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Norway - Tromsø and Svalbard


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This trip report is a combination of two holidays. The trip to Tromsø was a six-day break that doesn’t warrant its own thread. The main goal was to see the Northern Lights and Orcas. Both tours were booked through the visitor centre by the docks. The Northern Lights tour was booked with Arctic Breeze. We were picked up outside a hotel in the town centre, driven to this spot close to the Finland border, watched the lights for 2.5 hours, and dropped off at our AirBNB afterwards. The guide built a fire to help us keep warm and provided hot chocolate and biscuits. He took some photos with his own camera and made jpegs available to everyone free of charge. I didn’t ask if raw files were available. I think he cranked the ISO up a bit too high but, they’re decent photos and better than most people will be able to take on their own. My photos were taken with a 750D and Samyang 14 mm F2.8 lens. 


The lights were visible when we first got to the viewing site. Initially, I was a bit unimpressed as they were very faint. Obviously, you aren’t going to see as much as you’ll capture on a camera using a 20 s exposure but, my general impression was “Is this it?”.








Around an hour into the sighting, the clouds started to clear.






Then the activity level started to ramp up.












The final hour of the trip was excellent. Our guide said that he only got two or three displays that good each season. Not sure if he says that to lots of groups but, I think we got lucky.


A couple of the guide's photos:





The orca trip was booked with Brim Explorer. The cruise was somewhere between 8.5 to 9 hours. It was around 4 hours to the area where the orcas were, 30-45 minutes viewing them, and 4 hours back to Tromso. The scenery on the boat journey is spectacular and they gave a couple of lectures on the way so the long journey isn’t too much of a problem. The boat was fairly crowded so I spent a decent amount of time moving around other people trying to get a good position to watch the orcas and take photos. In hindsight, paying a bit extra to go on one of the tours that use RIBs would have been worthwhile. It was very overcast so my photos aren't the best.









We also took a cable car up to the top of one of the mountains surrounding the town. You get a nice view and the restaurant provides decent food so it's worthwhile heading up if you're in the town.






Camera equipment:
450D with Canon 18-55 mm kit lens
750D with Canon 100-400 mm mark I lens
Panasonic DC-FZ82
Røde VideoMicro II used for videos recorded using the 750D
I also had a camera trap, flash gun, and 14 mm and 50 mm lenses, all of which were unused.

I'm unhappy with a lot of my photos as I started off using shutter speeds that are fine when I'm shooting on land. In hindsight, I should have ramped up the shutter speed to account for the movement of of the boat.

I booked the 16-day Svalbard circumnavigation with Swan Expeditions through Venture Sail, who are a UK-based travel agency. Both companies handled the transaction professionally. I’m very happy with the service provided by Swan and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again. My flight to Svalbard was through SAS. I booked an extra couple of days in Svalbard before the trip started as the flights can be cancelled due to weather conditions. Sure enough, my first flight was cancelled. Originally it was rescheduled for 7:00 the next morning but, we all received text messages stating that they had rescheduled again to 6:30. We were booked into a hotel around 10 minutes from the airport and given a 250 kr voucher. The value of the voucher was a bit stingy as a burger and drink in the hotel came to 400 kr. The organisation the next morning was shambolic. The self-service check-in machine gave me a boarding pass but, didn’t provide a tag for my baggage. There were multiple SAS desks and no clear indication of which queue to join so a bunch of people that were in the same position grouped together and joined separate queues. I was worried that I wouldn’t get onto the plane in time but, they kept the doors open until everyone had made it and finished boarding at around 6:45.


I stayed at Gjestehuset 102, which is on the outskirts of Longyearbyen. You can walk around the village in 20 mins so I don’t think there is much advantage to getting something closer to the centre. Gjestehuset is basic but, clean so I wouldn’t have any problems staying there again. I saw some reindeer around town and other people reported seeing foxes so it’s worth carrying your camera whenever you’re outside.


I booked a tour with See and Explore in the hope of seeing some Arctic foxes. The guide was friendly and professional but, we didn’t see much apart from a reindeer and some birds so the tour ended up being a bit of a waste of time. In hindsight, I wish I'd done one of the kayaking tours that can be booked in town.









The Noorderlicht is a small, sailing vessel. There are ten, two-person guest cabins that contain a bunk bed and a small cupboard. Space is very limited so it’s a good idea to avoid bringing unnecessary items. The limited number of passengers on the boat meant it was easy to find space on deck to take photos and view the wildlife. They don’t use the zodiac to view animals as the boat is small enough to get close to the action. However, there were a couple of occasions where being in the zodiac would have improved the experience. I’m around 5’8’’ so I’m on the shorter side for a man but, I still smashed my head on the doorways a few times. As the boat is on the smaller side you get buffeted around a lot when the weather is rough. I was sick a couple of times and some other guests also had minor problems. They don’t provide muck boots so you have to take your own for some of the excursions. They try to get you on land every day but, this isn’t always possible as weather conditions can make it unsafe to use the zodiac or impossible to scout the landing area for polar bears. Obviously, this is completely reasonable as ensuring the safety of the guests and wildlife is the main priority.


