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Polar Bears and the Wildlife of Svalbard Photo Tours –

June 2019
Trip Reports


Located only 800 miles from the North Pole and far above the Arctic Circle, Svalbard is nevertheless the most accessible high Arctic destination one can visit for seeing Polar Bears. This year, as we’ve done for the last two years and will do again in 2020, we offered two photo tours to Svalbard, a 7 day and a 10 day excursion.
We’ve been traveling to Svalbard since 2012 and each year something new and this year was no exception. This far north, and this early in the late Spring/early Summer, the ice pack’s location governs all travel. One would expect this ice to be prevalent in the far north, extending to the Pole, but it may also sweep down the eastern side of the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) archipelago, inhibiting or preventing travel there. One never knows what to expect, and conditions in April may be completely different than what one experiences in early June. Svalbard is a land of surprises.
fOur route in Svalbard is dictated by the ice charts and the weather. This year, the northern regions of Svalbard were blocked by ice, so we headed south, on both trips, to some of our favorite areas. A large bay, or gulf, separates the two main islands of Svalbard, and we headed in that direction for bears and walruses. On our first trip, in this large bay, we again hit pack ice. This is a good thing, actually, as bears hunt the pack ice for seals, and we spent nearly three days in the ice, moving slowly through a bizarre landscape, looking for bears.  Oddly enough, we didn’t find a bear here, and with no chance of getting to the eastern islands because of the ice, and the very real threat that we could be ice-bound, we headed back towards the western islands.
On our second trip, we followed the same route, but now the bay was completely free of ice, allowing us to travel far to the north where we hoped to find more bears and walruses. But once again, weather played a role, with a major storm barreling towards us from the South. The storm’s arrival would coincide with our passage through unprotected southern and western seas, which would have made our sailing uncomfortable at best, and dangerous, and our captain wisely chose to head towards the protected fjords of the western island, closer to Longyearbyen where we would later fly home.
All that’s the bad news, sort of, putting in context the good news … the wildlife that we saw, despite the threat of storms and the problems with ice. Early on, on both trips, we had our first Polar Bears, breaking the ice, so to speak, and relieving the pressure that’s on everyone’s mind, will we see bears?


bOn our first trip, our captain pushed his ship into the fast ice bordering a glacier where bear activity was reported. Finding bears can be a waiting game – bears may see a ship and decide to investigate, and that’s exactly what happened, as a Polar Bear approached our ship, eventually resting her paws along the side as she stood upright, her head just a few inches below our deck level. It was a great shoot.

On our second trip, the pressure was again relieved when, in an adjacent fjord, we discovered that a  hunter had  shot a seal, skinning the animal and returning to home with meat for his sleigh dogs. In some areas, subsistence hunting for seal, for dog food, is allowed, which was the case here. Now, we had a seal hide and plenty of blubber lying on the ice, with bears in the area, and all we needed was patience – surely a bear would smell the meat and follow that scent to the kill.

And so we waited, once again ‘parking’ our ship in the fast ice, and, at 4:30AM, one of our guides (someone was on duty during this entire time) knocked on our door, waking us up to inform us that a Polar Bear was sighted. Mary and I woke everyone up, got dressed, and, before we could even get on deck, we were told that the bear had reversed course. Go back to bed.

bLess than an hour later we had another knock on the door. A bear was moving towards the seal. We dressed, and at 6:30AM boarded our zodiacs and headed towards the Polar Bear. The bear was walking rapidly along the edge of the fast ice, and we kept our distance at first, concerned that the bear might be shy and head inland. He, a male, was not, and soon we were paralleling the bear as he strode along, intent on reaching the seal.

For the next 6 hours we stayed with the bear,  who fed nearly continuously on the blubber and hide. Glaucous Gulls and the rare and beautiful Ivory Gull joined the bear, feasting on tiny scraps left behind on the ice. Eventually, past noon, the bear finally moved off, heading inland, and we returned to the ship for lunch. Later, the bear returned, but by then we felt we had everything we could shoot with this bear, and we sailed off.


