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


Alexander33

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kittykat23uk

Thanks @Alexander33 yes I was looking at SAS schedule, there appears to be just two flights per day. One getting in at 0040 and the other at 1240. I'll most likely get the 0040 in a day before my cruise departs. I don't like to be too risky. 

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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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@kittykat23uk, perhaps my April 2017 SAS experience into LYR might help you in your flight timing.  On my previous 2 trips I had no problems, but on this trip my checked bag went astray.  SAS in Oslo is notorious for mishandled baggage.  As insurance, I had added a 2 day padding before my ship departed and I used all but 2 hours of that before my bag arrived.  If my bag hadn't arrived on the last possible flight, I was faced with spending $2-3000 USD for the minimum cold weather gear to make the trip.  (Ample gear is available, but you wouldn't believe the prices)

 

My suggestion is to arrive at least one full day early--there are many things to see and photograph in Longyearbyen--most travel problems involve cancelled flights because of weather, but mine was delayed luggage.

 

@Alexander33, great TR--mirrors much of my experiences during 2 summer trips around Svalbard.

 

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Did you or somebody else keep rack of the temperatures?

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6 minutes ago, ice said:

Did you or somebody else keep rack of the temperatures?

 

Temperatures weren't that extreme in April--typically 0ºF to 20ºF, but coupled with a nasty North wind it was brutal on hands and face.

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8 hours ago, AKChui said:

Temperatures weren't that extreme in April--typically 0ºF to 20ºF, but coupled with a nasty North wind it was brutal on hands and face.

 

Ouch! I hop its a bit warmer in late May. I’m still struggling with gear choices. 

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kittykat23uk

Thanks @AKChui that's really helpful advice. So it sounds like coming at least a day, probably two, early and I might be able to get the 0040 flight home on the night we get back by the sounds of it, according to the cruise company. 

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Atravelynn

Who cares if the light is flat.  You saw Blue!! Whales!!!  Nice job with the walruses.  Thanks for mapping your route.

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Alexander33

 

@Atravelynn

 

Well, I know, right?  That’s the curse for those of us who are interested in photography. We see the ultimate in print or online, and then when we see the real thing, we measure that against those and tend to assess accordingly. It can be pure torture. 

 

I’m reminded of a comment you had awhile back about a photographer on your Churchill trip who complained that the numerous polar bears you all saw were “too dirty.”

 

I totally get it. Obviously, seeing blue whales was a thrill — and we saw them several times. But, that doesn’t stop us from being overly critical or from pursuing an even better situation.  There is never complete satisfaction. It keeps one coming back for more — and learning more and, hopefully, contributing more in some very small way. (And, fortunately, the polar bears we saw weren’t too dirty, either :D ). 

 

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Wow, Peter!  I LOVE the closeup shots of all the walruses!  Of course, all the pictures are wonderful but those really stand out as being unique.  I could count the whiskers if I wanted to :).

 

I am really enjoying your report and look forward to the next installment.

 

Alan

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as far as I understand, you took pictures from the main vessel, from the zodiacs and "on land" - but how many where? I'm obviously not asking for the exact numbers, but rather the spread. Most of them from the vessel, the zodiacs or on land? The reason I'm asking: I film and that's obviously much easier on land than on a moving and shaking zodiac,

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kittykat23uk

To add to @ice's question, were you able to get steady shots from the vessel? Was there much vibration from the engine? Worth taking a tripod and spotting scope? 

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michael-ibk

A fantastic report so far Peter, the Walrus are just incredible, what an awesome sighting! Really beautiful photos! We had initially planned to do this very trip (same operator) in 2020 but then switched to Patagonia somehow. :) Looking forward to more! 

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Atravelynn
11 hours ago, Alexander33 said:

 

@Atravelynn

 

Well, I know, right?  That’s the curse for those of us who are interested in photography. We see the ultimate in print or online, and then when we see the real thing, we measure that against those and tend to assess accordingly. It can be pure torture.  That phenomenon can turn into a sort of photographic self flagellation.

 

I’m reminded of a comment you had awhile back about a photographer on your Churchill trip who complained that the numerous polar bears you all saw were “too dirty.” Funny you'd remember that!   I think about that ever so often.  The photographer could not appreciate the unique opportunity of witnessing dozens of polar bears roaming around because of "bad light, dirty bears."