The crew were all great. Our guides were knowledgeable and put on lectures on days when we had a lot of time at sea. A common evening meal was provided for everyone so you got whatever food you were given. The food was very high quality and every evening meal was different so there was lots of variety. Our cook managed to put good food on the table on days where I spent a decent chunk of my time with my head down the toilet, which is obviously a good skill for a cook on a sailing vessel to have :) I put on around 1.5 kg over the course of the cruise so my only complaint is that there was too much food!


You can get stuck into the sailing side of things if you want to. I helped out with raising and lowering the sails and steered the ship for a short amount of time. The crew go up into the rigging when it’s required. Myself and a few other guests went up to the crow’s nest to see what the view was like. This was done with a crew member and using a double-locking harness.


In the fantasy that I had before the trip, we would pick our way through the sea ice and see a polar bear on the ice. The majority of the ice was gone by the time we got there so you’ll need to go earlier in the season if you want to maximise your chances of having this experience. The wildlife density was lower than I expected. Obviously, there are no guarantees when it comes to species like polar bears but, I had assumed that birds, seals, and so on would be more abundant than they were. This is on me for not doing more research before I went.

Day 1


We had to board the boat at 16:00. After being shown to our cabins and introducing ourselves, we raised the sail and had a short journey to Trygghamna where we stayed overnight.






Day 2


We went on shore at Trygghamna (Safeharbour). We saw reindeer and a group of foxes. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get close to the foxes as there was another group there. At this point, I was a bit disheartened as I had a feeling that foxes were going to be the species that eluded me on this trip.










The foxes:




After this, we sailed to Dahlbrebukta. We made good time so went ashore after dinner and walked up to the top of a hill to watch a calving glacier. 








Edited by Csaba
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@Csaba - what kind of seal is that?

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On 8/20/2023 at 11:29 PM, offshorebirder said:

@Csaba - what kind of seal is that?

I think it's a bearded seal.

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Day 3


Our next stop was at a walrus colony at Sarstangen. The walrus were very comfortable with our presence so we were able to get nice and close to them. We were with the walruses for around 50 mins so it was a nice, relaxed sighting.










We then had a short journey to the research station at Ny Ålesund, which is a small research station. When we got there we were told that had to make sure that our phones were either switched off or set to airplane mode to ensure that they didn't interfere with any of the experiments that were conducted there. Roald Amundson tethered an airship here before flying across the north pole to Alaska.








We also had our first sighting of a polar bear off in the distance. The following photo was shot at 400 mm, which should give you a good idea of how far away it was. Apparently, some of the sailing companies offer partial refunds if you don't see a bear on your trip. Not sure if this would count as a successful sighting but, I think most people would be disappointed if this was the closest that they got to one.




Day 5


In the morning, we went onshore at Ossian Sarsfjellet and had a five-hour walk up to and across this glacier.








There's a bird cliff next to the landing site so there was plenty of opportunities to try and get some bird-in-flight shots.




We saw an Arctic tern skua try to force a kittiwake to give up its dinner. This was very hard to photograph due to the speed they were moving at. 










Not sure what species this is?




After some more sailing, we went onshore at Ny London. The wildlife viewing was excellent, which made this my favourite excursion of the trip.IMG_0704.JPG.db60748ad9a3c3747b42b73b0905dd38.JPG




We saw an Arctic fox search for eggs around the lake. You can see birds dive-bombing it in a few of the photos. It was a relief to get a good fox sighting as I thought that I was going to end up missing this species.







Edited by Csaba
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@Csaba - nice that you could get so close to the Walrus.   They are very skittish and afraid of humans in Alaska - doubtless due to being hunted.


The whitish bird with red eyebrows looks like a Rock Ptarmigan.


The bird trying to rob the Kittiwake is a Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus) - or Arctic Skua as they are called in Europe.  


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On 8/24/2023 at 11:12 PM, offshorebirder said:

@Csaba - nice that you could get so close to the Walrus.   They are very skittish and afraid of humans in Alaska - doubtless due to being hunted.


The whitish bird with red eyebrows looks like a Rock Ptarmigan.


The bird trying to rob the Kittiwake is a Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus) - or Arctic Skua as they are called in Europe.  



Thanks for the ID. Birds are not my strong point.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Day 7


In the morning, we went onshore at Virgohamna to visit an old Dutch whaling station. We had to go in two groups as a maximum of 12 people are allowed onshore at once at this site. I assume that the larger cruise ships would skip this location as it wouldn't be practical ferrying a hundred people back and forth between the boat and the shore. There are some old structures and materials left behind.








A couple of seals were hanging around the bar area.






The original plan was to go ashore at Ytre Norskøya but, this was abandoned due to poor weather making it impossible to assess the safety of the site. I was a bit annoyed at being unable to go onshore so I went back to my cabin to read my book. I must have fallen asleep as the next thing I can remember is my cabin mate standing over me shouting "Polar bear!". The bear was on the island that we were meant to visit so our guide made the correct decision when he abandoned the landing. We spent around 45 minutes with this bear whilst he got stuck into a reindeer. Our guide said that he's never seen reindeer on this island so we think it might have drifted over. I'm a bit unhappy with my photos as I had the shutter speed and ISO too low, which resulted in a lack of sharpness.














