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Into the Pack Ice - Svalbard Expedition in Early Summer


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INTRODUCTION

 

After a planning period of nearly two years, in July 2022 we went to Svalbard for joining a wildlife expedition cruise on the Swedish vessel MS Freya, organized by renowned Australian wildlife photographer Joshua Holko. At the beginning and end of the cruise, we had planned in additional days as a buffer, which we have used to explore the surroundings of Longyearbyen both with a local wildlife guide and then later on our own.

 

We learned very soon that on such a trip very little goes according to plan, but obviously this is why it is called an expedition. Nothing seems to have changed in that respect over the last centuries of polar exploration. In the end, we were able to reach the pack ice in the far Northeast of the Svalbard Archipelago, circumnavigated Nordaustlandet and had many high-quality wildlife encounters which we enjoyed to the max.

 

The way how these ship-based expeditions are set up is that the organizer of the tour, in this case Joshua Holko, makes a contract with an expedition charter company which then charters trusted MS Freya or another vessel for the trip and provides expedition lead and guide services. We were blessed by Josh being able to hire who hands down turned out to be the best of the best, Vega Expeditions with Oscar Westman and Yves Adams. More about that later in the day to day reports to follow.

 

As if the flights via Oslo and Tromsö were not already complicated enough, Scandinavian Airlines pilots chose to make our lives a lot more difficult. In fact, we only got into Longyearbyen barely two days before a looming fifteen day long strike had begun. Because flight options to Longyearbyen are limited and mostly booked out long in advance, two passengers for the cruise did not make it on the ship due to this circumstance. Apparently, most travel insurers would not even cover for this, so for our next trip (yes, there will be one!) we will build in some extra safety strings. During the trip we heard that the Governor of Longyearbyen had struck a deal with the pilot unions to continue flying to the islands in order to maintain this much needed lifeline with the mainland. That at least allowed us to return as planned - although after having enjoyed the trip so much, we would not have objected to being stranded on Svalbard for quite a bit longer.

 

MS Freya in the Pack Ice at 81.16° North

MS Freya in the Pack Ice at 81.16° North ( Drone Photo)

 

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GPS Tracks as recorded by our Garmin InReach Mini

 

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Just a little teaser to begin with...

 

To follow us on Instagram: #seiler_wild_nature_photography

 

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Great start - looking forward to learning how this trip compared with mine in May.

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iphonewifeNikonhusband

cannot wait to see your next post! Going in 4 weeks

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DAYS 1-4, LONGYEARBYEN AND SURROUNDINGS

 

Checking in at Oslo's Gardermoen Airport for our flight to Longyearbyen via Tromsö, we learned that Norwegian rules for security controls require to treat cameras like laptops and thus they have to be put in a tray. As if that was not bad enough, security personnel handled the items and opened bags all by themselves, unlike in all other countries that we had previously visited where they ask you to do this by yourself. That of course made us sweat, imagining our cameras being dropped accidentally with no opportunity to get a repair. As it turned out, the return flight was even worse in that respect.

 

Once landed in Tromsö in the far North of Norway, everyone had to take his belongings and leave the aircraft via a stairway in order to run through immigration. This is because Svalbard is not a formal part of Norway, but just under Norwegian management and thus not a part of the Schengen Treaty group of countries. Again, the return flight procedures were even more complicated.

 

In the airport hall we finally met our good friends from the US, Don and Sue, who we had the pleasure to travel with to a polar bear lodge at the shores of Hudson Bay a few months before the pandemic. It was good to see them again after such a long time and it turned out that they were again an incredibly good match for our approach to photography that is always exhaustive and sometimes requires going the extra mile under adverse conditions. And being able to shoot at any hour under the midnight sun can also be demanding on your resilience at times.

 

We settled into our rooms at historic Funken Lodge, a former building for mining company managers. We can highly recommend this hotel, both from the quality of the accommodation, the friendly staff and above all the restaurant. As is customary in Svalbard, you have to remove your shoes before entering the hotel, a tradition dating back from the dusty boots of the coal mining days.

 

For the next two days, we had pre-arranged a local guide, Oddgeir Sagerup and his company See&Explore. Oddgeir is not only an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable person, but to our knowledge he is the best, having also guided for the crew of Polar-X during the filming of their recent polar bear movie for Disney.

