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Alexander33

A Trip to the Top of the World: Svalbard, August 2019

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Alexander33

This trip was different from any other I’ve taken in a number of ways.

 

First, our nature-oriented travel has, until now, been concentrated in Africa and the tropical
Americas. This was our first visit not only to the high Arctic, but to any cold climate for
wildlife.


Second, we prefer to travel independently, working with a travel agent to customize our
itineraries. But due to geography and logistics, that’s not economically possible for Svalbard.
The only feasible way for most people to see Svalbard is by organized tour. (We joined a 9-day
tour led by Arctic Wildlife Tours aboard the Swedish vessel MS Malmö with 12 paying guests, 2
guides, an assistant guide, and a researcher.)


Third, given that a group tour was really our only option, we opted specifically for a photo tour,
since I have a developed a specific interest in wildlife and nature photography in the past few
years. My previous exposures to organized photo tours were only by distant observation, and
they were not particularly positive, so I proceeded here with some trepidation.


And fourth, yes, we saw polar bears!

 

 

Polar Bear I PSD.jpg

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TonyQ

I am looking forward to this. You chose a small boat so that should be interesting! And a bear start us off...

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janzin

Finally!! I've been waiting eagerly for this...we follow in your footsteps in May (and a few other STer's are going this season as well!) More, more!

 

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Atravelynn

You DO get around.  Beautiful colors, including the big white splotch, in your first photo.

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pomkiwi

@Alexander33 Very much looking forward to this - both because I will be going to Svalbard in May (on a larger boat than yours) ansd also to see ho wyour trip compared wiyth my recent excursion to Canada.

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xelas

Looking forward to read all about Svalbard, and related logistics. First photo is a great teaser, @Alexander33!

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Alexander33

@TonyQ, @janzin, @Atravelynn, @pomkiwi, @xelas, and to everyone else who left “likes”, thanks for following along.

 

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Alexander33

Choosing Svalbard

 

Planning this trip was an education in itself. 

 

I spent a decent amount of time looking at options in and around Churchill, Manitoba (Canada) as well as Barter Island off the north coast of Alaska, but, for a variety of reasons, I kept pivoting back to Svalbard.

 

I’d been thinking about Svalbard on and off for several years, ever since we visited with a friendly Australian couple we’d met on another trip.  They had been to both Svalbard and Churchill.  “The chances of seeing polar bears up close are probably better in Churchill,” they explained.  “But if you want to see polar bears and other wildlife in a truly wild and majestic wilderness, then go to Svalbard.”

 

Svalbard tours are by ship (with Zodiac excursions), which is an efficient way to cover a vast area in relative comfort.  The tours generally also seem to be a little longer than those in Manitoba and Alaska, which appealed to me.  The main downside is the cost.  But the idea of sailing for more than a week through an enormous Arctic wilderness, past floes of sea ice and rugged snowy peaks, prevailed on me in the end. 

 

I certainly could see myself going to Churchill or Barter Island someday, but this time, Svalbard was our choice, and I’d have to find a way for it to work financially.

 

Edited by Alexander33

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Alexander33

Selecting a Tour

 

If choosing the destination had been a challenge, it paled in comparison to the challenges I encountered in trying to settle on a tour operator.  I knew I wanted a smaller, more intimate experience, so that ruled out, for example, the National Geographic/Lindblad expedition, which utilizes a ship accommodating 148 guests.  The smallest group tours I found were limited to 12 guests, so I decided to focus on those, but even then, there seemed to be an array of photo tours of this size, and I encountered a surprising amount of disparity in cost among them – and by that, I mean in the multiple thousands of dollars per person.

 

After a few months of casually reviewing, over and over, the numerous options, suddenly I had an aha! moment.  These smaller photo tours, no matter the operator, were all using the same handful of ships: the MS Freya, the MS Origo, the MS Sjøveien, the MS Noorderlicht, the MS Stockholm, and ours, the MS Malmö, etc.  Many of these are older ships, many originally used for military purposes in the region, that have been restored or rebuilt and retain a level of old-fashioned charm.

 

Our ship, the MS Malmö

 

1493049658_MSMalmo.jpg.812dd0309291502d50f988256cc32467.jpg

 

 

These ships all have their crews and their costs, so it occurred to me that the main driver of the price differences I was seeing really just centered on what premium the tour operator thought it could generate.  Tours led by a famous photographer, featuring haute cuisine, or promoted by a well-established worldwide travel outfit with slick marketing materials can attract customers willing to pay more. 

 

Another thing I noticed is that many of the operators offering tours in Svalbard were based out of places like the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia, and they were bringing in tour guides from those same places, flying them in a few days before the tour and flying them out with the other guests at the end.  Not only did this potentially add to the bottom line, but there was also the question of how much experience the photographer guide actually had in Svalbard.  While I know there are some very highly qualified photographers from disparate locations around world whose entire reputations have been built on their polar work, I decided to play it safe and focus solely on outfits offering Nordic guides. 

