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


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Wow, I'd be totally happy with those polar bear shots! Very impressed with what the 500PF can do (in the right hands, of course!)  Love the environmental aspect. And agree that the Arctic without ice would just not be as satisfying...glad to hear that 2020 looks like its shaping up to be a good ice year (although traveling end of May we don't want it "too" good...!)


I will try not to ask any photographic questions for immediate response :lol: but when you do get around to answering them, one question I have is do you have any tips (aside from constantly checking the histogram) for keeping ice white without blowing it out or having it be grey...and how well did the Nikons handle it? Did you use matrix metering or...?  I don't have much experience shooting in snow--much less white (okay, yellowish) bears on white snow.


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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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Very clean white bears.  You curly q'd successfully.

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6 hours ago, Zubbie15 said:

You mention the calm waters a couple of times, did you have any rough water? And did you use any motion sickness meds? 




Thanks so much, and perfect timing on your question, because that subject is about to come up in my next series of posts.  For a preview, there’s a clue I deposited lurking there at the tail end of post #11.....

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Ha!  It’s not the questions (not at all); it’s solely because I tend to be so long-winded that I need to forestall some responses!  


But this is one where I likely can be kind of succinct, since, when it comes to snow scenes, I’m completely out of my element and really don’t know what I’m talking about. 


I, too, was worried about the whites, since our cameras, by default, always want to take our scenes to mid-tone gray. I had read that in these Arctic ice conditions, you should dial in exposure compensation anywhere between +1 to +2, for starters, to try to offset that effect, and this advice served me well.  When we were on the ice, I was usually at +1.3 or +1.7. I was surprised I didn’t need more, but I didn’t. And I stuck to spot or center-weighted metering, just because that’s what I’m accustomed to, and because I wasn’t sure whether the darker colored waters (if I picked those up) would throw things off if I switched to matrix. 


But why bother listening to ignorant me?  This B&H video with Charles Glatzer largely is what I was relying on:



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Thanks and I will definitely watch that video...although its almost two hours! so I may not get to it quite yet. But bookmarking it!


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Ready for our Close-ups


During the night, we had sailed west, away from the ice pack of the Barents Sea, and shortly after breakfast, we arrived at the location where the sow and her two cubs had been reported feeding on a walrus carcass.  Sure enough, there they were – along with another ship that had already launched its Zodiacs.  We would have to wait until they were done, and that particular ship had 6 Zodiacs.


I asked if there was any kind of viewing protocol between ships when they were sharing a sighting, and was told that, no, once a ship was on a sighting, it was theirs for as long as they desired.  Fortunately, for us, Svein explained, this particular operation had a much more fixed itinerary than ours.  “Like Disneyland,” is how he explained it. 


The upside for us was that they wouldn’t linger too long, in order to stay on their schedule.  Still, we could see the bear trio on the beach and, then, walking along the crest of a bluff above the shore, and it was frustrating for us to not be able to take off in the Zodiacs for a closer look.








Finally, after about an hour-and-a-half, the last of the other ship’s Zodiacs returned, and we were now free to set out.  One of the benefits of being on our small ship is that the crew, with its well-honed and efficient routine, could lower the heavy metal ladder into the water and launch both Zodiacs, with all of us aboard, in about 15 minutes, total.  This could be an advantage where sightings involve dynamic situations. 


Fortunately, these bears were in no hurry.  Mom had lumbered a slight way up the mountainside for a nap, leaving the two youngsters below to entertain themselves.  At the time, we thought they were gnawing on a whale bone, but, now, on closer inspection, it looks like some kind of driftwood root.





Intermittently, the cubs would playfully joust with one another.




















At one point, the cub nearest us either succumbed to the other’s dominance or simply got bored.  Whatever, the situation, he noticed us, became curious, and came down to the edge of the water for a closer inspection, leaving his sibling behind. 














The cub found something in the water fascinating, whether it was his own reflection or something swimming by.