 

Outside the Longyearbyen city limits, you can run into a polar bear at any minute. In fact, we were shown the place right below the airport, where a person was drawn from his tent and killed by a polar bear that had just landed on the nearby beach. The bear was later shot within a stone's throw of the airport arrival hall. As a consequence, local rules require that anyone leaving the city limits carries at least a flare gun with a recommended minimum of two flash-bang shells. A rifle is not formally required, but highly recommended and you will not see a single guide without one. Just last year, a member of a film crew already had his head in a polar bears jaw when the bear could be shot. Thankfully the victim was wearing a snowmobile helmet.

 

If you have been photographing grizzly bears, you know that it would be very unusual for them to seek us out as prey. Polar bears on the other hand, although descended from grizzly bears about 160,000 years ago, are very different. Unless they are on a kill already, polar bears always do seem to show an interest in humans, with hungry or starving bears obviously being the most dangerous.

 

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Our guide Oddgeir Sagerup searching for Arctic Fox

 

For those in the know, Oddgeir is especially famous for finding Arctic Fox and is a wildlife photographer himself, so he knows what opportunities and which lighting conditions we wildlife photographers are looking for. Following the coastal road to Björndalen, which literally means Bear Valley, a traditional passageway for migrating polar bears, we were passing a long stretch of bird cliffs where huge numbers of Little Auks were starting to nest. Arctic Fox prey on their chicks in particular, then caching and storing them for the long and dark winters. These outright cute animals are very curious and if they see and hear people within their territory, they often come to investigate. They are also very playful and that can be used to get them up close.

 

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Arctic Fox female licking her nose

 

Arctic fox in Svalbard sometimes get infected with rabies, with the last cases dating back to 2019, presumably contracted from individuals who came over the pack ice from Russia. As we had planned to get really close to these fascinating little predators, not being able to exclude that we might get accidentally bitten, we got the appropriate rabies shots in advance. Please check the recommendations of the WHO and the local authorities and know your risk. What worked for us might not necessarily work for you.

 

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Arctic Fox vocalizing

 

Then of course there is the local subspecies of reindeer. It is a common observation that isolated island populations of mammals develop a smaller size than their founding ancestors. This is also true of the local reindeer subspecies which is noticeably smaller and has somewhat shorter legs. Most of them have no shy of humans although they are being locally hunted.

 

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Reindeer grazing in Bear Valley

 

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My wife Renate photographing reindeer. Note that knee-pads come in highly recommended in Svalbard both on land and at sea

 

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Reindeer up close and personal

 

Both the foxes and the reindeer were still in the process of shedding their winter fur, a process that we found to be complete after our return from the ship-borne expedition. 

 

In addition to the mammals, we got great shots of Snow Bunting, Arctic Tern, Common Eider on their down nests, Pink-footed geese and goslings, Barnacle geese and goslings, Red-throated diver, Phalaerope, Long-Tailed Skua and other birds. Too many to show them all here.

 

It turned out to be a great choice to do this tour, as it turned out that we did not see a single fox or reindeer up close during the ship-borne part of our expedition. And it was also good that we had booked two days with Oddgeir, because the opportunities on day two were even a bit better, most likely due to the weather. Thanks a lot Oddgeir, we learned so much from you - and we will be coming back!

 

Now it was time to download all the pictures and do the final packing for boarding our expedition vessel on the afternoon of the next day.

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wow, yet another Svalbard report! It seems everyone went to Svalbard this season! Oddgeir was one of our guides on our trip but I wish we'd taken a day trip with him prior as well.

Definitely looking forward to this one to see how it compares to our time on the Freya in late April.

 

Obviously you were able to travel a lot further north and east than we did, due to the ice conditions (and I presume your zodiac motors worked, unlike ours :)

 

 

 

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iphonewifeNikonhusband

Loving your report. My husband (the photographer in our family) is not pleased to hear the Norwegian air protocols with cameras. Cannot wait for your next installment. We are also staying at Funken Lodge before getting on our boat. 

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DAY 5 - FIRST AFTERNOON AT SEA - AND FIRST POLAR BEAR

 

In the afternoon we board our vessel MS Freya, which has already been described in detail in other trip reports within this forum. The first two hours lead us out of Isfjorden and then up North along the coast. Our two guides Oscar and Yves are already busily looking through their binoculars, joined by a few guests using their own.

