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

By Joe Van Os on Jul 20, 2014

I never get tired of traveling to Spitsbergen. It is among what I consider to be the Top 10 best photo trips in the world! The wildlife and scenery on this photography voyage are always spectacular and there is always some big surprise to be discovered during the cruise. So it was again this year.

For nature photographers, Spitsbergen (or Svalbard, as the Norwegians call the entire archipelago) offers something for everyone from dramatic mountain scenery, iconic glaciers and crystalline pack ice, huge cliff-nesting seabird colonies, high arctic tundra birds, sea ducks, seals, walruses, arctic foxes, caribou and, of course, polar bears.

Since the focus of this trip is always polar bears, I’ll “cut to the chase” and tell you about this year’s bear encounters—and they were pretty good. Using satellite ice charts we headed north along the Spitsbergen (island) coast and arrived at the pack ice north of the archipelago near Moffen Island. It wasn’t long before we spotted our first bear asleep on a small drift of snow. As we approached, he woke up, yawned and stretched and then rolled in the snow to clean his fur. This type of “dry cleaning” helps keep fur from matting with blood after the bear eats its prey and promotes the fur’s insulating quality by keeping it “fluffy.” Many photos were taken. Our next several bears had no interest in the ship and went about their business without investigating the large blue and white object (our ship) that appeared in the ice. But our next bear was so curious it slowly walked right up to the ship. Photographers scrambled everywhere to grab shorter lenses from their camera bags—the bear was finally too big to fit in frame while using most of our longer telephotos.

We photographed wonderful walruses and bearded seals on the ice. We had an amazing photo stop at the Alkefjellet seabird cliffs (see Trip Report Part 2) on our way to another patch of sea ice our ice chart had indicated along the southern coast of Nordaustlandet (island) which is northwest of Kong Karls Land—one of the largest polar bear denning areas in the Arctic. We had several good bears there that stayed with us for a relatively short time—but the day’s experience, and photography, was good enough that we decided to stay in the ice another day. That decision paid off handsomely as next day we spotted a freshly dead beluga whale floating amidst the ice floes. Three large male bears were taking turns feeding on the carcass as rare ivory gulls fluttered around. We stayed with this whale/bear situation most of the day until the evening fog rolled in. Needless to say, tens of thousands of photographs were made throughout the day. There is no way to tell how this whale had died. It was almost certain, given the loose quality of the ice, that it had not been recently trapped in dense pack ice and made vulnerable to bears at a small breathing hole (as sometimes happens)—and that these polar bears did not kill it.

In total we spotted 19 bears on this voyage and had excellent photo opportunities with 7 of them. There is nothing prettier than a clean polar bear on gleaming white ice—and no better place to get that shot than Spitsbergen! Our special surprise this year was the beluga whale and the bears on it. Luckily for us, the whale was not at all bloody so our photos are mostly of beautiful white bears on a chewed white whale. I’ve searched the internet and found there are very few photos of a polar bear with a beluga whale. Of those I did find, the shots depicted grisly carnage and the bear drenched in blood—about as bright red as a fire truck. So our photos are unique.

For me, one of the highlights of our hours of polar bear searching was getting to spend time on the ship’s bridge with my longtime friend, Rinie van Meurs. Rinie is, by far, the most skilled polar bear spotter I have ever known. I thought I was pretty good at spotting them at long distance when I was younger, but Rinie’s talent dwarfs any ability I might have had in my younger days!

Download a hi-res PDF of the map below.

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