After this sighting, we sailed to Alice Hamna for the night.


Day 8


The original plan was to go onshore first thing in the morning, walk across the island, and be picked up on the other side. This had to be abandoned due to fog making it dangerous for the Noorderlicht to approach the second harbout. As such, we went onshore and walked in a loop before being picked up at the same point.


The weather when we left the Noorderlicht:










When we were back on the boat we sailed to Texas bar.



On the way, we came across a pod of 20 to 30 beluga whales. Our captain killed the engines and we waited whilst they swam past us. This was a really nice sighting that my photos don't capture adequately.






We went onshore at Texas Bar for a short walk.







Edited by Csaba
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Day 9


In the morning, we sailed a short distance to look at a calving glacier. My trip diary states that this is Monacobreen but, that doesn't fit with where Google Maps says this glacier is so I may have made a mistake.




Some guests on another trip did a kayak excursion over to the glacier. They got a fair bit closer than we did so I felt that this was a situation where getting in the dinghy might would have given a better experience.




Next, we sailed to Mushamna and saw some more belugas on the way.






As we were coming into the harbor, we saw another fox with a dead bird. It was well camouflaged so my camera's autofocus had trouble picking it out against the background.  






After getting back on the boat we had a really good minke whale sighting then sailed through the night.








Day 10


The next morning, we had a walk at Faksevager.








After getting back on the boat we sailed to a bird cliff at Alkifjellet. This was a very enjoyable 30 minutes. I've seen a few bird cliffs before so it wasn't anything new to me but, one of the other guests had a big smile on her face as said that she had "never seen anything like it before". It was very overcast so photos aren't the best. This was another occasion where I think getting in the dinghy to get a bit closer to the cliff would have improved the experience.












I think this is a minke whale.




Seal on the ice:






We then sailed to Torellneset where we stayed for the night. We had planned to go onshore to see a walrus colony but, it was too foggy to see anything and it wouldn’t have been possible to check for polar bears. 

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Day 11


This was a full day's sailing finishing with anchoring at Kap Lee. We had planed to go onshore at Freemansundet to break up the journey but, the landing was abandoned due to the weather conditions.




We saw some seals at the anchor point. I'm unhappy with my photos as the shutter speed was way too low.




Day 12


The original plan was to go onshore after breakfast. I was helping to set the tables when one of the other guests started shouting "polar bear". I grabbed my camera, ran on deck, and saw an adult female swimming within 10 m of the boat.










Audio quality is a bit crap as I forgot to grab my microphone before running on deck.



After checking us out she started swimming over to our planned landing site :) I grabbed some breakfast and sat on the deck with one of our guides checking out the landing site to see if it would be safe to go onshore. After a few minutes, our guide spotted an adult male bear on the landing site.




The female got onshore and then ran away from the male.



We stayed at the site for a bit longer and saw both bears reappear with a fair bit of distance between each other. The female stayed close to the water.




And the male stayed up on the hill.








This sighting was the highlight of the trip and is one of my top 10 wildlife experiences. 


We also saw another skua try to steal breakfast.








After this, we set off for a full day's sailing that went on through the night.


Day 13


We anchored at Isbjørnhamna then went onshore after lunch. 




Apparently, seeing this species is quite a big deal. I can't remember what our guide said they are.




Edited by Csaba
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  • 2 weeks later...

Day 14


In the morning, we went onshore at Hornsund to visit the Polish research station. One of our guides had phoned ahead and managed to get us an invite to go inside and have a coffee and a chat with the scientists working there. It was really interesting listening to them talk about their experiences working in Svalbard.






After saying goodbye, we walked over to a little auk colony that some of the scientists stationed there are studying.










As we were leaving the colony a fox came in and started looking for breakfast.







Does anyone know what species this is?




After boarding the boat, we sailed on to Bamsebu.


Day 15


In the morning, we went onshore at Bamsebu, which is an old whaling station. There are hundreds of beluga skeletons left over so it's a depressing sight.








Day 16


On our final day on the boat, we went onshore at Ymerbukta for a walk next to the glacier.




After this, we sailed back to Longyearbyen. The crew put on a special meal with some free booze for us on the final night. We had to leave the boat at 9 am the next morning so that they could prepare for the next group coming on board at 4 pm so we couldn't get too drunk :) 

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Beautiful report, thank you for sharing!


On 9/25/2023 at 7:33 PM, Csaba said:

Does anyone know what species this is?


A Purple Sandpiper IMO.

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On 9/28/2023 at 11:07 AM, michael-ibk said:

A Purple Sandpiper IMO.

Mine too. :)


The unidentified B&W ducks on day 13 were Common Eider. (Called St. Cuthbert's ducks in Northumberland.)

Enjoyed following your trip.

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