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


Alexander33

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22 minutes ago, Alexander33 said:

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.

 

 

I had phrased my question too vague - I was specifically asking about the company you booked with. From a first glance at the rates posted on theit website, it seems to me their prices are better value than most of those in Canada.

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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 n

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 o

As it turned out, it was a mother and cub.  Svein and the guides and crew were quite happy about this.  The mother was a young female, known to them, and this was thought to be her first cub. Both loo

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Alexander33

No, our package only covered us from the moment we stepped on the ship to the moment we disembarked. All meals onboard the ship (plus water, coffee, tea, little desserts during the day) were included, but alcoholic beverages were separate. I don't recall if soft drinks were included or not.  They accept all major credit cards on the ship.

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Alexander33
6 minutes ago, ice said:

 

I had phrased my question too vague - I was specifically asking about the company you booked with. From a first glance at the rates posted on theit website, it seems to me their prices are better value than most of those in Canada.

 

I agree, which was one of the factors that tipped Svalbard in our favor.  We still had to stretch to pay for the trip, though.  That's what I meant when I said I'd have to find a way to make this trip work for us from a financial perspective.

 

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kittykat23uk

Many thanks @Zubbie15I've sent them an enquiry. 

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pomkiwi

Apologies for continuing the cost diversion from this report but to answer the question posed earlier the cost of my trip to Hudson Bay was about US$12000 per person. This included 2 nights in Winnipeg, return flights to Churchill and then return flights to the lodge in a small plane. I had 5 nights in the lodge which was 210km from the nearest settlement and hence definitely remote. I think it is fair to say that the experience was quite different from that offered by the mainstream providers in Churchill itself.


In comparison my Svalbard trip in May on a 53 berth vessel is around $8000 per person for 6 nights and 1 in a local hotel. 

 

I look forward to comparing the experience as well as the cost 🙂

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Alexander33

With such a robust discussion about costs, let’s proceed now and see what we got for our money.

 

 

Our Journey Begins

 

We boarded the Malmö right on time, and met the other guests with whom we’d be sharing tight quarters for the next 9 nights. 

 

There definitely were some serious photographers aboard, probably none more so than the National Geographic photographer who was embarking on a one-year stay in Svalbard on a grant to study climate change.  Balancing that gravitas was the fact that he was a big cut-up and a constant source of entertainment.

 

There were also two Norwegian photographers, with some serious equipment, whose work has appeared in galleries there.  Fortunately, they were also incredibly kind and generous to the rest of us. 

 

J. and I were part of the enthusiastic amateur crowd, along with a Canadian couple; a Swedish couple; an Australian couple; a Norwegian gentleman who readily shared his impressive knowledge about Arctic wildlife; and two German doctors who were very intent on their photographic mission, but, in the end, were unable to resist the easygoing camaraderie that developed on the ship.

 

Joining Svein was another guide, Jens, and one of the Norwegian photographers was also there to help guests with questions and suggestions.  The ship’s crew consisted of the captain, co-captain, an engineer, a cook, an assistant who organized meals and tidied up the ship, and two deckhands, all from Sweden.

 

After a brief orientation and safety instructions, we were on our way, headed north past the rugged shoreline and snowcapped mountain peaks of the western coast of Spitsbergen (the only populated island in the Svalbard archipelago).

 

1720289424_WestSvlabardI.jpg.51767a20385715ddcd4c8d2b05bdfdc5.jpg

 

 

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I quickly found the perfect place to scan the landscape by sitting on one of the Zodiacs and watching the world go by. 

 

1335937628_PeteronShip.jpg.ef43b0bff61681fbf22007ccdbece612.jpg

 

 

From time to time, I would make a half-hearted attempt to photograph passing Atlantic Puffins in flight, with varying degrees of failure.

 

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Midnight Sun

 

761045066_WestSvalbardSunset.jpg.ea10ff26866e59d47e6915eda6714f7e.jpg

 

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Alexander33

Bam, bam, bam!  Knuckles rapping on our door startled us out of our surprisingly deep slumber.

 

“Blue whales!” shouted Jens.

 

We lifted the cover to one of the portholes in our room.  Daylight filled the room.  What time was it?  4:30 AM.  Oh, that’s right.

 

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From the crow’s nest of the ship, Svein and Jens, aided by the Norwegian photographer and the National Geographic photographer, scouted for wildlife in shifts, 24 hours a day.  You never knew when something might appear.  If you didn’t want to be awakened for a sighting you could request that, but no one on this ship did.

