Svalbard Polar Expedition~2009
A bit of history about this beautiful place known as Svalbard/Spitsbergen. Svalbard is situated between 74° and 81° (northern latitude) and 10° and 35° (eastern longitude) and is a group of islands known as an archipelago. The area compromises a land surface of over 61,000 sq km. Glaciers cover over 22,000 sq km of this arctic landscape. the Vikings were the first to find this ”cold edge” or Svalbard as their language described it. Later, an explorer name Willem Barents found several islands of the archipelago in 1595 and called the main one Spitsbergen. Not long after Barents arrived, soon came the whalers who believed for a long time that Spitsbergen/Svalbard was a part of Greenland. Eventfully this was proven to not be the case and in 1925, Norway was granted sovereignty over Spitsbergen and along with it the opportunity to introduce the old Viking term, Svalbard.
My reason for taking this adventure is to continue my work with Polar Bears International in my quest to document the arctic. This part of the world is predicted to change dramatically in the next several decades and it’s my goal to have a visual record of what parts of it was like before the changes took place. Many of the images I collect will be used in a forth coming book as well as be available for many of the other projects PBI is involved with. The following photographs were shot during a 21 day period.
To see a gallery of images from the trip click on this link Svalbard Polar Expedition
August 1, 2009
So begins an adventure I’ve thought about for many years. There are six of us on this small 45 foot sailboat. Our goal is to cruise the icy waters of Svalbard–Europes largest and most remote wilderness area. The whole of the archipelago is approximately 62500 km. The land is vast and filled with lots of wildlife including numerous different birds, walrus and the mighty polar bear. This cast of human characters include a newly found friend Paul another professional photographer who organized this expedition, Neil, Fanus and Steve. Finally our fearless leader and captain Heinrich whose day job is an IT man for the local college. We’ll be in close quarters now for the next 20 days.
This day was spent running around town. Heinrich, had come in a couple of days earlier with another group but was now getting prepared for the upcoming three weeks we’ve hired him for. Our most important event of the day was shopping for groceries which I documented in relative detail. The local grocery store of Lonyearbyen had much of it already gathered, piled high in shopping carts at the edge of the store. The staples began with lots processed meats. Not too crazy about that sort of diet but that’s the price of a small boat with a shortage on freezer space. Some may not think that 45 feet is all that small but 6 grown men can bring the walls closing in rather quickly. We finish the days collection of food supplies and move on to other duties.
Additional chores included tracking down a dry suit so I’m prepared to get in the water if the chance arises.. Any polar bears will be photographed with my polecam if we’re able to find one willing to let us tag along as it plys the waters of these newly melted ice sheets.
It’s a beautiful day on this northern island. The sun is shining, and temperatures somewhere in the high 50‘s maybe low 60‘s. Longyearbyen is an amazing town. Very clean, very modern on any scale but especially for an arctic city. The streets are paved at least where I’ve been walking. I understand that there is a road all of about fifty kilometers that can take you that distance in a vehicle. There’s a college and an arctic study center along with a very unique scientific endeavor called the Seed Bank. It’s a place where seeds from all over the world are sent and stored in a special holding facility. The thought is that if these plants ever go extinct that they will have seeds to resupply the world. I’m hopeful I may have time to go and see it when I get back, but for now we’re nearly ready to set sail.
We’ve been cruising now for nearly four hours, heading west from Longyearbyen out through Isfjorden. It’s 1:30am and the sun is still hanging 10 degrees above the horizon. The skies are still very clear. Seas are calm and we’re seeing numerous gulls, fulmers, and puffins. Just moments ago we passed a large flock of gulls of some sort that obviously were feeding on a school of fish. Several dozen were gathered on the water and you could easily smell the oder of their prey. Any good fisherman will tell you of a humans ability to smell fish below the water and in these numbers it was incredibly strong.
I’m reading a very good book on the area simply called Spitsbergen by Andreas Umbreit. It’s a wealth of information and has some great stories about polar bear attacks. I’ve never been one interested in the sensationalism of bear attack stories and though I’ve heard of an attack or two in arctic in north america, the stories in this book seem to suggest that attacks are more frequent in this part of the world.
Not wanting to plagiarize I will paraphrase a few of the stories.