There were multiple highlights on both trips. On one, we visited a landing where, two years ago, we had discovered an Arctic Fox den. While we hiked the tundra a fox trotted by, disappearing over a hill but in the general direction of the old den. Later on our walk, we spotted the fox again, this time with three fox pups running along behind the adult, and in the vicinity of the old den.
Over the next several hours we were treated to our very best fox behavior, as the adult occasionally wandered in close, and the three pups played and investigated, putting on an incredible show. By the time the shoot was over – culminating with a large pod of Beluga Whales that swam between the mainland and our ship – we had spent 7 hours at this landing, a record time for any shore landing for our guides.


Atlantic Walruses were another highlight, and we did well on both tours with groups hauled out on fast ice and small floes. On one shoot, a nice adult was stretched out on a large flat sheet of ice, allowing us to shoot at ice-level for a great perspective. On several occasions, we had Walruses swimming around floes, while others basked on their frigid beach.
Bearded Seal
Harp Seal
Ringed Seal pup
Ringed Seal pup. Although the pup looked so small and helpless, pups
take to the water soon after birth. Weaning occurs surprisingly quickly
for most of the Arctic seals, with one species, the Hood, weaning their
pup in just four days.

We had all three Seals, the Bearded, Ringed, and Harp, and great shots of each. Barnacle Geese,  Jaegars, Arctic Terns, and a very rare Whopper Swan (the first we’d seen in Svalbard), as well as Purple Sandpipers, King and Common Eiders, Murres, Dovekies, and Pintail Ducks were just a few of our other subjects.

Ivory Gull
Barnacle Geese
Red-throated Loon (Diver)
King Eider
Northern Fulmar
Snow Bunting
Northern Skuas

Before we had to turn back because of the storm we cruised along a glacier front that extended for miles. This was the arctic at its best, and the scenery, the silence, the sheer immensity of the glacier and the landscape, with Northern Fulmars often flying by and challenging us to photograph a 'bird in habitat against the glaciers' made this encounter one of the trip highlights. It was simply breath-taking, and on a windless, relatively warm day to boot.

This glacier front extending for at least 5 miles.
We played with several of the Artistic filters that render a jpg
as well as an unaltered RAW file - this one is of melted
Polar Bear tracks across an ice floe.

Because of the storm, we were worried that our ten day tour might be a disappointment, especially on the last day before we headed back to Longyearbyen. Because we had the time, we headed to an old Russian mining town, Pyramidean,  now truly a ghost town, for a shoot a bit off our usual set of subjects.
Using the Dramatic Tone provided this interpretation.
There were endless micro human landscapes, and we could have
spent an entire day here. Some tourist groups do stay in the
only hotel still operating in this ghost town.


Everyone enjoyed the visit, a truly eerie exploration of old buildings that, at times, seemed to been abandoned mid-way through a normal day. Toys were scattered about, books were open … it reminded me of a movie on a nuclear holocaust, with a location now dead and frozen in time. Black-legged Kittiwakes nested on the ledges of a few of the buildings, a huge colony of very accessible birds now reclaiming their landscape, and exploiting the convenient cliff-like ledges of abandoned apartment buildings.


bAs we left Pyramidean, one of our guides spotted a Polar Bear on the ice now bordering our anchorage.  We were about to sail off to follow when we discovered our ship was tied in to the dock by the lines of another ship! By the time we got the ropes cleared the bear was far passed us, and to follow we had to circle the huge sheet of ice where we’d seen the bear. We did so, and in spotting the Polar Bear, we boarded our zodiacs again, following and paralleling the bear as he made his way along the shoreline. That final viewing lasted three hours, and hundreds of shots, and with that, we headed back to Longyearbyen, ecstatic at the conclusion of our 17 days in this incredible Arctic landscape.

We will be returning to Svalbard in early June of 2020. It is not too early to reserve your spot on either the 7 day or 10 day expedition. Join us!


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