But then he’d catch our scent…





… and then lock eyes with us, almost as if he remembered, “Oh, yeah, them again.  (Hey, they might be good to eat.)”








Eventually, the cubs became bored and retreated up the mountainside to nap next to their mother.





It was time to move on, but everyone was smiling and beaming at having had the chance for such an intimate and memorable encounter.















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Now, a word of warning: Photographing from a Zodiac is not the easiest thing in the world. 


Aside from the motion, the rocking around in the water, and the vibration from the engine, space on a Zodiac can get tight, especially as everyone tries to jockey for position, change equipment, and get low for better perspectives.  (On our tour, each Zodiac held 8 people: 6 guests, 1 guide, and 1 “assistant guide” – which is how I’m classifying the National Geographic photographer and the Norwegian photographer, who were helping out some, but not employed). 


Fortunately, everyone in our group was exceptionally polite and considerate, but, nevertheless, in the commotion and excitement of it all, I somehow let my hands slip on the camera dials a few times.  All of sudden, I’d look down and see that my last 24 photos were all horribly underexposed and that my settings were at f/10 and 1/3,200 of a second – not what I had intended!


An Example





The results were not completely disastrous, but I had to do more post-processing on a lot of the photos from this series as a result of my negligence.


From then on, I tried to remain calmer and pay better attention.  (Easier said than done, however, when it’s your first time to see polar bears close-up.  I’ve forgiven myself.)



Edited by Alexander33
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Throughout the afternoon, we traveled northeast through the channel separating Spitsbergen and Barentøya Islands.  We saw Svalbard reindeer grazing on the Arctic tundra high up in the mountains, but we didn’t stop.  I figured Svein knew of a more reliable place for them later in the trip.


And then what looked to be a large male polar bear appeared in the distance.





We kept moving.  I went up to the crow’s nest, where Svein and the other top brass were all huddled over maps, deep in discussion with one another and pointing over the horizon in the opposite direction.


“There’s a polar bear!” I said, pointing it out the window.


They all looked up.  “Yes,” Jens replied, nodding, before they all went back to their maps and consultations. 


We didn’t stop.  I was fairly irked.  A polar bear in beautiful afternoon light; yes, far away, but even so, we still just chugged on by.  What was going on?


The answer came at dinner.


“There’s a big storm coming up from Iceland,” Jens explained.  “We’re trying to get up to the north as fast as we can, where the effects will be blunted, and then find shelter in a fjord up there.”





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At dinner that night, we sailed past floes of ice and the occasional iceberg in this curious blue, fogbound light. 


We were all looking out the windows in the dining area, appreciating the scene before us, when the Norwegian professional photographer looked at me and made a point to say, “I’m getting my camera.”


I nodded.  As an American, I’m accustomed to bluntness, but that very thing is one of the reasons I had been so turned off by some of the photo tour groups I had observed on previous travels.  (“Brown capuchins in the mango tree out front!!!” one operator in the Pantanal had shouted to the entire dining room, whether we were with the group or not.  “Bus leaves in 10 minutes, so if you want ‘em, get ‘em now!!”  Ugh.)


This tour was altogether different.  In typical low-key Scandinavian style, it didn’t even feel like a tour – just a small group of people on an intimate ship taking photos of incredible scenery and wildlife.  There was no handholding.  If you had a question or needed some help, the guides were happy to assist at the asking.  But if you just wanted to chill and stare out at the horizon, that was perfectly fine – and we all did that, too.


So it took me a few moments to translate what the photographer was saying to me.  “I’m getting my camera – and perhaps you should, too, or else you might miss some great opportunities.”


Got it!  I joined him at the bow of the ship and took in the blue evening, trying to frame icebergs that had calved from the large glacier we were approaching.




















That evening ranked as one of my favorites, shapes of white ice appearing and then receding in the midst of a blue atmosphere so enveloping that it was nearly impossible to distinguish between sea and sky.  Only the gentle ripples made by our ship as it plowed the otherwise motionless waters leading into the Hinlopen Strait provided a clue.