A couple of Austrian climbers who had no weapons were attacked by a polar as one of the climbers was exiting his tent. The bear hauled him off onto the ice and ate him in front of his partner. The surviving climber had radioed for help but by the time the authorities arrived the bear had consumed most of the body and had disappeared with body in tow out on to the ice. The bear and victim never to bee seen again
Two Dutch researchers tried scaring a polar bear away from their skiff that it was messing with. It immediately charged and attacked. They were both injured but lived to tell about it. They were able to call for help, a helicopter flew in and authorities on board shot the animal.
Longyearbyen, March 1995
Two Norwegian girls came to visit a friend in town. They went hiking on the mountain just outside of the town limits. They saw something very light colored off in the distance and figured it was a reindeer. Eventually it came closer and by the time they realized it was a polar bear it was too late. It charged and the girls ran. One of the girls slid down a steep and long ravine to safety. The other was caught, the bear killed her and consumed her and authorities had to shoot the bear to retrieve what was left of her body. All of this happened within shouting distance of Longyearbyen.
Kiepertoya, Hinlopen Strait, August 1995
A tourist ship was anchored off shore and several people set off on a hike, in two different groups. One group was properly armed guide. The second group took a small caliber .22 pistol. Shortly in to their hike they encountered a very aggressive bear and it attacked. They shot the bear numerous time with the 22 but by the the end of the attack one man was dead and another badly injured. Authorities came in and shot the bear as it consumed the man. They later found that the two men had actually hit the bear three time squarely in the head and none of the bullets pierced it’s skull.
Ok, like I said earlier I don’t like to sensationalize bear attacks because they truly are few and far between but these stories point out quite handily how dangerous polar bears can be. They are the ultimate predator, they eat no vegetation of any sort unless forced to by extreme hunger. They make their living hunting meat and they’re very capable of figuring out how to get it. I’ve heard of several stories of people in the Churchill, Manitoba region, that I do a lot of my work in, who have had close encounters with polar bears. Only one death that I know of due to a man being drunk and running into a polar bear within the town of Churchill.
It’s now nearly 2:00am. the sun is still bright and low. I need to head to bed to try and get some sleep.
Poole Point came sooner than I really desired. Three hours of sleep and I was shot out of bed by the sound of the anchor chain clanging like the bells of the Popes Cathedral. It lasted for little more than thirty seconds but by the time it was done my ears were ringing and my eyes were bulging. My bunk is up against the anchor holding area and when the chain was dislodged, I’m fairly certain I put a dent in the ceiling of the boat. At least I was wide awake for the shoot to come.
This was a stop for walrus. There were a dozen or so animals on shore, just lying there, once in a great while waking to scratch, snort or due other bodily functions that sound funny and ill mannered. The smell was typical of large pinnipeds. They stink! A stink that’s impossible to believe or describe but believe me it’s rank. We shot for several hours documenting a group of a half dozen young walrus swimming and playing in the surf. The large adults continued to snooze. It was a wonderful morning with lots of sunshine and not a breath of wind–it was a great way to start the trip.
Our morning ended with a great breakfast of eggs, bacon and coffee. We set sail for our next destination 12 hours up the fiord. We’ve heard of a possible polar bear feeding on a whale. The skies are still clear and we may have another long night in great arctic light
Several hours north of Poole Point and we run in to the whale carcass, floating lazily in the swells of the fijord. It’s massive, bloated and smells like hell. No bears anywhere to be seen. Unfortunately it’s not beached and any bears wanting to feed on it would have a difficult time. We’re dissaponted about our lack of opportunities but after a few photos we begin heading north once again.
Today was quite slow. Weather is cold and foggy, some drizzle. We’re heading for areas of more ice. Have spent several hours searching from our Zodiacs we found nothing other than birds. We’ve heard there is a mother and cubs in the area. Our hope is maybe we’ll get a chance to see her at some point. Heinrick thinks we may get a chance to see her so we plan for a watch. We divided the night into 1.5 hour chunks, each of us taking our turn to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity to see bears. Tomorrow is another day in the arctic environment of Svalbard.
We’ve had fairly heavy fog with a constant mist the last two day. I didn’t write yesterday since we spent the night traveling. Life in this high arctic environment is completely unrestricted by the hands of a clock. We’re often eating dinner at 10:00 maybe 11:00pm. Sitting around talking and looking for bears until possibly 2:00am which is what we did last night. I hit the sack at about 2:30am and at 3:00 the engines roar to life as the boat heads north out of Lady Franklin Fijord with our destination being Brennevins fijord. That evening we had our first polar bear. It was a young adult though I couldn’t be sure if male or female. It came within seventy five yards of the boat but eventually fear overtook it’s curiosity and it sauntered off. Our plan was to hang out in the ice at Franklin Fijord and explore the area by Zodiak. We had spent the day doing what I can only describe as four wheel driving through the pack ice. You have to see it to believe it. I’ve shot some video and it helps you understand what’s like to be on a mini ice breaker.
