaner that way. No blood on our faces or our hands. No need to lick our paws when virtually everything we east comes wrapped in cellophane.
The day extends into what normally would be night, but here in the arctic the light is just getting good. We shoot until we all decide we’ve had enough. The bear wanders off for a nap. Mark and I discuss the options for our nightly anchorage and the Captain agrees that it’s calm enough to stay where we’re at. As I collect my cameras I think to myself, “what a bonus day,” a favorite phrase used to remind myself how lucky I am to witness such incredible natural wonders.
August 17, 50F
This morning is even more tranquil than the day before. We eat breakfast and shortly thereafter head into Liefdefjorden, the glaciated, submerged valley we photographed the mother and cubs at two weeks earlier. It’s a beautiful morning, the sun is shining, glaciers in every direction, the water beneath our bow peppered with chunks of ancient ice as far as the eye can see.
Almost everyone is on deck, binoculars raised in search of anything – mostly bears – and it’s Sarah that spots a strange-looking berg floating calmly amongst the others. “It’s a polar bear,” she cries out in an English accent barely audible above the droning engine. Captain Mark pulls the throttle back and turns the boat in the direction she’s anxiously pointing. There drifting amid the berg bits bobs a piece of white ice with edges too round and a snout too black to mislead us any further. It really is a polar bear and he is doing what all polar bears have done so well for nearly 250,000 years, gliding quietly through the water hunting for seals.
The Captain gets us headed in the right direction then suppresses the engine to nearly idle. The bear is swimming slowly and we maintain a respectable distance of 200 yards, watching. As he paddles among the smaller bits of ice there’s a larger piece the size of a small house. We’re all hopeful he may climb up and pose for our cameras but that’s our desire, not the bears. He gives the berg a serious look, then passes it quietly. At one point a seal comes into view, it swims towards the bear, they make eye contact at about twenty five yards and confirm the others presence. The seal knows all too well the danger just ahead and prudently slips beneath the water, vanishing instantly. The waters within the deep fjord are as still as glass and equally reflective. Such calm allows the Captain to maneuver the ship with precision, slowly shadowing the bear until he finally pulls himself out of the frigid waters onto an island. We stay back and give him room, watching him make his way onto the ridge, terns scattering in all directions. Here he may find a snack of tern eggs or maybe even a chick but most likely anything he finds will be all too small to satiate the appetite of an animal that can reach nearly 1500 pounds.
Three hours of great photography end as we pull back out into the main channel of the Liefdefjorden. At the head of the fjord are glaciers so massive it’s hard to believe. Everybody on this trip is excited to visit and photograph these massive walls of ancient ice. Almost every valley between mountain peaks has its own version of a frozen river, and it’s hard not to be impressed by these gargantuan sheets of frozen water. When viewed from a distance you can easily see the patterns of motion, many glaciers meeting at a third way of the way down from all summits. Here they come together to form an even larger block, the walls reaching hundreds of feet in the air. At ocean’s edge the ice stops, that is until the forces of nature splits and then sheds smaller pieces of ice, ejecting them into the frigid waters of the fjord by what is known as “calving.” Calving is an volatile event or so it seems from our perspective. When the ice breaks, it most often does so with a huge explosive rumbling like that of bomb or the clapping of thunder from a prairie storm. It can be heard from miles and miles away. As the ice drops from the frozen cliffs it piles into the liquid seas, often times the brutal force creates waves that attack the glacier’s base causing further degradation and additional calves. It’s a hard thing to photograph since you never know where to point the camera. Sometimes the process can be so huge you hear the sound before the event is over giving you time to quickly swing your lens to capture the final stages.
On the east side of the fjord we see a huge flock of gulls. They appear to be feeding on something. As we approach it’s obvious that they are working the waters of what seems to be a channel of moving water. From what we can tell there is most likely a river of melt-water streaming out from under the glacier and the nutrients being flushed are what they are after. You could see the current by watching the gulls. Many were sitting on the water while others circled overhead. The birds on the water would continually drift further out into the fjord. Eventually, they would take to their wings and fly back to the base of the glacier, repeating the process over and over again. It was spectacular to watch and document. The snow white birds against the shadows of the dark blue ice made for dramatic and beautiful imagery. It was another fabulous event to behold.
August 18, 50F
Another great morning. Skies are still blue. We spent a quiet night anchored in the protected waters of Virgohamna but are now on a southerly route on our way back to Longyearbyen. We still have a couple of days left for photography and the captain has a place for possible Puffins and other arctic birds. He also mentions that last year there was an arctic fox den in the area as well, so I’m excited for the possible opportunities ahead.
