Spitsbergen: The Pack Ice Voyage 2014 Trip Report, Part II

By Joe Van Os on Aug 06, 2014


Spitsbergen would be considered the premier Arctic photography destination even without its photogenic ice-dwelling polar bears. This year, for example, quite a bit of pre-trip photography took place around the town of Longyearbyen (the world’s northernmost town). A number of our trip participants had arrived early and photographed in the vicinity of our hotel before our ship left the dock for our 10-night voyage.

Besides potential photo opportunities, it is always a good idea to arrive at a trip departure point a day or two early to have additional time if international flights are delayed, luggage does not arrive with the flight, or to acclimate to the local time zone.

Within an easy walk from the hotel, numerous arctic terns, common eiders and red phalaropes were available to shoot with a big lens. This year, almost a dozen king eiders frequented the small ponds near town and some of us did quite well photographing the handsome drakes.

There is a large sled dog kennel next to the intertidal zone on the edge of Longyearbyen. Between the two side-by-side enclosures surrounded by towering “polar bear proof” chain-link fences, as many as 125 pairs of common eiders were nesting. An adjacent government-placed sign declared this colony of eiders was attracted to this location due to the safety of the barking dogs in the kennel which repelled arctic foxes—the eider’s number one predator.

For four days in a row, several of us were up and photographing on site near the dog kennel at 4:30 AM. (With 24 hours of daylight in late June you can shoot virtually any time of the day—but the quiet hours of early “morning” are generally a good time.) We were photographing at the eider colony when an arctic fox came trotting over the hill and walked straight into the eider colony. Not a single dog barked or even bothered to raise its head—and sometimes the fenced dogs were less than five feet from the fox!

The fox flushed an eider hen off its nest, grabbed an egg and cached it, whole, by burying it on the hill above the dog kennel. Over these four days we watched this same fox carry more than 60 eider eggs out of the colony and bury them on the hillside. Some of these eggs were actively hatching—the eggs were pipping and in some cases a duckling was emerging. Glaucous gulls would then swoop in and take any additional eggs made vulnerable by the marauding fox. Also during this time the fox entered the adjacent arctic tern colony. As we watched he (it was a he) carried away countless tern eggs—mouth stuffed full—and buried them in the hillside with the eider eggs. The fox was totally untroubled by dive-bombing, head-pecking and “squirting” terns defending their nests. By the day we embarked our ship, the fox had foraged every egg still available in the eider colony. Then he went after ducklings being brooded by the remaining hens. He would flush the eider, quickly kill all the ducklings in the nest, carrying most of them to the hill for burial. Any remaining ducklings he couldn’t fit in his mouth were quickly swallowed whole by the vigilant glaucous gulls. By the end of the fourth day the fox had effectively destroyed the entire eider colony—leaving large tufts of eiderdown from devastated nests to blow in the wind.

Of all our previous cruises, this was the first to circumnavigate the big island of Spitsbergen. Normally, we head north to the ice, work to find polar bears and walruses in the ice north of the archipelago, and then visit the huge murre colony at the Alkefjellet bird cliff and a walrus haul out at Torrelnesset in the Hinlopenstretet (the waterway between the islands of Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet). Then we head back to Longyearbyen, retracing some of our route. But this year was different. (See map of 2014 route in Trip Report 1.)

When we arrived at the northern tip of the archipelago we had several good polar bear encounters. But a big highlight was photographing walruses from our ship and from Zodiacs. As we slowly approached, we were rewarded on several occasions by groups of two to six male animals who were resting on the ice to be close to their food supply—mostly benthic invertebrates, typically “clams.” The walruses usually dive for roughly five minutes and can eat 40 to 60 clams per dive. Dives up to 25 minutes are possible. While we were watching the males in Spitsbergen, the females with their newborn calves were hauled out on the ice much farther to the east near Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago.

Another Zodiac ride around the Duck Islands yielded photos of red phalaropes and some distant views of king eiders. The Duck Islands, as the name implies, are important nesting areas for common eiders. In some years their eggs are “vacuumed up” by land-bound polar bears—but no bears were sighted and many ducks were still atop the islands.

Mirror-smooth water at Liefdefjord and the Monaco Glacier yielded extraordinary landscape images of mountains and glaciers reflected in the still water. Though many of us were veteran leaders and clients of numerous Spitsbergen trips, none of us had seen such beautiful reflections in this area. Many photos resembled Rorschach inkblots—especially if horizontal landscape photos are turned vertically. It was, however, disturbing to note that every year we visit the Monaco Glacier it seems to have receded more and more.

Two days later we arrived at the graphically photogenic seabird colony on Spitsbergen’s eastern coast—Alkefjellet. Roughly translated as “Murre Mountain” we arrived during a glass-flat morning with a light fog drifting at the top of the vertical cliffs. Tens of thousands of breeding pairs of thick-billed murres (Brünnich’s guillemots) nest on what has to be among the most photogenic seabird colonies in the Arctic. The air was alive with swirling birds. Due to the windless morning, thousands of murres swam in the water below the cliffs. The scene was magical. First we brought the ship close to the cliff face to photograph patterns of birds—with our big lenses on tripods—that were huddled against the sheer pink cliff walls. The extreme vertical nature of the colony acts as a deterrent for one of the colony’s major predators—arctic fox. Indeed, the cliff is so treacherous we have, on previous trips, found dead foxes at the bottom of the cliff—having fallen from a misstep to an area that allowed no safe footing.

Then we boarded Zodiacs for a 2-hour cruise below the cliffs and out among the ice floes and the thousands of birds paddling around in the silvery water. Many close-ups of swimming murres were created as well as images of birds roosting on small chunks of ice.

Later, as we headed south, a few humpback and minke whales were seen in deeper water along the continental shelf and a pod of belugas was spotted in the shallow inshore waters along Nordaustlandet. Though they were interesting observations, none of them were “cooperative” and few photos were made.

Over the next two days we had wonderful opportunities to photograph polar bears in the pack ice (see Trip Report 1), including the fantastic shoot with polar bears on a beluga whale carcass.

We traveled around the bottom of the archipelago—continuing our circumnavigation of Spitsbergen—and started our northward cruise back to Longyearbyen. Our final photography day found us on land below the towering cliffs of Alkhornet (Murre Horn) where a hike across the tundra yielded shots of reindeer and arctic wildflowers. Then a scenic cruise by ship up to Nordenskiöld Glacier provided last-minute landscape imagery and a “drive-by shooting” of the deserted Russian mining settlement Pyramiden, located in Billefjorden. Overall, it was a wonderful trip, one punctuated with unexpected photography highlights—the bears on the beluga, fantastic still-water reflections, walruses on ice—and great camaraderie.