 

That narrowed the field tremendously.

 

Finally, while I had settled on a photo tour, what I really wanted was a “photo lite” tour, where the guests were all enthusiastic about photography, but the experience itself still took precedence.  The last thing I wanted was to see a polar bear for the first time, only to have some voice behind me barking, “Watch the light!  Open up those apertures!  Don’t forget your exposure compensation!”

 

Was there anything remotely like that out there?

 

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Alexander33

As it turned out, yes.  In fact, I narrowed my search to two viable choices.

 

Wild Photo, led by Norwegian photographers Roy Mangersnes and Ole Jørgen Liodden, was a leading candidate.  They’ve been operating in Svalbard for years and actually have a gallery in Longyearbyen, the main town in Svalbard.  They have a good reputation.

 

The other option was Arctic Wildlife Tours, which basically is a one-man operation led by Norwegian photographer Svein Wik.  He’s only led tours to Svalbard and northern Norway (although he’s expanding in 2021 to Ladakh for snow leopards and Kodiak Island, Alaska for brown and grizzly bears) .  His marketing materials don’t rival the big guys (although they are rapidly improving), and his invoicing practices aren’t particularly sophisticated.  But he works hard to keep his overhead costs down, and, as a result, I found his tours to be more affordable than others – in some cases, substantially so.

 

I also liked his low-key approach.  Per the Arctic Wildlife Tours website, “Our typical guests have a high interest in nature photography and as such, these topics are the focus of our expeditions. But we also welcome less experienced photographers and nature enthusiasts into our world, so you can see what we see.”

 

I couldn’t find a lot of information about this operation from other travelers online, but my instinct told me that they were legit.  So I took a leap of faith and wired our cash deposit (in Norwegian krone) to a bank in the inauspiciously-named town of Hell, Norway; crossed my fingers that Svein really was a conservationist and not some crook in eastern Europe swindling me out of almost more money than I’ve ever spent on a vacation before; and then began the long 14-month wait for our departure date.

 

Edited by Alexander33

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Alexander33

Well, enough of the pre-trip drama. 

 

We spent 4 days in Oslo before arriving in Longyearbyen on August 21.  We boarded our ship on the afternoon of August 22 and returned to port on the night of August 30, disembarking the next morning.

 

And in the intervening days, the wonders of the wild Arctic slowly revealed themselves, including the soft, limpid northern sunlight…

 

1034394099_SvalbardLandscapeIIPSD.jpg.d70c7906dd6730d7cf51f2a05f003645.jpg

 

 

mysterious clouds…

 

1516865687_SvalbardLandscapeVIJBPSD.jpg.f7b41bd0f22cb6333bb1b376cae02d73.jpg

 

 

haunting fog…

 

1529914858_IceFloesinFogVIIIPSD.jpg.110d55f286545d58d8a59f3a4034e7c4.jpg

 

 

polar bears…

 

1867154633_PolarBearXIIv_4PSD.jpg.393bdaca86752c31abf5267c84fb579d.jpg

 

 

walruses…

 

770015628_WalruswPeterPSD.jpg.584cdc7c95dfd1842cc2375914df57b5.jpg

 

 

whales…

 

Fin Whale

 

1745206748_WhaleIPSD.jpg.565c4f167ce44bffb825d91200002e75.jpg

 

 

glaciers…

 

496217276_GlacierwithJBPSD.jpg.515494d7f93a51f474810392f08e8876.jpg

 

 

reindeer…

 

Svalbard Reindeer (a distinct endemic subspecies)

 

1016910451_ReindeerIIPSD.jpg.d7751659f796c77231d7c5a8d0a61748.jpg

 

 

seals…

 

Bearded Seal

 

368564922_BeardedSealIPSDv2.jpg.87304ab345a1c94691004924dce43bd9.jpg

 

 

and, at the time we traveled, the last few remnants of a midnight sun casting its gentle rays over thick floes of sea ice.  

 

Midnight in Svalbard

 

1005123547_MidnightSunIv2PSD.jpg.ac449be21ce17d98e7c434be5f0df82c.jpg

 

 

 

Oh, and a storm, too…..

 

 

Edited by Alexander33

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COSMIC RHINO

great photos

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janzin

Wow!! Fantastic photos. I hope at some point you can comment on any issues photographing in the arctic, off the zodiacs, etc. Meantime I look forward eagerly to more!

 

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Alexander33
10 hours ago, janzin said:

Wow!! Fantastic photos. I hope at some point you can comment on any issues photographing in the arctic, off the zodiacs, etc. Meantime I look forward eagerly to more!

 

 

Thanks, @janzin. Yes, definitely. I will be imparting a real life lesson-learned about photographing from Zodiacs about midway through, and then will sum up my overall thoughts at the end. 

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xelas

Excellent photography in tough conditions! You have done a very detailed homework about outfitters; any chance to share also the cost, even if in a 1k USD ball park?