 

We all scrambled up to the deck to see the largest mammal in the world – the blue whale.  A small pod of them were ahead of us, and we gently followed them for 30 minutes or so, being careful to not get too close.

 

The overcast sky left the light quite flat, and it was a challenge to make any kind of interesting photos. 

 

532916840_BlueWhaleI.jpg.df0a14984634a5193ce8b8313fc19434.jpg

 

 

1064531237_WhaleFlukeIPSD.jpg.4245229e52acc78dbca870ea807714bb.jpg

 

 

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With the somber sky and water, the easiest way for us to predict where these whales might pop up next was for us to follow the flocks of birds that trailed along, feeding in a frenzy on the leftovers.

 

1436687484_WhaleVII.jpg.57223a432a90713ffdcae3e0bdc1fb39.jpg

 

 

534858291_WhaleVI.jpg.11e58b5657c8dc35659907704172712f.jpg

 

 

We were told that blue whales are so massive that their weight prevents them from breaching in the spectacular fashion one may see with humpbacks or grey whales.  Perhaps someone with more knowledge than I can chime in, because we’ve seen fin whales, which are second only to blues, make very impressive breaches in British Columbia.  We did not have that experience with the fin whales – or any of the other whales – that we saw on this trip.

 

                                   

 

 

 “We’ve got a report on a female polar bear with two cubs,” Jens said.  “They’re on a whale carcass.  Go back to sleep, and we’ll wake you when we get there.”

 

We settled back into our room, and drifted off.

 

An hour later: Bam, bam, bam! 

 

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Alexander33

By the time we arrived at the whale carcass, the polar bear family had decided to take a nap behind some rocks.

 

738882525_BearSleepingintheRocks.jpg.60b6245cf2df751809e9f016161a0966.jpg

 

 

So our first polar bear sighting went something like this:

 

“You see that large rock?  Now, go down and to the left a little bit.  See that bit of white?”

 

Me: “Uh, no.”

 

“Okay, so you see that big rock?  So, just a ways down, there’s some white?”

 

Me: “That’s snow.”

 

“No, not there.  More to the left.  See that?  It’s not as white as the snow to the right.”

 

Me (very dubiously): “Oh, yeah.  Okay….”

 

“So you’ve seen your first polar bear!”

 

Me: “Are you sure that’s not a patch of snow?  I think that’s snow. Where’s the bear again?”

 

So although this technically counted toward the official tally, it didn’t count in my book.  I was still wanting to really see a polar bear.

 

(By the way, the photo above is actually of a lone male bear, also sleeping amongst some rocks, that we saw later in the trip.  This initial sighting I’m describing was much further away and more compromised than that, so much so that I deleted the few photos I attempted.)

 

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Alexander33

The remainder of the day was spent sailing past the fjords and majestic mountains of the northern side of Spitsbergen and the fjords to the east.

 

1131607960_SvalbardLandscapeIVPSD.jpg.1357340b05b30b8c28c555f21cec93e9.jpg

 

 

2098778933_SvalbardLandscapeVPSD.jpg.cf923ae2bc208bda2e9db7bc00bdc2d8.jpg

 

 

752180178_SvalbardLandscapeXIPSDJB.jpg.22496e42109111b22948c770f0ee7075.jpg

 

 

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1068557971_SvalbardLandscapeXPSD.jpg.468770437363798237152f7373391eda.jpg

 

 

In fact, here’s a map where I’ve crudely traced our route: outbound is in red, and inbound is in purple, with each segment accounting for roughly half the trip.

 

1256346296_Svalbard.EntireRoute(1).jpg.c827d6a284b48f620bf1080f306df810.jpg

 

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Zubbie15

Very nice, you did well with the blue whales even with the challenging light. When your day they got a report of the bears on the carcass, do you know how did that work? Were the various ships in contact? 

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Alexander33

The next morning, we were awakened and informed that they’d be lowering the Zodiacs into the water.  The plan was to land on a small island where a colony of walruses had beached themselves.

 

And then began the ritual of donning our layers.  First the inner layer, both tops and bottoms, of thin merino wool; then two mid-layers for me, a fleece jacket topped by a down jacket; and then the outer layer, a thin waterproof, windproof hooded jacket above, and padded and lined waterproof pants below.  A wool cap on the head and knee-high waterproof muck boots with wool insoles on the feet.  And a ship-supplied life vest over all this.

 

Ready to go!