Our plans for staying with our first bear were dashed by mother nature. Thirty minutes after hitting the sack at 2:30am we begin our trundle north out of Lady Franklin Fijord. Heinrick is concerned the ice in the Fijord is pushing in and he’s anxious about getting trapped. Our destination is Brennevins Fijord and we travel north until 5:30am. Neil and I are in the bunks at the bow of the ship. For three hours we feel as though we’re busting the arctic pack ice with our skulls. I finally had to find my ear plugs and then it only helped to dampen the crashing and clanging of the ice against the hull. If you can imagine what it might be like to have your cranium stuck up into the Liberty Bell on the night it was hit so hard it cracked you’ll get an idea of what it feels like to be in a bunk, breaking ice in the bow of this arctic explorer.
We finally make our destination and I fall asleep. Two hours later Steve wakes us excitedly announcing there is a bear off on the horizon and coming to the boat. I’m barley able to pull myself out of bed. I take a look and it’s a long, long ways off. I make my way back to my bunk and try for a few hours of additional sleep. My head hits my down jacket pillow and seconds later I’m back in dream land.
We sleep late into the morning with one person on watch at all times. The bear never did show last night. It’s time for breakfast. Our rest of the morning is spent cruising the sea ice looking for bears. Lots of time spent on the deck of the ship hoping to see a bear within range to get out and photograph. So far the morning goes by with no subjects and we’re now parked in the ice wanting for the winds to subside.
It’s the first night we’ve slept normal hours. I went to bed around 11:00pm and was up by 5:00am. We’re heading ever farther north today. Our hope was to get around the top end of Svalbard but it wasn’t meant to be. Lots of ice. The temperature of the water is -1C. Just one degree shy of the water turning solid. We visited a beach called Is Flokk which means Ice Flow in english hoping to see walrus but they didn’t show. The rest of the day was spent searching, searching, searching…… Lots of time on deck with binoculars in hand, glassing the ice flows as they pass by the ship at 7 knots. We make a decision at the end of the day, around 10:00pm, that we need to head back south. Captain Heinrick is concerned the ice from the fiord is moving our direction and if we stay in this area our exit may be blocked by ice in the morning. He suggests it’s no problem if we don’t mind being stuck for a week or so and leaves it up to us to decide. We choose getting out of path of the approaching ice and we sail south, backtracking much of the county we covered several hours earlier.
Around 11:00pm we spot a bear on one of the islands. It’s resting quietly, laying on a snow bank, lots of lichen covered rocks surrounding the small patch of snow it’s chosen as its refuge. The scene is incredibly beautiful. An immaculate white bear, orange, green and brown lichen cling to black covered rocks. It has all the elements for stunning imagery. The bear sees us and becomes curious, walking towards our boat, smelling. The zodiaks are dispatched, survival suits are donned and six orange colored Gumbee dolls climb aboard with camera packs slung across our backs. Steve chooses not to wear the highly restrictive blaze orange, survival suit. He’s young and feeling bullet proof but later confides to me he was probably stupid not to have worn one. He’s quite a character and I mean in this in the most positive way. He lots of fun, works his tale off and is a pretty darn good cook.
We spend the next couple of hours taking photos of this seemingly young but healthy and gorgeous bear. The clouds are as thick as a heavy wool blanket, the sun searching for a hole to blast a god beam thorough. It’s getting dark or as dark as possible in this part of the world this time of year. The bear moves on and so do we. Back to the ship and another hour or two of sailing before we’re safe form being blocked off by the ice.
By the time I got to bed last night it was 3:30am. I stayed awake to help keep the captain company as we drove through the broken ice chunks that were moving down from the north. I awoke to chatter in the galley which is only 6-8 feet from my bunk. We have breakfast and then captain explains that he knows of a stream and if we wanted we could fill up with water today and everyone could shower. Yes sir Captain. Sign me up to help haul water. It’s been almost ten days since my last shower and it would be a welcome relief.
We motor over to what looks like a small little stream from the vantage point of the boat. However, we get to shore and it’s much more substantial than it looks. The drill is to take one of the Zodiaks into the stream, inside the Zodiak is a water tight tarp the captain has secured for this specific chore. We use buckets to fill the Zodiak full of water and then drive it over to ship where we unload the water, bucket by bucket until the big ship is full. It’s sounds like a lot of work but it goes quickly and is an extremely effective way to get fresh water onboard. We spend the morning all getting showered and now we’re back on the prowl heading for more sea ice to start the search for another day.