 

I totally get it. Obviously, seeing blue whales was a thrill — and we saw them several times. But, that doesn’t stop us from being overly critical or from pursuing an even better situation.  There is never complete satisfaction. It keeps one coming back for more — and learning more and, hopefully, contributing more in some very small way. (And, fortunately, the polar bears we saw weren’t too dirty, either :D ).  No they weren't.  They almost glowed, like those new LED headlights. 

Your wildlife sightings on this trip are outstanding.  Did you get the impression that this was typical or were you the lucky ducks?

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Atravelynn
1 hour ago, michael-ibk said:

A fantastic report so far Peter, the Walrus are just incredible, what an awesome sighting! Really beautiful photos! We had initially planned to do this very trip (same operator) in 2020 but then switched to Patagonia somehow. :) Looking forward to more! 

Put Svalbard back in the hopper, Michael, for another time!

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Alexander33

Okay, I’m back from our holiday. Let’s get this thing going again.

 

Although I didn't track them, temperatures in late August for us were did not feel any lower than the high 20s F (-3 C at the very coldest). Longyearbyen was mostly in the low 40s F (6 C). We were never uncomfortably cold. I’ll have a packing list at the end of the report.

@AKChui, thanks for following along. Your report was very helpful in my planning of this trip, although we didn’t see any plastic trash or other refuse like you did. Maybe the currents this year were different, or, since we traveled quite late in the season, perhaps other visitors had already cleaned it all up?  In any event, the beaches we saw were quite pristine.

@Atdahl, glad you found the report, Alan. You need to go to Svalbard!  We always seem to be following in one another’s footsteps, so I have a feeling that if we liked it, you probably would, too.


 

On 11/30/2019 at 9:14 AM, Atravelynn said:

Put Svalbard back in the hopper, Michael, for another time!

 

@michael-ibk, listen to @Atravelynn!

@ice, @kittykat23ukyour questions are good ones, and I’ve prepared responses to each, but they ended up being a tad lengthy. If it’s okay with you, in order to keep the flow moving here, I’d like to post those (as well as my thoughts regarding @Atravelynn's question about the level of sightings we
had vis-à-vis other groups) toward the end of the report, where I can group them with my other overall conclusions, impressions, and recommendations. Thanks.

 

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Alexander33

The Ice

 

After we returned to the ship following the walrus sighting, J. and I decided to catch a few more hours of sleep before our 1:00 lunch.  We awakened to bright light, and when we went up to the main deck, found ourselves in a wonderland of light fog and ice floes. 

 

We had entered the Barents Sea, with a goal of reaching the very remote Kong Karls Land.  There was no wind, and the water was as smooth as glass.  I simply cannot describe the mysterious quality of the light that surrounded us.

 

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Alexander33

I quickly finished lunch and made my way up to the bow of the ship.  To our left was floating sea ice, punctuated by small icebergs created by calving glaciers; to our right was solid pack ice.  A dark form on an ice floe appeared in front of us.  The captain cut the engine and we silently floated forward.

 

A bearded seal. 

 

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As we approached, we were treated to an Arctic greeting.  (Or was it just sheer annoyance at its being disturbed from its peaceful slumber?)

 

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This one allowed us to get quite close, until deciding that the water might offer a safer retreat from this hulking monolith of a beast (our ship). 

 

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To give you an idea of how close we managed to get, those last photos are pretty much uncropped, shot with the full-frame Nikon D750 and a 70-200 f/2.8 lens.

 

 

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Alexander33

No sooner had we passed that one, then another bearded seal, this one a bit more shy, appeared on a distant ice floe, and the process was repeated.

 

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I stand to be corrected, but I believe the bearded seal is the largest pinniped found in Svalbard.  Generally reaching about 2.1 to 2.7 meters (about 7 to 9 feet) in length, and weighing from 200 to 430 kg. (441 to 948 pounds), with females larger than males, this and the smaller ringed seal are major food staples for the polar bear.

 

Just as I was tossing around the thought that, “If there are seals here, maybe that means polar bears are, too,” the ship’s engine started back up and the ship began veering to the right.

 

A polar bear had been spotted on the pack ice.

 

 

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Alexander33

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 looked healthy and well-fed.

 

They were also quite far away.

 

That’s one of the challenges with Svalbard, especially when looking for polar bears on pack ice.  It’s not always possible to get close to them.

 

Once again, we had to use geographic markers in order to see the bears with our naked eyes. 