It was – literally – the calm before the storm. 



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WOW!  Those polar bear shots are stunning Peter!  I bet you will make some space on your wall for at least one of those shots :).  


Your report is riveting as usual.  Thank god Thanksgiving is over and you don't have any more distractions ;).


@kittykat23uk, a June trip is tempting but unfortunately we are booked in 2020.



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all I can say is...WOW! Incredible bear encounter.


And point taken about shooting from a zodiac...although I have made those kind of errors on land too, in the heat of the moment ;)


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wonderful, to be that close to polar bears! just been watching the BBC seven worlds one planet episode with polar bears hunting beluga whales-what wonderful animals @Alexander33

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Great sighting! I guess the boat I am on will be like the one with six zodiacs, in the itinerary it doesn't specify that there is a fixed route, quite the opposite in fact, but I guess the cruises all need to cover a fair amount of the coast and I suppose that they need to spread out so as to avoid crowding a sighting and losing the wilderness feel. Did you get a lot more viewing time than that group did? 

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While polar bears are fantastic subjects to photograph, I am enjoying your ice bergs and specially your environmental photos even more so. The one in post #83 is my firm wallhanger favorite.

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@Atdahl, @janzin, thanks for continuing to follow along and for your encouraging comments.


@Towlersonsafari, polar bears hunting beluga whales?  What a scene that would be!  I will have to try to catch that episode. 




I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that your tour will be more fixed just because you’re on a larger ship.  From what I could tell, it’s the specific operators that control the tenor of their tours, not the ships and their crews.  So if your itinerary suggests that your route will not be fixed, I’d feel comfortable taking them at their word.  And who knows?  The operator of that larger ship could have been perfectly fine, and Svein was just injecting some competitive rivalry into the equation.


From what I observed, the guests in the Zodiacs from the other ship had quality sightings, and they definitely were not rushed.  As to whether our group had more time than others, it’s hard to say.  This was the only shared sighting we had like that, and the bears controlled the tempo!  When they retreated, we did, too.


I guess the one real difference between the two ships is that our two Zodiacs always stayed close together, which allowed all the guests on our ship to have pretty much the same experience.  On the larger ship, the 6 Zodiacs did not all crowd together at a single sighting (to their credit), but that would open up the possibility that guests on the larger ship could have disparate experiences in a single outing (which could be a positive or negative, depending on your viewpoint).


And, finally, if that was your ship, then you’re going to be on a very nice ship.



7 hours ago, xelas said:

While polar bears are fantastic subjects to photograph, I am enjoying your ice bergs and specially your environmental photos even more so. The one in post #83 is my firm wallhanger favorite.


@xelas, thanks so much.  And I couldn’t agree more.  I count some of those “blue” iceberg photos as among my favorites of the whole trip.


Edited by Alexander33
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What a wonderful Polar Bear sighting Peter - and I´m with Alex, the Icebergs are just beautiful.

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Many thanks for the reassurance and observations @Alexander33 :) 

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wow!  you have me counting days to May...  awesome photos and great storytelling!

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On ‎12‎/‎2‎/‎2019 at 5:06 AM, Alexander33 said:



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.)  



I am booked for a Greenland/Svalbard trip in August 2020 and had the same fear, so great to see that you got plenty of pack ice that late in the season and fingers crossed the prediction for 2020 is correct.


Great report - I am really enjoying the writing and the photos and getting even more excited for our trip

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Zim Girl

Just catching up with this @Alexander33 and really enjoying it.  Your pictures are all wonderful, loving the ice floe and scenery shots especially and I also think the walrus portraits were fabulous.

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WOW---I love this trip and the photos are spectacular!  I did a Svalbard trip a few years ago but it only covered the western half---I like that y'all were able to cover the eastern side too...and blue whales!  How I would love to see one!  Thanks for sharing your trip!