 

Our Zodiac

 

1595392341_ZodiacPSD.jpg.52d4f39f02e06cb1abf3b4f9e5d55a49.jpg

 

 

I had expected the walruses to be huge, and they were. The dominant bulls would simply plow into the middle of the group.

 

490554602_WalrusColonyIPSD.jpg.774372f789219a7511754f6f03fbbbe1.jpg

 

 

1644711464_WalrusColonyIIPSD.jpg.a1055b00b2227fd1119951b8bb222535.jpg

 

 

1383975086_WalrusVPSD.jpg.7a580e6b47a8dadc34e2bdf45f65da8c.jpg

 

 

This big bull found that the easiest way to reach the water was to roll himself down there.

 

319814948_Walrus.RollingIPSD.jpg.78e52308f33639c4d3c8343e5dcb578c.jpg

 

 

1617080310_Walrus.RollingIIPSD.jpg.de6b43f57e874ba0c005a87c4b81d134.jpg

 

 

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120930034_Walrus.RollingVJBPSD.jpg.384e3bb8a66a2e618892795476a82963.jpg

 

 

It’s not easy to make interesting photos of walruses, so I focused on close-ups.  Despite each having “a face only a mother could love” (as we say), they did each have their own distinctive personalities.

 

586857461_WalrusIIIPSD.jpg.af1a891910ac72b9d22bad97fcbed3bf.jpg

 

 

9358732_WalrusIIPSD.jpg.85917af715cdb74c40dccb28ea41dbf6.jpg

 

 

393320469_WalrusIPSD.jpg.4994b7618195e83584d9b5eaf35c389d.jpg

 

 

1960643435_WalrusIVPSD.jpg.13e9f45694148cfe7949ab8bb3346d72.jpg

 

 

1821613732_WalrusVIPSD.jpg.85f11510d73939c8f163493aba392e93.jpg

 

 

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357928555_Walrus.DetailsPSD.jpg.26f44ac35a2786166339fe433f8a83e1.jpg

 

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Alexander33
3 minutes ago, Zubbie15 said:

Very nice, you did well with the blue whales even with the challenging light. When your day they got a report of the bears on the carcass, do you know how did that work? Were the various ships in contact? 

 

@Zubbie15  Thanks.  Yes, the various ships were in radio contact with one another.  In addition, the bears will feed on a whale or walrus carcass for a quite a number of days, or even weeks, so a lot of these sites are already known by the guides by the time they take a particular tour group by there.  This would not be the only time we sought bear sightings in that manner.

 

In fact, on our return, we passed by that same spot, and this time, the sow and her cubs were awake and roaming around the carcass, which was still there, just a bit worse for the wear.  :)  So all was not lost.  But I get ahead of myself!

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Wow, wow, and more wow on those Walrus shots! Who says walrus(es)? what's the plural of walrus lol?) don't make interesting subjects?!

 

Were these all with the 500PF?

And what lens were you using for the scenic shots? (I know, I know, you said you'd tell us later but I'm so eager!)

 

BTW, Svein and Jens will be our guides too.  Wild World India (who I booked with) chartered the Freya through Arctic Wildlife tours.

 

 

 

 

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pomkiwi

@Alexander33 So pleased we are underway 😀 Superb photos - you managed to make the whale encounter atmospheric and interesting despite your doubts.

I will join @janzin in asking for details of your camera and lenses.....

Edited by pomkiwi
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kittykat23uk

Great walrus sightings! Do all the ships stop at at least one haul out and, once you've done one walrus zodiac trip is that it for walrus or did you get more than one bite at the cherry? 

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Kitsafari

@Alexander33

 

OMW! those fantastic photos have once again stirred a desire in me to cough up a small fortune for those spectacular landscapes and fabulous wildlife. 

I've been keen to go since Janzin had mentioned the possibility of going with Vikram but I think I had held off as there were already plans for africa for 2020. 

But now having seen your photos - your photos absolutely delivered the remoteness, the tranquility, the stillness and the quietness of enjoying the moment and just being there. 

I'm so looking forward to more..... don't wait too long to put up the next instalment!

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Alexander33

Oh, somebody has awakened the English major here for a little pre-Thanksgiving grammar smackdown!  :D

 

According to an explanation on Stack Exchange, “Only some words of Latin extraction ending in -us, which were second declension nouns in Latin, take -i as pluralWalrus comes from Dutch, and is akin to Danish and Norwegian hvalros. It is not a Latin second declension noun, so there is no reason it would be pluralized with -i. The plural of walrus is walruses.”