 

“See that big chunk of ice shaped like a Christmas tree?  Now, go to the left.”

 

This time, however, the bears were more out in the open.  I grabbed my D7200 (cropped sensor body) with the 500 PF lens and 1.4x teleconverter (for a total of 700mm, and effectively 1,050mm with the 1.5x crop factor) and started taking “Hail Mary” shots, centering directly on the mother and praying that some would end up halfway in focus.

 

The bears were so far away, that every time I lowered the camera to review my images and the histogram, I’d lose the pair and have to relocate them. 

 

The captain tried to steer the ship so that we could get a better view, but the pack ice was just too thick.  

 

In addition, it was evident that this young sow, with her first cub, was becoming stressed at our presence.  Svein insisted that we back off immediately.  (This emphasis on ethics, especially on a photo tour, was one of the things that impressed me and was a major factor in my decision to book with this operator).

 

I never expected these to be anything other than just documentary shots (“See, we really did see polar bears.”), and because of the distance, I wasn't skilled enough to manage the best of compositions.  But, under the circumstances, I actually ended up being quite happy with some of these, even if the cub (the sleeping ball of fur at its mother’s hind leg) was turned away from us most of the time. 

 

1921930677_PolarBearIVv2PSD.jpg.8f216216da67df654f85462f21a71c51.jpg

 

 

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This shot, one of the first taken when we initially spied the bears, ended up being special to me, simply because it shows the immense landscape of endless ice and haze, with the sow recumbent and completely relaxed.

 

1949032332_PolarBearXIIv_4PSD.jpg.141561358f906e0bcabbbc01f43ca964.jpg

 

 

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Alexander33

Let’s pull up the map tracing our route again. 

 

191762287_Svalbard.EntireRoute.jpg.57c3d03b7f96cd4126a515c3423e0e00.jpg

 

 

Do you notice those curlicue lines to the southeast, toward the island of Svenskøya?  That’s us trying to find a way through the pack ice.  As it turned out, the ice was too thick for us to continue eastward.

 

After booking this trip, I had read of more frequent ice-free summers in the Arctic and was concerned that perhaps I should have aimed for earlier in the year, like May or June, when the presence of sea ice might be more reliable.  This was not an issue only a few years ago.

 

However, in visiting with the kind lady who was managing the Wild Photo gallery in Longyearbyen at the start of our trip, I learned that this year there was plenty of sea ice.  (In 2018, there had been very little ice.  By the way, I have also been told that, based on ice maps – who knew such a thing existed? – 2020 is shaping up to be a heavy ice year.) 

 

Even though large amounts of pack ice could present some challenges in seeing polar bears close up, as we had witnessed, I would have been disappointed if we hadn’t had the ice.  In my opinion, it’s what makes the Arctic “the Arctic.” 

 

We made our way back toward the west, and as the sun lowered in the sky, I remained on the deck of the ship, simply mesmerized by the mysterious quality of the light, the myriad shapes of ice forms, the calm, silent waters, and a profound sense of isolation, of being utterly removed from the rest of the world.  Rarely have I felt such inner peace.

 

747489128_IceFloesinEveningIPSD.jpg.8d13cd5c8c3b167521f1df209e31b180.jpg

 

 

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If I experienced ever so slight a letdown in not being able to say that we’d gone to a place called “Kong Karls Land” (which, to me, ranks right up there with Timbuktu in exotic sounding names), it was soon ameliorated with news that we were headed to a spot where a female polar bear and her two second-year cubs had been feeding on a walrus carcass on the east coast of Spitsbergen.

 

 

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kittykat23uk

I would be very happy with those polar bear shots! Beautiful! 

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Yeah, I agree with Jo.  Those "distant" shots are great.  Love the composition and shades of white not to mention how sharp they are.  Well done!

 

And, you are right Peter in that we may follow in your footsteps.  I have had a Svalbard trip on my list for a while and your report is raising it up the list quickly.

 

Alan

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kittykat23uk

@Atdahl I'm sure there's still spaces on my 19th June sailing... If I could tempt you, it would be nice to have some company! 

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Zubbie15

Agree with the others, those shots are really nice, and especially impressive given that they were taken at more than 1000mm equivalent. 

 

You mention the calm waters a couple of times, did you have any rough water? And did you use any motion sickness meds? (feel free to answer at the end of your report, if easier) 

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I think the photos of the bear with cub work brilliantly, showing the scale of the landscape. Very impressive 

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