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@Alexander33 Continuing to enjoy the report - wonderful narrative and photos. It is building my anticipation before my Svalbard trip in May - albeit on a 5 zodiac vessel.

Maybe this should be how we classify polar expedition ships in future? :D

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2 hours ago, pomkiwi said:

albeit on a 5 zodiac vessel.

Maybe this should be how we classify polar expedition ships in future? :D


ha, ours is a 3-zodiac vessel :lol:


eagerly awaiting the next "stormy" update!

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@michael-ibk, @jmharack, @pomkiwi, @janzin, thanks again for your kind words.


@shazdwn, @Zim Girl, @gatoratlarge, welcome aboard (pun intended)!



In the end, we didn’t search out a fjord. 


Instead, as we sailed north through the Hinlopen Strait, word came from the MS Origo, the ship run by the Wild Photo group, that there was a female polar bear and cub with a seal kill on the sea ice off the northwest coast of Nordaustlandet, up near Nordkapp, one of the northernmost points in Svalbard. 


We sailed most of the day until, finally, we reached the ice.  To the east was a dense, impenetrable pack ice; to the north, large floes of sea ice.




















Moving at a glacial pace (sorry, couldn’t resist!), we finally spied the ship.  And there was the sow and her cub, within spitting distance of the Origo – and very far from us. 

















Oh, my, what a sighting they must have been having.  Look at that incredible light! 


Unfortunately, we couldn’t advance further, for fear that the noise of our ship hitting the ice floes would scare off the bears.


To give you an idea of just how far from the action we were, I inadvertently got the Origo (on the horizon, top left) in this sunset shot.  The bears were just to the right of them.





We had no choice but to wait it out and see if mother and cub would eventually make their way across the ice in our direction.  All things being equal, we had a 25% chance that would happen.  Our captain dropped the anchor, and an anxious, anticipatory wait commenced.


Ugh, another one out of focus.  If only we were closer......!





Edited by Alexander33
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I bided my time by photographing the sunset.  Or was it the sunrise? 


August 25 was the last day of full sunlight in Longyearbyen.  After that, the days rapidly become shorter, until, on October 27, the sun would disappear altogether for the next 4 months.  For us, it was August 26, but we had sailed almost 3 degrees to the north of Longyearbyen, past 81° (the North Pole is at 90°).  Likely, we were witnessing the last midnight sun of the year.








I’m not so magnanimous a person as to say I wasn’t seething in envy, imagining the incredible polar bear photos that the passengers on the Origo must have been getting in that amazing light.  All while we waited.


By 2:30 AM, only I and the kindly Norwegian gentleman remained in the gallery.  I rested my elbow on the table, my chin cupped in my hand, and would doze off until it slipped, my head suddenly bobbing down and jerking me awake, until I dozed back off and the entire ridiculous exercise recommenced.


The Norwegian gentleman patted my back.  “Go to sleep, my friend. I’ll wake you if the bears appear.”


Good advice. Around 4:30 AM, I heard the rumble of the engine as it started back up.  We were moving.  I threw on some clothes and rushed upstairs with my camera. 


The Norwegian gentleman was still in the gallery.  The sun was only slightly higher in the sky.


“Have the bears come?”


“No,” he replied.  “Someone on the Origo dropped their camera on the deck and scared them off.”


I had read somewhere that polar bears absolutely hate the sound of clanging metal.  I can’t imagine the cacophony that a long lens camera set-up dropping three feet onto the deck of a ship must have caused in the silence of the Arctic dawn.  But we were able to confirm with the Origo's captain that the sow and her cub had fled immediately on impact – away not only from the Origo, but also us.


We had taken a gamble, and it had failed. 


But as disappointed as we all were in the turn of events, I could only think of one thing: “Boy, am I glad I’m not the passenger who dropped that camera.”


Can you imagine the hate-filled stink-eye they must have gotten?



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