 

It is not long before my wife Renate -known as a keen wildlife spotter since many years- tells me that she thinks she sees a bear right at the coast. She has her new Fujinon 16x28 stabilized binoculars which we cannot recommend highly enough, while I have my non-stabilized Swarovskis, but there is little doubt, this is a bear! What you need to look for is a slightly yellowish blob in the far distance, often at five to seven kilometers distance and it helps a lot if that blob is moving, which it did!

 

It takes a while for the rest of the crew to agree on this sighting, but soon our vessel changes course and heads for the bear, who is now wandering purposefully above a beautiful sea-cliff. It turns out that he is directly headed for what appears to be a Barnacle Goose nest with goslings. The poor parents can only watch helplessly from a distance as the bear stills its hunger pang with some appetizers.

 

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First Polar Bear of the trip heading for a dinner of Barnacle Goose goslings

 

Due to the topography, the expedition leads decide that launching the Zodiacs would not allow us a better perspective of a bear high up on a cliff, so it is decided to continue North. After this first sighting, which according to our guides might be the earliest sighting of a polar bear that they ever had after leaving Longyearbyen, spirits are high among crew and guests. Little did we know that we would be forced to turn around, and that our trip would be headed directly to an unfortunate early end just 20 hours later. But this is a story for our next installment to follow.

 

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kittykat23uk

Sounds ominous!! 😬

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A real and literal Cliffhanger.

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ominous indeed! But you must have been able to continue your trip, as your map indicates you went far north...so now my curiosity is really up!

 

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DAY 5 - WALRUS - AND THE EXPEDITION TURNS SOUTH

 

MS Freya had been pushing on North all night and when we awoke, we had reached the Northwest corner of Svalbard. It was a bright day with barely any clouds, so not ideal for photography. The plan was to go on the Zodiacs for the first time under benign conditions and with a tolerant and very slow moving target species. A small walrus colony on a sandy beach in front of a glacier bay. 

 

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Walrus colony in NW Svalbard (drone photo)

 

Coming ashore a few hundred meters from the walrus, we realize that a group from another ship is already working them, but over radio contact we hear from their captain that they would soon be leaving. It turned out that this was a group under the lead of the renowned Israeli photographer Roie Galitz.

 

Maybe it was because the other group had already worked with them or maybe they just had to rest in order to digest tons of cockles in their bellies, but they did not show any sign of activity apart from one lifting a head every now and then. In fact the only activity that was going on permanently among these animals was not really visible, but instead could be heard and smelled. A fairly unique smell, somewhat reminiscent of decaying shellfish. We were wondering if one could smell a bigger colony from afar before you see them.

 

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Walrus colony and glacier front

 

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Drooling and dozing the day away

 

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Maximum level of action

 

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Who dared to wake me up?

 

Returning to the Zodiacs, we were allowed to fly our DJI Mini 3 Pro drone for the first time to get some aerials. While this new small drone is very silent to begin with, it still amazed the two of us how totally unfazed these animals were when we were flying above them at a few dozen meters. There was a Norwegian Master thesis in which the investigator looked at the conditions and distances where Svalbard animals would be disturbed, but this is obviously dependent on the sound level of the drones and this has dramatically improved in the years since this study has been published.

 

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If drones could smell. Walrus colony aerial (drone photo)

 

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Drone pilots bottom left - patient fellow travelers middle right

 

Back on the boat, we were called in for a briefing by the expedition leads. The ship's engineer was feeling sick since the night and they wanted to stay put in this bay to see whether he would improve over the next six hours. It was being asked whether a doctor is on board. I replied that I only have a PhD in physics, but that my company had paid all the courses to make me a certified first responder, so I asked whether they wanted me to have a look and see whether I could help. Long story short, after having talked to Eric and inspecting his abdominal region, it was clear to me that this is a case of acute appendicitis. Which means that we should not wait for six hours but get him medical attention rather sooner than later. The captain then made me speak to a doctor in Longyearbyen via radio, and while he said he fully shared my diagnosis, he was not sure whether it is already necessary to send a rescue helicopter. It appeared that the view of an amateur first responder was simply not convincing enough. That left me deeply worried. I then proposed to the captain to radio a larger ship which was anchored nearby and see whether they have a doctor on board who would be willing to come over and give an expert opinion to Longyearbyen. This worked out perfectly and after her visit to MS Freya the other ship's doctor made it clear to Longyearbyen that Eric needed immediate attention.

