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Late in two ways - Svalbard in the Spring


pomkiwi
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pomkiwi

I got to travel to Svalbard to spend a week aboard a relatively small vessel in mid-May 2022. This had been an ambition for a while with the trip originally booked for May 2020,because of Covid, then postponed for a year and for a further year as the pandemic rolled on.

I had wanted to go in the spring to see the high arctic with decent amounts of snow and ice but also to have lots of light and returning birdlife and maybe whales.

As well as the trip itself being late by two years, spring also came late to Svalbard this year with ice and snow affecting the itinerary and activities more than has been normal in mid-May for some years.

My itinerary was to fly from London to Oslo where I stayed overnight, up to Longyearbyen on Svalbard for another night, seven nights abord M/S Sjoveien and then back to London via Oslo. On board Sjoveien we travelled just under 1000km, reached 80’6” north (1082 km from the pole) and enjoyed a maximum wind speed of 40kts (just on the threshold of severe gale).

We enjoyed sunlight (even at midnight) and heavy snow, mirror calm seas and waves washing over the decks, we searched diligently for bears.

 

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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)

Practical Things

 

I booked this trip through Swoop Adventures in London but the trip was operated by Polarquest, a small company based in Sweden. I had originally booked a trip on M/S Quest, a medium sized ship with 50+ passengers. When the trip was initially cancelled I was offered the opportunity to rebook to a smaller vessel the following year and no extra cost as an alternative to taking a refund. I was happy to do this and to carry the arrangement forward again last year. One of our guides is the safety director with Polarquest and told me that the faith of customers leaving money with them was the only way they had survived the pandemic.

 

I flew with SAS who were reliable and comfortable. They have an 8kg limit on carry on baggage, but I didn’t see that enforced (which was good!).

The packing guidance I was given was good. Lots of layers is stressed and was essential. As always take less than you think you will need – on this occasion cool temperatures and access to excellent showers meant clothing stayed fresh for days! This might be different in summer when hiking might get warm.

 

Cameras and Lenses. Lets do this now as I remember in the incredibly helpful trip report from @Alexander33when this was asked a lot! Advice I read suggested taking ‘your longest lens, your shortest lens and everything in-between’ – not very helpful if you are trying to at least look interested in the 8kg limit. I took:

Nikon Z6ii mirrorless body (full frame)

Nikon S 24-70 and  S 100-400 and 1.4 TC

Nikon D500 DSLR (Crop frame)

10-20, 16-80, 500pf and 1.4 TC

 

If I went again, I would take the two bodies, the 100-400, 500 and both TCs, leaving the rest at home. I really didn’t use the wide angle lenses as the landscapes were huge and often distant, also the sheer amount of ice made it difficult to find objects in the foreground to lead into the wider picture. This will be different later in the year and your photographic style may vary.

 

I didn’t take a tripod, they are impossible to use in a zodiac and not helpful on ship due to vibrations. In any event the 24 hour daylight and excellent image stabilisation in modern cameras made long shutter speeds unnecessary (I saw no running water).

 

Zodiacs and photography. It was easy for us as we only had six to each zodiac, it would have been different if there were 10 or 12. I had a 20l drybag backpack (Overboard) and carried my D500/500pf and Z6ii/100-400 +/-TC (depending on what we were chasing) I did not try using the TC with the D500/500pf in the zodiacs. I could dip in and out of the bag to change cameras and if we were in a very calm situation even have both cameras on the floor. I had lovely companions and those closest to the action would always kneel in the floor allowing good views for all. Even so occasionally someone would move through ‘the shot’ but that is inevitable. If possible try to get a spot in the bow of the zodiac as this has the best field of view. I did have a quiet word with a fellow photographer whose wooly hat stood at least a foot above his head :D

 

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Edited by pomkiwi
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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)

Beginnings

 

I’d not travelled overseas since the pandemic began and my old confidence with airports and flights had diminished. I was pleased to get to London Heathrow without delay and depart to Oslo without problem. Masks are not required in the UK or Norway but I elected to wear one in the airport -partly as it has been a while since I’ve seen so many people in a confined space. I stayed the night in Oslo at the Radisson at the airport. Comfortable and unremarkable apart from the moose.

 

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After breakfast the next morning I walked back to the terminal. It was the Norwegian national day which meant it was quiet but all the airport staff were in traditional costume. We flew north to Tromso over increasingly wintery terrain and landed inside the arctic circle to strong winds and snow.

 

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After a short stop in Tromso where we had to go through passport control again (Svalbard is technically a neutral territory owned by  no single nation but Norway are responsible for setting regulations and ensuring law and order) we then flew up to Longyearbyen through disappointingly cloudy skies. We landed and collected our luggage and were reminded how far we were from anywhere by the signpost outside the airport

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Edited by pomkiwi
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janzin

wow I can't believe you got to your report before me...I'm no where near ready, still working on photos! Eager to see how you trip compares to ours. So far looking quite similar :)

 

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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)

@janzin Ha! I find writing a report is a good way of making me review my photos and I try and capture the trip before I start to forget it. I’m currently on a flight to Australia to meet up with my son for the first time in 2.5 years so have lots of time on my hands. It will progress in fits and starts over the next little while…

Edited by pomkiwi
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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)

Days 1 and 2 Longyearbyen

 

The weather cleared quickly and remained sunny for the next 30 hours or so although it was still well below zero in the shade. We had the afternoon free and most of the following day until 4pm when we boarded.