Today was rather slow for photographing polar bears. We saw what seemed to be three but all at a very long distance with no possibilities for photos. Two of those bears we think may have been a mother and cub and the other a large male not far down the coast. I’m writing this in the early AM. We’ve anchored or I should say lodged our ship in the ice near the area we saw the three bears. An island called Sabine just off our rudder seems to anchor the ice we’ve settled in to. We’ve decided to spend the next day or so exploring the area. We’ve seen lots of seals, a couple of polar bears so it’s a good place to be for a day or two. To make sure a bear doesn’t surprise us we’ve come up with a bear watch system that consists of someone being awake at all times. I’m on the first shift from 12:00-1:30am.
I’ve been shirking my writing chores. We’ve had two good days of bear observations right here from the boat and between the bear watches and editing photos I’ve neglected my journal duties. In the past two days and three nights we’ve had a couple of encounters with polar bears. One beautiful bruin, seemingly a female, has come to visit twice. She doesn’t stay long, just enough time to circle the ship a time or two. She first arrived in a serious hurry, obviously frantic, seemingly anxious. She had come from the direction of the open water, out in the fiord channel and she was on a direct line to the coast. Heading in the direction of the two bears we saw an equal number of days ago. They seemed to be feeding at the time and maybe she could smell the dead seal. We diverted her attention for thirty minutes or so and then she was off again.
The last three days have been wet. No sun, mostly thick clouds with mornings and evenings bringing a substantial fog that hangs above the ice pack. It’s not been raining but with the moisture in the air you could easily think otherwise. I laid in my bunk this morning and could hear the soft, tap, tap, tap of falling water drops. Condensation so thick as to force minute beads of water into the form of a droplet, a small pear shaped portion of water that gives way to the forces of gravity and crashes to the deck below. In fog this thick we can’t see the bears coming, they just appear. In reality it’s only been one, the same individual we saw the first day. Twelve hours ago she came for the second time and once again spent energy checking us out. She’s seemingly healthy at least as far as her looks indicate but she does have hunger written all across her being. A seal makes a splash some fifty yards off the stern of the ship and she dashes in it’s direction, no chance of catching it but obviously excited. The seal splashes again and she moves like a shot. Momentarily she takes on the pose of a bird dog on point, one forefoot in the air, her nose and eyes fixed in a deadly stare out into the lead. The seal is long gone but it’s obvious she’s hoping. A few minutes pass and she moves off along the edge of the ice, lies down, shuts her eyes like a sleeping golden retriever. She’s hunting and it’s all happening only seventy yards from the boat.
Time passes and she moves on. Another day is gone and we’re back in to the bear watch mode from the night before. These days are long but splitting duties between six individuals is doable. My turn on deck takes place between 12:00-3:00am. Tomorrow we will leave this area and head towards the east side of the island. I’ve seen photos and it should be spectacular!
We leave our ice covered bay and are off for the eastern side of the island. Six hours down the coast will be our first stop if all goes as planned. Here we will anchor for the night and start making our way up the coast tomorrow. Captain tells us that the trip north will take as long as 30 hours. That’s a hell of a trundle but from the photos he’s shown us it should be well worth the effort.
The fog lies heavy just above the surface of the water. We travel slowly, following the ice edge. Puttering along at 5-6 knots, stopping now and again for a bearded seal resting on a chunk of ice. I force myself out on to the deck to look for bears as we pass land and frozen water. It’s cool but not cold, the air is a welcome change to the stuffy cabin below. The boat is warm inside and the droning engine makes me want to take refuge in my bunk and shut my eyes. I force myself to continue working and keep the daylight vigil.
We turn the corner coming out of the fijord and the fog begins to thin. A mile or so out you can see land and sun is hitting the glacier scoured ridges of the barren, rocky mountains. We sail for several more hours and arrive at Lagoya or Low Island. Here we plan to check for walrus. this island known to be a haul-out for these massive, blubbery beasts and as we pull in to the bay we can see a group resting on the beach.
The Zodiaks take us to shore and we explore the area near the group of walrus. Several are in the water and present some beautiful photo opportunities as they come up to check us out. The main group remains on land, packed together, lying blissfully like 2000 pound sacks of lard. One large male breaks away from the group and heads for the sea. His rolls of jiggly fat remind me of obesity on steroids. Meanwhile his comrades continue their snorting, grunting, projecting phlegm and chortling at each other–now and again wielding their ivory tusks at whatever neighbor who has offended in some way.