 

Eric was brought to the landing place near the walrus colony that we had visited in the morning to avoid reeling him in directly from the ship's deck. Two hours after my original diagnosis, the Airbus Super Puma helicopter of the Svalbard Governor came blasting in and lifted our ship's engineer back to Longyearbyen, where another medical transport to Tromsö would be waiting for him. We later learned that Eric did have surgery and was recovering well.

 

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The Governor's rescue helicopter kicking up some dust - wonder how the walrus reacted

 

Longyearbyen, we have a problem. Norwegian law requires that an ocean vessel that has lost its engineer needs to return to port within 24 hours. Spirits were low as it became clear that this requires us to back-trace South immediately and anchor in Longyearbyen. And if we could not find an engineer that could take over responsibilities immediately, our trip would be over. We all had heard the stories of ships running aground in the mostly uncharted waters of Svalbard or having crippling defects to their equipment that prematurely ended expeditions. Would this happen to us after two years of preparation and not yet having seen very much of what Svalbard has to offer? 

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Oh dear! It's always something!! Good to know however that the rescue helicopter is fast and dependable and that the engineer got the attention needed.

 

I will guess that they found a replacement engineer as it seems your trip did continue, but I can only imagine the frustration at this point!

 

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kittykat23uk

Not a very auspicious start to your adventure, but thank goodness that you we able to get the engineer the medical help he needed! Lucky indeed to have seen a bear and walrus already though. I suspect still more delights to come and i hope this didn't disrupt your trip too much... 

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A good result in the end and  like the others I feel this trip does continue and is succesful.

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iphonewifeNikonhusband

Oh no,  sorry to hear that things are going to take a turn

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iphonewifeNikonhusband

They were very lucky to have you onboard-  and it is wonderful that you made such a quick and accurate diagnosis. 

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DAY 6 - KONGSFJORDEN AND BACK TO LONGYEARBYEN

 

The day began early at 00:30 am when we boarded our two Zodiacs to explore the glacier bay in Kungsfjorden. The evening before, the captain had agreed to the expedition taking this detour because he was confident he could still reach Longyearbyen within the imposed 24 hour limit. They were also confident they could restart and maintain the engine running without an engineer devoted to the task.

 

The light was beautiful, with the midnight sun now at roughly ten degrees above the horizon and some scattered clouds. So much better than during the normal daylight hours when the sun is up about 40 degrees. I thought that we should go out more often during the night - if we would ever make it back North, that is.

 

The first thing that struck us in Kungsfjorden was that in contrast to other glacier bays, the color of the water here was decidedly reddish and muddy. A number of interesting icebergs were explored, but I had the feeling that icebergs look decidedly more pleasing when the surrounding water is clear or with a turquoise hue.

 

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Turquoise ice in muddy waters

 

With each glacier front comes a particular soundscape of creaking, braking in falling ice. If they fall in the water this can create waves that are barely noticeable when on a Zodiac, but like a tsunami, the waves can build up when reaching underwater obstacles or the shallow shorelines. Falling ice is hard to capture photographically as you have to be in the right spot and all is over within a split second.

 

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Falling ice at the glacier front

 

Moving closer to the glacier front, we could spot two large Bearded Seal individuals resting on separate ice floes. It turned out that both of them were incredibly attractive and tolerant subjects who we would photograph from all perspectives over hours. While doing so, we also regularly scanned the shorelines for polar bear, with their prime food source being well represented in the bay. But they might have disliked the muddy waters and in the end we did not spot any.

 

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Bearded Seal resting on his personal ice floe

 

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Bearded Seal reflections

 

Bearded Seals can get a rusty coloration of their face when they get older and this seemed to apply to the second individual. His fur also seemed to be more uniform

than with the other seal.

 

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Bearded Seal number two

 

Yves did a fantastic job in piloting our Zodiac around the seals without getting them so excited that they would slide into the water, which often happens. It was time to test my new split-level camera with a dome and a submersible housing. I wanted a photograph of what a bear would see in the final moments of sneaking up on a seal. And thanks to Yves I got quite a few. That also gave me a feel of how cold this water really is. After immersing my hands for barely two minutes, I could hardly move my fingers.