Longyearbyen has about 2500 residents increased significantly by visitors in the spring and summer months. It is set at the opening to a narrow valley with roads heading up either side of the river. In both directions parallel to the fjord are the remains of old cableways that used to transport coal from mines to be shipped away. I had a good long walk on both days exploring up to the limits of the town beyond which it is illegal to go without a firearm because of the risk of polar bears.

The signs around town remind you of how different life up here is.

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One of the old cableways leading up to disused mine.

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There is quite a lot of wildlife in town. The Svalbard reindeer are relaxed and easy to approach, they are smaller than their mainland counterparts and adapted to the extremely harsh environment.

 

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Snow buntings are numerous and the only bird that sings in Svalbard. I finally managed to get a decent photo of one as previously they have always flown or been invisible against the glare of snow!

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There is a public bird hide that is possibly the most comfortable I’ve seen – there was a notice on the door asking people not to use it as accommodation! The view was superb from the hide but there was still a lot of drift ice and bird life was limited to some distant eider ducks and glaucous gulls already patrolling for scraps and any unattended early eggs.

 

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In the morning I sat up at the old cableway station in the hope of seeing one of the foxes that apparently hang around in that area. No joy but I was able to see my home for the next week being provisioned.

 

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In the afternoon we went aboard

 

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Edited by pomkiwi
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Atravelynn

That reindeer is precious.  Now I get the 2 ways late.  Spring was late in Wisconsin too.  Still unseasonably cold.  I hope the unusual weather still produced good results for you.  I'm glad you handled the obstructing foot-tall wool hat.

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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)

@AtravelynnThanks. I think the weather only really affected our ability to get ashore and hike when we got there. The route the ship could take was dictated by the spread of drift ice which I understand is a factor at any time of year in any event. From a landscape point of view the almost total snow cover was a bonus!

Edited by pomkiwi
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Atravelynn
14 hours ago, pomkiwi said:

@AtravelynnThanks. I think the weather only really affected our ability to get ashore and hike when we got there. The route the ship could take was dictated by the spread of drift ice which I understand is a factor at any time of year in any event. From a landscape point of view the almost total snow cover was a bonus!

Nice to have snow, which is what I think of in Svalbard.

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Atdahl

Excellent start @pomkiwiThis area is on my list so I am looking forward to your report.

 

Alan

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pomkiwi

@AtdahlThank-you. Please ask if there are any topics I don’t cover that would be helpful. The pace of the report will slow up now as I have arrived in Australia to catch up with my son after 2.5 years of covid mandated separation :D

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pomkiwi

Day 2 M/S Sjoveien

 

Our home for the next week was built in 1964 for the Norwegian government and used in a number of capacities including as a coastguard vessel before being refurbished.

 

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It has teak decks which look lovely but can be slippery (as I found out painfully later on) and lots of outside viewing areas at various levels giving views all around. There is a wood fired hot tub which was only used once as it takes several hours to warm up and lots of fresh water to fill.

 

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The boat has 8 passenger cabins all with portholes or windows and accommodates a maximum of 12 guests, 2 guides and 7 crew. My cabin was 106 on the lower deck with a small but well designed bathroom. It was comfortable but in reality I was only there for sleeping and changing.

 

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All meals were taken around a communal table and were excellent. Timing varied depending on what we were doing both in terms of zodiac excursions (late if we were) and planned long sea trips (making sure we’d eaten before it got rough).

 

Once we got aboard we were given safety briefings and issued with flotation suits to be worn in the zodiacs if we planned to just cruise around, if we were planning to go ashore we wore simply life jackets over our normal outdoor wear. After a bit of practice all of us were able to get fully dressed up within 10 minutes, speeding up our departures.

 

Sjoveien has 2 zodiacs taking 6 passengers in each. They were very stable with a firm floor and there was a lot of room as I’ve previously mentioned. Boarding was down a gangway, stepping into the zodiac, sitting down and shuffling along. Exiting for a landing involved shuffling up to the bow, swinging legs over the edge and sliding onto the beach, ice or into the water depending on where we were.

 

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Our group of 12 included a couple from Germany, a couple from Australia, two from the US, a family of 3 from Sweden and 2 Swedes and myself from the UK. Our guides were both Swedes one of whom was a director of Polarquest who guides on two trips each year. The group got to know each other quickly and worked well together - in particular the silence at close quarters wildlife encounters was impressive.

 

All in all a good base and great group for our adventure!

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shazdwn

Looking forward to hearing more about your trip and what you saw

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pomkiwi

Day 2 (continued) - To Billefjorden

 

About 5pm we set off for a short crossing of Eisfjorden and into Billefjorden. On the way across we met the first of the very many northern fulmars that would accompany the boat wherever we went and no matter how rough the weather:

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There were also small groups of little auks, guillemots and a solitary puffin some way off.

