Spitsbergen 2019 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Aug 29, 2019

Our Spitsbergen trip began in the town of Longyearbyen located about 10 degrees North of the Arctic Circle on the Svalbard archipelago. Situated in the high arctic,  Longyearbyen is an excellent location from which to start an arctic cruise and soon be “in the ice.” Our small group of 16 photographers had more than adequate room aboard our ship—the M/V Freya—for whatever photo opportunities we would encounter.
Unlike past year’s trips, this time we ventured to the southern tip of Spitsbergen, sailing up the east and west coasts of Storfjorden Bay. In the weeks prior to our trip, two unusual northerly gales blew the major ice pack far to the south, surrounding the entire northern area of the Svalbard archipelago and making travel by ship impossible. The bears had adjusted to these conditions and moved to the eastern area of the archipelago, so that is where we concentrated our search.
Standing polar bearIn total we viewed 23 polar bears. The fast ice—ice that is still attached to land—kept many of the bears at a distance, but we had encounters with several bears at close range making for excellent photo ops. On day three we came across a sow with two cubs that appeared to be about three years old. They gave us a great show in superb light and came right up to the ship as it lay against a large ice flow in a closed bay. They swam, ran, played and entertained us before deciding to wander off in search of food. During another encounter from our Zodiacs we observed a male on some fast ice that surrounded a small Island. Lying in wait, the bear decided to head in the opposite direction so we made a few loops around the island in search of the bear. We did  see it again but it was not within photographic range. By now, some folks were tired and others had to use the rest room so a few ventured back to the ship. Shortly after that the bear reappeared offering those of us that remained in the Zodiac some incredible photography at close range.   
This arctic adventure is not only about polar bears but also about experiencing life in the arctic. During the continual daylight of the summer months the arctic environment is nutrient rich and supports all life in that region. The basis of this life starts with diatoms, a major group of micro algae that give the ice different hues of color on the underside. Numbering in the trillions, diatoms are the bottom of the food chain and generate 20% of the worlds oxygen and 40% of the photosynthesis. They are eaten by zooplankton which in turn are eaten by larger animals so, in essence, the diatoms ultimately supply food to marine birds and mammals. This is the foundation of the food chain that gives the region an explosion of animal life during the summer months. Nothing goes to waste. Ultimately this infusion of energy into the system allowed us to have encounters with countless numbers of birds, walruses, seals, whales and other wildlife.
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While searching for bears we also spent time photographing the other species found in the pack ice environment. King eiders, common eiders arctic terns, kittiwakes, red phalaropes, Sabine’s gull, guillemots and puffins are some of the bird species we encounter. On one occasion we landed at Diskobukta Bay and hiked into a very narrow canyon with thousands of kittiwakes nesting on the cliff faces. Roosting birds occupy every available ledge and those that weren’t perched were in flight, circling above, performing courtship behavior, bringing in nesting material and settling neighborly disputes. The cacophony of sound from the birds was almost deafening and it was hard to have a conversation over the din of birds calls.  
Nesting kittiwakesMany of the bird species could be photographed from the ship, our Zodiacs and during shore landings. On several landings we also took pictures of the Svalbard reindeer and  visited a walrus pullout where mostly males were coming out of the water to rest. Our quiet approach and presence made no difference to these large mammals and they were totally at ease.  
A couple of the most memorable experiences were our encounters with Beluga whales in an area called Adolfbukta. We spent our last day Zodiac cruising and photographing bearded seals—both in and out of the water—a polar bear and a variety of birdlife. What was unusual about this particular Zodiac cruise was our experience with the belugas. Usually extremely shy, it is a rare event to get up close and personal with these illusive creatures. But due to our patience, and the fact that we would shut off our Zodiac’s motors and drift with the current, we witnessed about a 100 belugas at close range in the shallows of shore and ice. They tolerated our presence and in the quiet of the wild all we could hear was the sound of their blow holes and the spray they emitted. Belugas are difficult to photograph since all you can see is their back, blowhole and dorsal fin when they rise to the surface. But the experience of watching these majestic creatures as they surrounded our Zodiacs was priceless!
Ice abstractAnother moment that sticks out in the memory bank was watching a rather large iceberg roll. We were at a safe distance, a few hundred yards away in our Zodiacs when the event happened. After it flipped the iceberg swayed back and forth like a rocking horse before stabilizing and coming to rest. We moved up to the iceberg and discovered the treasure that moments ago were underwater. Currents wear down the ice that is below the surface creating beautiful, smooth-as-glass patterns. When the iceberg rolled, these patterns were unveiled above the surface and the photos we made of these abstract patterns were absolutely stunning. Just one of the many unique photographic opportunities we had on our Spitsbergen adventure!

Related Tags:  arctic, spitsbergen, svalbard