 

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What a polar bear sees before his attack

 

Here I was using a flexible housing from Outex, which is decidedly less bulky in your luggage and is also not limited in use to one specific camera. I think my set-up with a wide-angle lens has shown its potential and I can't wait to try it out again on subjects. If only the water would have been less murky...

 

In addition to the seals, we could also approach a number of bird species, including Brünnich's Guillemot and Ivory Gull which we saw closer to the glacier front. While we did not get a good photo of the latter, it was an incredible sight nonetheless. Their typical calls were now embedded in our memories and that should help if we would run into them again.

 

Teamed with our guide Yves and our friends Don and Sue we soon got the reputation to always be the last Zodiac to return. It was great that Yves, being an avid and highly competent photographer himself, shared our enthusiasm for working a subject and location from every aspect. So before we knew it, six hours on the Zodiac had passed. When we returned to the ship, it was time for a little nap before breakfast.

 

In the meantime, an engineer had been found by the ship owners to replace Eric. Problem was that he was stuck in Tromsö and Scandinavian Airline pilots were still on strike. It was said that he would participate in an auction to get one of the last seats on a charter flight by Hurtigruten which they had organized to haul their own customers to and from the islands. These refreshed hopes for a continuation of our journey came to an early end when only hours later we learned that he would not be in Svalbard until two days later because the Norwegian government requires that any passenger who wants to board an aircraft, has to be on the passenger manifest 48 hours before flight. We now needed some kind of miracle to happen in order not to spend the rest of our tour in Longyearbyen harbor.

 

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kittykat23uk

Its nice that you could have a zodiac trip on the way back. Lovely bearded seals. 

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iphonewifeNikonhusband

Great trip report, crossing my fingers the engineer got to you in a timely fashion

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DAY 6  (CONTINUED) - A MIRACLE SENDS US BACK ON TRACK

 

After an uneventful trip back and dropping anchor in Longyearbyen harbor, we are being told that plans have been drawn up for spending two days photographing wildlife in and around Longyearbyen using rented vehicles and other boats. Considering that we were here for polar bears and the pack ice, we considered this to be a nice gesture of the organizers but we did not get too excited, especially as we already had everything in our portfolio that might turn up from our two days with Oddgeir. And besides we had plans to go out on our own for another two days after this trip.

 

But we are also being told that there is a Longyearbyen local at the dock who might just have an interest and the right qualifications to serve as an engineer on this trip, but it would be by no means sure whether he would take the deal.

 

After two additional rather boring hours, we were advised that the young man is not only very experienced but is actually very interested to accompany such a tour. Loud cheers could be heard all over the ship! We would lift anchor immediately and head back up North at full speed.

 

Just a few miles out in Isfjorden, we saw a Blue Whale surfacing a few times. Although this is the largest mammal on earth, it did not offer very much photographically because they do not lift much of their huge body out of the water and the tail is comparatively small.

 

We did see a few puffins flying by and being all the optimists took this as a good sign of things to come.

 

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Puffin in flight in Isfjorden

 

But the weather had changed and after three days of calm seas we would now enjoy rough seas for nearly all remaining days, sometimes the ship was rocking so hard that it was difficult to impossible to walk on the ship. You had to adapt the timing of your steps to the rhythm of the waves in order to be able to move forward.

 

Surprisingly, we did not experience any seasickness, feeling just a bit queazy when reading or using our computers in the cabin when the boat was rocking very hard. Some guests had been wearing patches all the time even during the calm seas that we have had and at times you would see fewer people turning up for meals. But these patches do have their drawbacks, one of which is making you tired, so while we carried them in our medication kit, we never used nor needed them. But you could always go to bed for a sleep, because seasickness has its roots in the brain not being able to match visual cues with its motion perception. People even maintained they never slept so well as on this trip. Might be reminiscent to some of being in a rocking cradle when we were babies.

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DAY 7 - BACK TO THE NORTHWEST

 

After eighteen hours of rather uneventful travel we are back at the point in Northwest Svalbard where we had to turn around. If we discount our excursion in Kungsfjorden, then we have lost only some 30 hours of our expedition to the unfortunate medical emergency. It could have been worse, it was managed very well by the expedition leads and the crew - and frankly we also had tons of luck. Now the pack ice was back on the agenda, but we had to rush.