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janzin
16 minutes ago, Alexander33 said:

I will be imparting a real life lesson-learned about photographing from Zodiacs about midway through, and then will sum up my overall thoughts at the end. 

 

uh-oh that sounds ominous LOL. :o You've got me really curious. A wild guess...I've been researching dry bags...

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TonyQ

Excellent photos, great start 

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Zubbie15

What a great start, beautiful photos. My wife and I will be on the same trip as @janzin next year, the recent reports featuring polar bears are really getting me excited! I'll also be looking forward to any tips, this will be a very different trip for us. 

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ice
15 hours ago, Alexander33 said:

The main downside is the cost. 

 

are they really more expensive than trips in Churchill?

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janzin
18 minutes ago, ice said:

 

are they really more expensive than trips in Churchill?

 

@ice I would say they are comparable in overall cost...BUT if you actually if you look at the cost per day...the Svalbard trips can be less expensive, since the Churchill trips are usually only 6 nights and of those, only two or three days of potential bear viewing...unless you stay at the Tundra Lodge which is 7 nights and $10K and even then you only get four nights/3 days in the actual Tundra Lodge.

 

I don't know about the cost of the type of trip that @pomkiwi did in Churchill.

 

These small ships are usually 8 to 11 nights (not sure how many days @Alexander33 's trip was, but ours will be 8 nights on a 16-passenger ship plus one night in Longyearbyen, so 7 full days of (potential!) wildlife viewing, and less expensive than the Tundra Lodge package with Natural Habitat (who are the main purveyors in Churchill.)

 

Of course if you go on a larger ship then Svalbard could be even less expensive.

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ice

Well yeah, I would obviously break it down to the cost per (wildlife viewing) day. This tour here also seems to have the added bonus of actually having been "in the wild". Not sure if Churchill qualifies for that (at least imho)

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kittykat23uk

Beautiful first photos. Well it looks like I am on the el cheapo bigger boat (sharing a quad cabin) compared to the rest of you so it will be very interesting to compare the different experiences. I will also be going a bit later than @janzin and @Zubbie15 in mid June. 

 

On the plus side a couple who I travelled with to Borneo this year had done the same cruise as me and had plenty of good sightings. 

 

I would be interested to know if it is worth adding a few nights on land to the start of the tour either in longyearbyen or Oslo and if anyone has any recommendations for guided excursions..? 

 

Regarding Churchill, I took the same view as @Alexander@Alexander33 there are some interesting field course/field centre options which I might take up at some point depending on how successful my svalbard trip is. 

Edited by kittykat23uk

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Alexander33
4 hours ago, xelas said:

Excellent photography in tough conditions! You have done a very detailed homework about outfitters; any chance to share also the cost, even if in a 1k USD ball park?

 

The cost of an August 2020 tour by Arctic Wildlife Tours on the same ship as ours is currently listed as ranging from 59,500 NOK for a double cabin with shared facility to 65,500 NOK for a double cabin with private facilities to 69,500 NOK for a superior cabin with private facilities.  These are per person rates.  Based on an online calculator of today's exchange rate of NOK to USD, the superior cabin would cost $7,580.23 per person.  The exchange rate you can find through a bank is not going to be as favorable, so probably add $800 to $1000 on top of that to be safe.

 

1 hour ago, ice said:

are they really more expensive than trips in Churchill?

 

They certainly can be.  It all depends on the ship, the operator, the length of the tour (although they don't appear to vary much -- they are generally a minimum of 8 nights and a maximum of 10 nights), and the time of year.  Do a  Google search for "Svalbard Photo Tour", and you will be able find tours for $12,995.00, $13,500.00, etc., per person.  Multiply that by 2 persons, and that's quite a bit higher than for the standard Churchill tours.  However, indeed, our particular tour was less.

 

Speaking of tour length, tours earlier in the year (March to May) frequently seem to be a few days shorter than those offered later on.  From what I can tell, this is due to the ice pack.  Tour ships early in the year are often limited to traversing only the more ice-free waters of the west coast of Spitsbergen.  With more ice melt later in the year, ships can go farther afield towards the east, but this necessitates more days to travel (and, correspondingly, a higher cost).

 

I also agree with @janzin's assessment: Measured on a daily basis, Svalbard offers the benefit of more time in the wild, because the tour lengths there typically do not include any internal travel (arrival in Longyearbyen is counted as "Day 0"), whereas all of the Churchill trips I saw did (although I did see one Svalbard photo tour that commenced in Oslo and included an overnight there, so watch out for that).

 

Edited by Alexander33

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Alexander33
3 hours ago, janzin said:

 

uh-oh that sounds ominous LOL. :o You've got me really curious. A wild guess...I've been researching dry bags...

 

Fortunately, not so catastrophic, @janzin.  We both had dry bags and used them religiously.  By the way, I'll post a gear and packing list at the end of the report.

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ice

those 4 days you spend in Oslo, were they part of the package you paid for?

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