Virgohamna is a great place for Harbor Seals. Last night after dinner we spent the evening taking pictures of these charismatic, beautiful creatures that haul out onto the rocks at ocean’s edge. We shot until 10:00pm with the light being as dramatic and beautiful as any we’ve had on both trips. To get our pictures we took the Zodiac, all of us shooting either handheld or with a monopod. No tripods in the Zodiacs. Just too much to deal with for a crowded little boat. It’s these situations that the Vibration Reduction technology in my Nikon lenses really comes into play. The light was exceptionally low on the horizon and at this time of night it is not very bright. That being the case you have to shoot at slower shutter speeds which is not what you want when working handheld, telephotos lenses from a floating craft of any sort. But this is the exact situation where this technology really shines. Generally, to get good crisp images there is a old tried and true rule of thumb that suggests you should use a shutter speed equal to or greater than the length of the lens you’re shooting. With VR you can get away with slower shutter speeds. So, in low-light situations, with powerful telephotos, having Vibration Reduction as an option is a huge advantage.
It was a wonderful shoot in spectacular low evening light that is so common during summer months in the arctic. Back to the ship at 10:30pm feeling a bit tired but exhilarated from a great shoot with such such appealing subjects.
August 18, 48F
The day starts early, around 7:00am, Mark sparks the engines and we slowly make our way out of the protected waters of Virgohamna. It’s going to be a long day of travel with as many as 12 hours of constant motoring. Our last days of both trips have included many hours of just moving from point A to point B. The long hours of travel are made necessary by our extended stay in the north for optimum polar bear viewing. Mark suggests we overnight in Kongsfjorden where he knows of a very active bird cliff. I agree it sounds like a good stop.
Twelve hours later we find ourselves in the beautiful but very windy fjord of Kongsfjorden. We motor up close to a cliff that rises several hundred feet out of the water and is home to a colony of nesting Kittiwakes. Like all gulls they are noisy. The spectacle of so much bird life at such close range inspires everyone to grab their gear for pictures. We make a couple of passes beneath the rookery then head for a calmer bay where we are able to board our Zodiac and make our way to shore. Our original goal was to hike up to the bird cliffs but we never made it that far. Everybody was excited to be on the ground and along the way we ran into several reindeer, a ptarmigan family and numerous scenic opportunities.
t was a gorgeous arctic night with no wind, no bugs and the warm cast of the arctic sunbathing all that it touched in the glorious color of gold. Our hike up the mountain began around 7:30pm and lasted until nearly 10:30pm. The reindeer we encountered were relatively tame, allowing us to approach within an acceptable range for good pictures. They’re an interesting little creature, a subspecies to the typical northern European reindeer that is considerably smaller and more round in the belly. Almost all of them look pregnant whether male or female. But that’s not possible since it’s way past the calving time for these petite and compact ungulates.
Our time with the reindeer was interrupted by a family of Rock Ptarmigans that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. One minute we’re training our lenses on subjects in the distance and the next they are focused closer to our feet. I retract the three sections of my Gitzo tripod so my camera is closer to ptarmigan height. Several others do the same. We sit down on the tundra and the brown-topped birds with a white underbelly just keep coming closer. They are so unconcerned, no fear whatsoever. They are undoubtedly very busy, pecking the ground, picking up something only ten feet out in front of us. Occasionally an odd little noise is emitted by one, another responding in kind. We document their behavior as we sit quietly among them. Eventually they move off and disappear over a little ridge. A moment like this, with wild animals, is difficult to put into words. You have to experience it to understand. Everybody is giddy with excitement, giggles, laughter and chatting. Nobody can believe how close they came and how readily they accepted our presence. Not all creatures are this unwary nor is it possible to do the same with more dangerous carnivores. Ptarmigan are no problem as long as they come to you. Bears are another story. Knowing the difference is what separates good wildlife ethics from bad. Sharing the experience and the wisdom with others is very rewarding.
We make our way down the mountain and come across a beautiful, completely intact set of reindeer antlers still attached to the skull and spine. It’s a sad scene but all just part of the revolving circle of life in this arctic ecosystem. What makes these remains so different, than others I often find, is the connection of the head and spine. Except for an occasional polar bear that spends most of its time cruising the coast, there are no large predators to disassemble an animal that has died. The largest carnivore regularly scavenging high mountain tundra is the arctic fox. But even a small reindeer is a bit too large for the miniature fox of the arctic. Typically, in the north where there are grizzlies, wolves, wolverines and other powerful predators, you would not find a skeleton so nearly complete. We take time to photograph the scene and it makes for a good opportunity to show everyone how to use the ever so handy wireless strobe options on my Nikon D7000 camera.
August 19, 45F
Last night after our excursion on shore we motored down Kongsfjorden to the quiet bay that was used as the port for a 1930’s business venture that revolved around the mining of marble. The port of call was New London and it was a tiny, abandoned village built for the workers employed for cutting the newly discovered natural resource that through the ages has been considered such a valuable commodity.