As we made our way up Billefjorden the light was beautiful as we nudged through the drift ice:

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Black guillemots came close to the oat:

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It seemed that as soon as they realised a photographer was interested they disappeared:

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We had seen a couple of bearded seals in the ice before spotting one in the distance resting on an ice floe:

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It came over later to investigate:

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After dinner we settled in and discussed what tomorrow might bring.

 

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The landscapes are stunning!

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michael-ibk

Agree, really beautiful. Great photos so far. A destination also on my bucket list, so all the practical advice is very much appreciated. Love the Reindeer photo!

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Soukous

Interesting TR, thanks. What I see most strikingly is the clarity of the air. The light is so crisp, if something intangible can be crisp.

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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, Soukous said:

Interesting TR, thanks. What I see most strikingly is the clarity of the air. The light is so crisp, if something intangible can be crisp.

Thanks @SoukousYes at the start of thge trip the clarity was amazing (and it was cold enough to be described as crisp in UK terms!). Later on (as I'm about to show) the light became decidedly soft through falling snow. It was however a real treat to be able to use a teleconverter without worrying too much about any effect on exposure times or ISO as there was so much light.

Edited by pomkiwi
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kittykat23uk

I'm going soon, leaving UK on the 17th June. But I'm on one of the bigger boats so will see how that pans out. Looking forward to reading more!

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Atravelynn

What a nice small boat.  Agree about the crisp photos! 

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pomkiwi
9 hours ago, kittykat23uk said:

I'm going soon, leaving UK on the 17th June. But I'm on one of the bigger boats so will see how that pans out. Looking forward to reading more!

I'm sure it will be great - which boat are you going to be on?

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pomkiwi
Posted (edited)

Day 4 - to Eckmanfjorden

 

A restless night due to unfamiliar noises from the ship including the slightly unnerving sound of ice bumping into the hull, unfortunately no summons to get dressed for a polar bear in the small hours. Overnight the weather had changed and light snow fallen:

 

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A walrus was lying on a ice floe in the fjord and we clambered into our flotation suits for our first zodiac adventure. As we cruised close to the ice edge flocks of eider ducks took to the air:

 

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The walrus sat on an ice floe little bigger than he was and didn't seem bothered by us floating quietly by:

 

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The boat in the background was left when an attempt at mining was abandoned some 70 years ago, the lack of decay of the boat is due to the very cold and dry air that is present most of the time. We beached the zodiacs and scrambled up on to the shore for a closer look and gained appreciation of how hard life must have been here:

 

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We headed back to the Sjoveien and headed towards Eichmanfjorden past landscape that looked like a pen and ink drawing:

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As for much of the trip, if it was quiet I amused myself photographing the fulmars - here against a mirror sea:

 

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The drop of water seen at the tip of the beak in many of the photos is in fact a concentrated saline solution that the bird constantly excretes from a gland in the nasal passages to get rid of the salt taken in from the seawater and its diet of fish and crustaceans.

 

We arrived into Eichmanfjorden to see footprints on the ice:

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We then saw the bear that made to prints and started to follow him

 

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Edited by pomkiwi
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kittykat23uk
4 hours ago, pomkiwi said:

I'm sure it will be great - which boat are you going to be on?

Basecamp summer solstice on the MV Ortelius. I was meant to be on the G Expedition realm of the polar bear tour but they cancelled my sailing after I had rebooked my flights and this was the only other sailing that worked with my existing flights. I booked the original trip before the pandemic, and it had seemed like a good deal at the time but with the rebooking I've ended up spending quite a bit more on the trip than I expected.. 

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pomkiwi

Day 3 - Polar Bear pt 1.

 

The polar bear was a long way off, a couple of km from the edge of the ice and still a way in from the shoreline.

 

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This image was taken with a D500 (crop sensor), 500 mm lens + 1.4 TC so over a 1000mm on a full frame camera. It illustrates one of the difficulties with early season expeditions - the bears can be anywhere on a large field of ice which has lots of breaks and hole in it where seals may come up and the bears hunt.

We followed on on the Sjoveien for 40 minutes or so as the bear walked steadily along, effortlessly managing 5km/hr. Every so often he would stop and look over towards us, sniffing the air:

 

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As the depth of the ice lessened we climbed in to the zodiacs and started to follow along, occasionally speeding up to get ahead. We were able to get closer and he lay down and rested for a while:

 

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As he wandered along we got a better view and were able to confirm he was a male from the long guard hairs on the back of his legs. He was also clearly well fed:

 

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At one point he picked up some seaweed and chewed on it before throwing it away. All the time we were gradually getting closer as he didn't seem at all bothered by our company.

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A few minutes later the bear dropped into the water between the ice and us:

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We then got a clear demonstration of why polar bears are such an effective predator:

 

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It would be easy to miss the bear swimming along but he can see, hear and smell us.

 

So far we had followed the bear for nearly an hour on the ship and 40 minutes in the zodiacs. Things were about to get interesting with the bear in the water close to our rubber boats and about to get playful...

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The_Norwegian

Great report from Svalbard, they really get the business back up there this year, that`s good :-) Very great pictures! 

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