 

In the afternoon, Joshua Holko reports a bear with two cubs ahead. No cubs were seen once we got closer. It is difficult to spot a grown polar bear from a few kilometers away, but cubs are even more difficult to spot at a distance. That being said, it would really have been the icing on the cake. 

 

Being hungry for bear encounters of any sort now, we head for the Zodiacs. Approaching the shore slowly, the Zodiacs are rocking very hard which of course makes it difficult to keep the subject centered in the frame - or keep it in the frame altogether. The bear looks at us, lifts its head to take a sniff, walks a few steps along the shore and then decides that we are a sorry lot, not worthy of his attention and he immediately turns inland.

At least we get a parting shot that shows his hind paw.

 

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Polar bear departure

 

Josh had told us at the beginning of a trip that one in seven bears usually is a photo bear that poses and does not run away immediately. In other reports I had heard a one to five ratio. I can say already that it was good that it would turn out that we will have a much more favorable ratio, because in the end we only saw six bears in total. And maybe five, because I am sure we saw this non-photo bear a second time during our return leg. But it is not the quantity but the quality of encounters that really matters, so stay tuned.

 

After we lost the bear who had moved inland, we visited a bay which - as we learned during one of Oscar's many interesting and highly skillful on-board lectures - was the place of a doomed attempt to reach the North Pole via balloon in the 1890ies. Remains of their basecamp where they assembled the ballon and produced the hydrogen gas can still be seen. But even better for us, we found a tolerant puffin aswim and a few harbor seals in the water which made great and patient subjects.

 

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Puffin in a bay in NW Svalbard

 

In fact I had exactly such a photo already on my bucket list of dreamshots for this trip, but our guides had already lowered my expectations by saying that it is very rare that they have a tolerant puffin close to a Zodiac.

 

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Harbor seal with pup

 

The harbour seal with pup was a welcome subject in this bay. The picture captures a moment where the pup apparently wanted to get nursed, but the mother objected and pushed it away,

presumably because of our presence. On our return leg we saw the polar bear bedded above this bay and we sure hope that the seal pup has survived the presence of this visitor.

 

Another harbor seal was resting in shallow water and did not object to our presence at all.

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Harbor seal doing some seal yoga moves

 

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Harbor seal close-up

 

A great end to the day and some welcome respite for all the souls that had been overly stressed over the last two days!

 

It was decided to move Northeast along the coast during the night and then turn North in search of the pack ice, but weather would intervene - at least for a while. The expedition continues with

targets changing day by day...

 

 

Edited by MPS
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kittykat23uk

Lucky to find an engineer so quickly. I wonder if the mum and two cubs you were told about were the same ones we saw. Was it near a whale carcass? We also had the harbour seals on the same day as our bear sighting, so it got me wondering. Only six bears? Thats still three more than I saw 😂😂 

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9 minutes ago, kittykat23uk said:

Lucky to find an engineer so quickly. I wonder if the mum and two cubs you were told about were the same ones we saw. Was it near a whale carcass? We also had the harbour seals on the same day as our bear sighting, so it got me wondering. Only six bears? Thats still three more than I saw 😂😂 

The tour before us on the Freya had seen 18 bears, so we had hoped for more, but the sightings change every day. You will see that in the end we were very happy with what we got. Yes, maybe they were expecting the sow with two cubs, but it very probably was another bear and it was definitely without cubs. No whale carcass on our trip.

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Alexander33

I’m really enjoying your trip report, and am very glad you were able to get a substitute engineer. 
 

Great photos so far.  The bearded seals we saw were not nearly so tolerant as yours; the water housing that you  used to get such a low angle was very effective. Well done. 
 

It’s not easy to get a good photo of a blue whale, but it’s great to see one just the same. 
 

Looking forward to more of your report.

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Whew what luck on the engineer!

 

Very envious of your seals and puffins! We saw neither :( 

 

Really interesting idea with the photo dome housing in the water and great photos all around! Are these all with the Z9? (I recall you asking me in my report about AF modes...looks like you didn't have any trouble :)  I think I'd be nervous about dunking my Z9 in the sea, housing or no!

 

 

 

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