Apparently the excitement of finding this highly sought-after stone clouded the judgment of the investors involved. Loads of money was poured into constructing the infrastructure needed for this newly found opportunity. A power plant was built, several houses erected, a loading dock with accompanying crane was installed to load the heavy cargo on to waiting ships. In short, an entire town was established before they had quarried anything larger than a small sample. Once they mined their first large chunks they found that the marble was not of adequate quality. It easily crumbled in to jagged cubes of useless rock, apparently encouraged by the constant process of freezing and thawing that’s part of the natural cycle in this frigid, northern ecosystem.
When we arrived on shore I immediately thought of Steve from our first trip. Steve lives to photograph rocks and rust and New London had an abundance of both. I was disappointed he wasn’t with us for this stop but our first group was focused on seeing bears. Unfortunately, with that being the overwhelming priority they missed some very interesting sideshows. Steve would have loved this place.
As I walked the tundra taking pictures, a question kept nagging me, “why do humans enjoy investigating old historical locations. What is it that creates so much interest in the past?” The Norwegian government thinks so highly of this old, rotting ghost town they declared it a national historic site. Rules for such locations demand that nothing be taken away or even moved, all visitation must be benign. The simple mandate of leave no trace and take only pictures applied throughout. Delicately exploring the remaining ruins I pondered the question completely.
At the top of a knoll stood two very large, rusty, steel, steam boilers set firmly on two short chunks of railroad track. They apparently represented what was left of the towns power station. In several locations around the twelve foot high, six foot in circumference, silo-like structures, were the remains of decaying wood foundations used to support buildings no longer standing. Among the rubble there was an old English coal-fired stove, a weight scale large enough to accept hundreds of pounds of whatever, English-made bricks, old broken bottles, plates and some cutlery. Sarah was quite helpful in pointing out many of the items that came from her home country of England. It was fascinating and a treasure trove of interesting shapes as well as contradictions between man and nature such as the reindeer antler lying atop the tundra encircled by a rusting, band of steel. We made our way down a path, 100 or so yards outside the historical development, which led to an inactive, defunct, marble quarry. It was here I believe I found the answer to the question of why history is so important. Why do people want to investigate an old, discarded town?
Quite simply, as humans we like to know what happened so we don’t repeat the same mistakes that lead to such a collapse. In short it’s the ever present instinct to survive. As I was poking around I found myself thinking what caused this once thriving, bustling mini settlement to come to a screeching halt and vanish? Obviously, at one time there was so much hope, so much enthusiasm for the future in New London. But with all the passion and optimism there was little planning. Somehow what seemed like a great idea completely imploded, disintegrating like defective marble, taking lives and money with it. I’m convinced humans explore these circumstances in hopes of learning from the missteps of people who have gone before them. Nobody wants to fail and more importantly perish from errors that may be avoidable. That, I’m convinced, is the answer for our curiosity about the past.
Our visit to New London serves as a striking analogy for the Arctic Documentary Project (ADP) which was part of the reason for our adventure to Svalbard. It is the goal of the ADP to document an ecosystem, its animals, landscapes and people before they are gone or drastically changed. The main ambition is to help others understand a region so few know or comprehend. Our nearly five weeks among the islands of Svalbard will eventually help accomplish that goal as well as offer evidence of what the arctic used to be to future generations. I’m truly hopeful that the arctic ecosystem we know today is not headed down the same disastrous path as that of the once bustling, little arctic town of New London.
August 20th Longyearbyen
This concludes the blog entries for our trip to Svalbard/Spitsbergen. Please let me know if you have any questions. I’m happy to answer any you may have. My wife Tanya and I are now heading for Barcelona, Spain. I can’t think of any other places that would offer such contrast to where we’ve been for the past five weeks.
I would like to thank all of our first trips guests that included Linda and Steve, Andrea, Teresa, JoAnne, Tim and Donna and Jo Ann from Wyoming. Also our second trip guests that included, Alice, Jeanne, Sarah, Marianne, Elisabeth and Mark, Andreas and Pat. Most of you are long time friends and supporters of our work. We’re very grateful for that. Lara who kept us well fed and caffeinated as well as Captain Mark that maneuvered us so skillfully to get photographs of this place he loves and has been a part of for so long. Finally, I would like to thank Polar Bears International, Lowepro, Nikon, Outdoor Photographer and the American Polar Society for helping us get the word out. It was a spectacular adventure and one we plan to replicate again next year. Drop us a line if what you see and read makes you want to experience it for yourself.
Join us on the 2012 Spitsbergen-Svalbard Photography Expedition: July 22 – August 5, 2012