Spitsbergen Photo Cruise 2012 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jul 31, 2012

Spitsbergen offers everything you could want when photographing polar bears—from mothers and small cubs, to giant males and inquisitive juveniles attracted at close range to the strange vessel containing so many colorful and potentially tasty “morsels” peering enticingly over the bow. In Spitsbergen you get all of this polar bear action on pristine pack ice—plus spectacular glaciated mountain scenery, throngs of seabirds, whales, walruses, seals, arctic foxes, reindeer and a wide variety of arctic wildflowers. All while residing on a comfortable ship during the arctic summer when days are long and the temperature is normally well above freezing.

So it was when our group of 55 enthusiastic photographers weighed anchor in Longyearbyen and set out on our quest to see and photograph polar bears. And we weren’t disappointed—we counted more than 60 of them!

Our congenial group was comprised of photographers from 10 countries—several from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. From my perch on the Bridge it was amazing to see the ship’s deck covered with a tripod forest topped with 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses. The captain and I joked that the camera gear on deck was probably worth more than the entire ship!

As I told our shipmates at the start of the voyage, this was an unusual trip because we had no planned itinerary—we would cruise and explore until the photography opportunities were good! After consulting satellite ice charts and the captain, we decided to go all the way around the north of the Island of Spitsbergen, cruise through Hinlopen Strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet Island, and head to a large patch of mapped pack ice floating some distance to the west of Kong Karls Land—one of the world’s largest polar bear denning areas—in hope of finding mother bears with their cubs.

On our way north we cruised through photogenic Smeerenburgfjorden, past beautiful maritime mountains and glaciers, and encountered two humpback whales. Later that afternoon we experienced our first landing at a substantial dovekie (little auk) colony at Fugelsangen and spent the afternoon photographing these little “micro puffins.” Actually, dovekies are the smallest member of the auk family in the Atlantic and breed only on remote islands in the High Arctic. Since they are usually very hard to see off the coast of populated Europe and North America (except when severe storms blow a few of them close to shore in the winter), seeing and photographing so many dovekies is a real treat for birders.

By the “morning” of our third day (there were 24 hours of daylight) we reached pack ice at Bjornsundet (Bear Sound) in full sunshine, cobalt blue skies and water as flat as glass. From the Bridge we could see a couple of distant bears on the fast ice (ice attached to shore) and we decided to wait to see if one would catch our scent at a great distance and come to investigate. We placed the ship as downwind as we could so the bears would ultimately walk towards the scent trail we were inadvertently exuding. Almost an hour passed. I could see people looking at their watches on the front deck, wondering why we were spending so much time here with these distant bears. Then, one of the bears caught our scent! From a distance of several miles it made a beeline for the ship, almost galloping across the ice to reach us. Shutters clicked—sounding like a driving rain. The bear came close enough for many to take head shots. From that bear onward, no one questioned why we waited for wildlife to comfortably acclimate to us during the trip! Later that day we were treated to a mother bear with her tiny cub clinging to her back as she swam between the ice pans.

The next day we awoke while drifting just outside the pack ice west of Kong Karls Land. Even before the early passenger wake-up call, from the Bridge we could see bears far in the distance. It was going to be one heck of a day of bear shooting! Immediately after breakfast we entered the ice and stayed there for the entire day and into the next. Bear photography for these two days was phenomenal—one of those times that defy description and a classic “ya should have been there” occasion. We photographed lots of females with cubs—big cubs, little cubs, twins and singles, five months old to yearlings and a mother nursing a cub close to the ship. We shot large males, sub-adults, bears on seal carcasses, bears interacting with glaucous and ivory gulls on seal kills, clean bears, bloody bears, bears swimming and jumping from ice floe to ice floe—as soon as one bear lost interest in us and walked away, we moved on to another!

After two days of intense bear shooting we decided to move northward to Torellneset for a Zodiac landing to photograph walruses at a haulout on shore and also do head shots of those bulls swimming in the water as they came to and went from the herd. An additional treat was a beautiful blue iceberg just offshore and a relatively rare Sabine’s gull that was foraging with a group of black-legged kittiwakes. That afternoon we moved the ship to Alkefjellet to photograph, what is arguably, the most beautiful seabird colony in the High Arctic. What makes this colony of 60,000 pairs of thick-billed murres (Br√ľnnich’s guillemot) so exceptional? It‘s location on a sheer cliff of towering, weathered, columnar doleritic rock—more than 100 meters high—which creates an extraordinary number of nesting ledges that are packed with birds. It is great fun to frame artistic patterns containing thousands of birds perched on this photogenic rock face. Deep water just offshore allows the ship to get very close to the cliff and allows us to shoot with tripods from the deck and also use the Zodiacs to cruise close to the unwary birds at water level. That night we enjoyed a barbecue while drifting along the cliffs.

We had originally decided to go north to intercept ice in latitudes above the entire archipelago, but the lure of all those bears in the south was so great we decided to return and spend more time there. It was a good (and popular) decision! Again we had numerous close photo opportunities with bears—one yearling cub came up to the ship and loudly growled at us before its mother called it away. But we also had one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences with a mother bear hunting—and killing—a ringed seal just off the side of the ship! It was textbook classic. We could see no seal, but the female bear could sense it in an ice cave below the surface. She signaled the cubs, who immediately dropped to the ice and remained still while she stalked the seal. Like a dog on point she very slowly approached her target and with a mighty pounce tried to break through the ice. The ice did not seem to give way (though she may have collapsed the interior of the cave trapping the seal). She pounced again, breaking into the cave, and in she dove—her hind legs waving, with most of her body below the surface. Then up she came—seal in her mouth—and ran with it to be sure no other bears were nearby to take it from her. The cubs quickly followed—turning red as they ate and wallowed in their bloody meal.

We were quite a distance from Longyearbyen so it was time to slowly head north again and up and over the archipelago for a few more days of photography closer to our departure point. Along the way we photographed bearded seals on the ice and a variety of landscapes from the ship. We stopped for a landing at the spectacular 14th of July Glacier where we had beautiful weather to shoot the glacier, wildflowers, mirror reflections in a small tundra pond, and a fantastic blue iceberg near the glacier. While we were there, the glacier calved a huge ice wall sending a “tsunami” wave across the fjord.

During our final days we visited another walrus haulout, stopped at an old marble mine where long-tailed jaegers nest and there are lots of arctic wildflowers to photograph. We saw a pod of beluga whales that may have numbered 100 or more. And perhaps our biggest treat, before returning to port, was a den of unwary arctic foxes with at least eight playful pups that we photographed at relatively close range. Reindeer rested on snow patches on the slopes above them.

It was a marvelous trip. All the elements came together perfectly—the ship, captain and crew, the expedition staff, congenial and enthusiastic passengers, good weather and great opportunities to be with polar bears in the ice.

We will offer this trip again in 2014 and in my next blog I’ll write about how critical it is to be on the right ship to get the best photography opportunities in Spitsbergen and in Antarctica.

Slideshow photographs by Darrell Gulin, John Shaw, and Joe Van Os. A few shots were made in Longyearbyen just prior to the ship’s departure.