I make my way down the beach and captain comes up to tell me of two dead polar bear cubs further up in the rocks. We had heard about these two unfortunate babies but didn’t realize this was the location. I walked further up over the beach and into the rocks and there in the moss was a dead baby polar bear. He was lying in a mossy depression between several mid sized boulders. the little carcass was so well preserved it was if he might still be alive, only sleeping. The fur was as white as snow with not one mark of trauma or evidence that anything had preyed upon him. Fifty feet to the north was a second little cub, also dead. Neither of them showed any signs of predation or any indication that something other than hunger may have killed them. What we all found interesting was the fact that they had died so close to each other. Had another polar bear killed them they would have shown signs of trauma and certainly not been killed in such close proximity to one another. The only reason we could come up with for their demise was starvation. It would seem most likely that they some how lost their mother. Trying to survive they traveled together, most assuredly crying loudly for their material protector. Eventually hunger took its toll and they both laid down, within only feet of each other and slipped away.
It’s astounding what perfect condition they were in. The habitat here is so barren and it shows by the fact there are so few other animals on the land that don’t relate to the marine environment. Virtually no other creatures to feed on the little polar bears after they died. Where are the crows, the ravens, the peregrine falcons, the wolverine, the grizzly, the wolves. Very different arctic environment than what I’ve experienced in north america. Who knows how long they have been lying there but they seem to be maybe two to three months out of the den. It was a sad scene and just another reminder of how difficult life is for wild animals.
We spend the night anchored just off the beach of Low Island. We all rise fairly early. It was a pleasant and peaceful night. No midnight watches, no crunching, banging ice, it was actually what mot people consider quite normal and I slept like a log. Our morning consisted of documenting the walrus group that lay on the beach. Several went to the water and we were able to wade out in our survival suits and shoot low angle images as they came up to investigate us. The day passed quickly as we spent our time documenting their lives.
My writing is faltering. As the trip goes on I’m finding it harder and harder to sit down and keep my journal. The boat has gotten smaller and tighter as the days go by. Its been a very productive trip from the perspective of seeing and documenting several new species. Unfortunately our time with polar bears has been less than hoped but we have had several great opportunities.
Today, like the other days before it consisted of hours and hours of binocular work from the top deck. It’s cold so I’ve been wearing nearly every layer I brought which includes a base of a Tshirt made of wicking material, a light pile long sleeve shirt, a heavy pile coat, down vest, down sweater and finally my outer rain coat shell. Gloves and a winter hat top it all off. My lower extremities are covered with pile pants, a pair of Carharts over that and those are covered with an outer rain shell pant. All of this and it’s still a bit uncomfortable after hours on deck. The wet humid climate of the ocean mixed with the cold air of the arctic makes you yearn for the summer in Montana. It’s 10:30pm and it’s snowing outside.
Searching for polar bears these past two weeks has been a daunting affair. Basically a needle in a haystack type of process. It’s actually been much more difficult than I had expected. Thankfully the ship we’re living off of is extremely mobile and we can cover lots of territory in a short period of time.
With the lack of bears we’ve spent time with other arctic wildlife. Yesterday included a spectacular shoot with Atlantic puffins, little auks and Brunnich’s guillemots. One cliff rookery we visited is said to contain over 25,000 guillemonts. We couldn’t count them but their numbers were certainly in the thousands. Many were on the water and as we sat in the zodiak taking photos, dozens of these interesting, duck sized, black and white birds came up behind us. There they sat, 2-3 feet from the boat, bobbing on the water, staring at us inquisitively as if wondering what planet we might be from. I turned around to take photos and they would spook, diving then swimming off–easily seen in this water the clarity of gin. Several hundred yards out from shore we found the same monochromatic birds floating on icebergs and from a distance of 25 meters you would have sworn this was a scene from Antarctica, penguins riding the frozen chunks of ice of the southern hemisphere.
Along with the guillemots we found a colony of puffins. With their colorful beaks the puffins are a welcome change in the typical black, white and gray tones that most birds display in this part of the world. In and out they would fly. Many landing within feet of where we had settled on shore. They too proved fearless amongst the humans that sat quietly watching, taking pictures and observing from a distance. As they flew in from the sea it gave us ample opportunities to take pictures of them on the wing, one of my favorite types of photography. We spent two hours documenting their lives and then the fog began to roll back in. It was time to get back to the boat.