 

So, there!

 

Actually, other online sources, including the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, state that the plural can be either walrus (just like the singular) or walruses.

 

The latter sounds best to my ear, obviously, but then I found someone who evidently has too much time on his hands and, in these days of seemingly constant outrage, actually started this online petition to Merriam-Webster on change.org:

 

“The plural of walrus is currently ‘walruses.’ This is incorrect and blasphemous. Walri is the proper and more commonly accepted term. We must change the English language to define walri as the one and only plural of walrus.”

 

The petition was closed after garnering a whopping 11 votes in support, so I guess that movement’s not going anywhere soon.

 

Anyway, as the Ella Fitzgerald song goes, “You like to-may-to, I like to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing off more than one walrus whatever sounds right to you.....”  :)

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Alexander33

@janzin, @pomkiwithank you for your kind words, and @janzin, you are absolutely correct, the close-up portraits of the walruses  were taken with the 500 PF, with the 1.4 teleconverter. This is exactly the kind of situation I bought that lens for, where the background is either distant or simple and the depth of field it’s going to bring (f/8 with the TC) actually is a benefit. I also used that set-up frequently when photographing from the ship.

 

Most of the scenic shots by me were taken with the 10-24 DX, but, honestly, the landscape there is so majestic that any variety of focal lengths could be effective, depending upon what you’re trying to convey. In fact, many of J.’s landscapes were taken with the 80-400.

 

How amazing that Svein and Jens will be guiding your group as well! Say “hi” to them for me.

 

 

@kittykat23uk

 

That was our only stop for a walrus haul-out. There was one occasion when we were split up between the two Zodiacs where a large bull came out of the water, right next to the craft, but unfortunately we were in the other Zodiac and missed it.

 

I don’t know whether a single visit is pretty much a standard tour protocol, or if that’s just the way it worked out for us, although with only so much time, and guests who more than likely want to emphasize the search for polar bears, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the former. 

 

I will say that it was repeatedly emphasized that our route and itinerary would be governed by the likelihood of sightings.  Certainly the route we took, as posted on the map earlier, was not preordained, as I will explain in greater detail in the next few posts.

 

 

@Kitsafari, @Towlersonsafariand everyone else, wow, thank you for following along.  I appreciate your support, and am enjoying reliving our trip through this report.

 

 

Our Thanksgiving holiday is about to commence, so I’m going to take a few days off for that, but will back and ready to pick things up in short order.

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Excellent Walrus photos, really interesting faces.

The landscapes are stunning 

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wonderful walrus pictures!!  my husband and I will be on the Vikram trip along with the ST group.  we'll have the smallest cameras and the widest eyes!  this report is getting me very excited!  Thanks so much for all the details!

 

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Alexander33

@jmharack

 

Big cameras not required; wide eyes inevitable. I envy that you’ve got an upcoming trip there. I’d love to go back, and I can’t wait to hear about your experience. 

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kittykat23uk

Thank you @Alexander33 that is very interesting. Did you get many close encounters with Arctic foxes and birds such as King eiders, phalaropes, ptarmigan etc? That might sway me as to whether or not to include some extra time.

 

In any event, it looks like I will be on a flight arriving in longyearbyen at 0040 either the day before my cruise or on the day of the cruise (awaiting advice on this point), embarkation being in the afternoon and then leaving on the night of disembarking at 0225. 

 

So I should have at least the best part of a day or two to do some wildlife viewing locally if possible. 

 

All the best 

 

Jo 

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Alexander33

@kittykat23uk

 

Jo, I’m away from my computer proper at the moment, but certainly will address your questions about other opportunities to see wildlife besides polar bears when I am back. 

 

I did quickly want to interject here about your itinerary, though, before you finalize your airline arrangements. We were strongly encouraged to arrive in Longyearbyen at least one day before the day of your expedition departure (even though those departures typically are in late afternoon).  The weather in the Arctic can change in a heartbeat, resulting in cancellations of the SAS and Norwegian flights from Oslo. 

 

We we know this firsthand.

 

DA7C32F6-D5E5-4B9E-9372-EB75E2969A27.jpeg.5b2675be3084c22f177e38ac744b88bd.jpeg

 

Fortunately, this happened at the end of our trip, and only resulted in our jet lagged selves having to fly directly home through Oslo rather than spending the night at the airport Radisson Blu there before continuing on, as we had planned. 

 

There are opportunities to see wildlife on day excursions from Longyearbyen, and I will discuss that in greater detail in due course.  

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