Fog and mist once again. Our captain tells us that is fairly unusual weather for this time of year. Typically the month of August brings lots of wind that clears the fog out. The weather we’re having this trip is more in line with June and July he tells us.
We sale all day. Looking, searching, longing to find that polar bear hunting from a floating pan of ice. Three of us are on deck for hours at a time, glassing the floating bergs and pans of passing ice. To increase our odds Paul and Steve head out in the Zodiak to check the local islands for bears that might have gotten off the ice and are stranded on land. We get a call from Paul over the radio and they’ve found a large, male sleeping on the rocks of a nearby atoll.
We head over to take a look. He’s a beautiful snow white male it seems. We watch as he makes his way across the rocks with his head down, stopping from time to time, chewing on something we can’t determine. There are yeagers, a long-tailed bird of the arctic, mobbing him as he pokes along. Most likely they have a nest in the rocks and he’s about to find it. The only mark he has on his body looks like stains from the yeargers dropping a load of bird guano across his head and left flank. It fouls his pristine coat and does the same for the photographs were shooting. It’s the end of the day so we we move on to find a cove down the way and anchor for the night. There’s no ice around the island to speak of and most likely the reason the bear stranded on shore. With no ice around the boat we’re safe from possibly being boarded by our white polar friend.
12:00am comes quickly and we’re all still awake when out of the fog, fifty yards from the ship, along the islands shore appears a polar bear. He’s definitely curious and spends the next three hours scavenging the shoreline and doing what he can to get a better look at us. It’s overcast, dark and overall a terrible night for photography but the fog adds an element of interest and our furry white subject is more than cooperative. We shoot pictures until 4:00am, return to the ship and head off to bed.
August 16, Lom Fijord
Another day begins with the typical cloudy morning. We knew yesterday’s half day of sunshine was a bonus not to take for granted. Our first day out was the last time the skies were clear so sailing under the baltic blue heavens, its reflection mirrored in the frigid, ice dotted water, was a inspiring pleasure.
There are a few large, house sized, icebergs now and again but nothing like Antarctica or the waters of Greenland. Why the size difference compared to these other areas I’m uncertain. Maybe the ice melts more quickly in Svalbard. Maybe the glaciers aren’t as active. Whatever the cause is undetermined but what they lack in magnitude is more than made-up by the sheer volume of where they were born. All across the horizon, so vast and long the ice sheets lie covering the landscape. It’s along these walls of towering, frozen water that the bergs are dropped, sometimes explosively into the sea.
Last night we turned in early, around 1:30am when my head hit the Mont-bell down coat packed in its stuff sack. We spent a couple of hours before dinner cruising the Lom fijord taking pictures of ice and seals. Lom in norwegian means the same as loon in english. The bearded seals have been plentiful throughout our travels but last night was the first time we had them in beautiful evening light. Along with the seals we shot the bergs and the towering landscapes that rise above the fjord. My goodness, light makes all the difference when creating beautiful images.
As a natural history journalist light isn’t always necessary for good and interesting pictures. Obviously we all know that the animals live their lives whether rain or shine. They don’t have the option of going home when the rain and fog moves in. They are home, 24/7, this is where they live and to document them completely you must keep the same schedule. Lots of interesting behavior happens in conditions not necessarily conducive to creating great works of art. So when the light does happen it’s all the more noteworthy and inspiring.
Something those of you who enjoy photography might appreciate knowing is that the most premium times for light take place for two hours after the sun has risen and comes again two hours before the sun sets. These times are considered the so called “golden hours” and it’s due to the sun being low to the horizon and very warm in color. The opposite is when the sun is straight up over head and very bright and white. This is the worst time to shoot photos due to the color of the light and the fact that shadows lie beneath anything in the suns way. Late evening and early morning light is what all photographers hope for. The best way to use this light if possible is to place yourself in a position that the light is falling on to your subject from the side or from behind. This helps give the feeling of three dimensions to a two dimensional object. Film and a digital chips in the camera are two dimensional. By adding side or back light you create the impression that the subject is three dimensional. Try it sometimes and you’ll see what I mean for a more pleasing photograph.
Our journey up to Lom fijord was spectacular. Most of the day was spent glassing the ice but as the evening approached we came closer to land and some amazing cliffs that rose hundreds of feet out of the ocean. These were the “bird cliffs” as Captain described them. Some years earlier he was hired to help the government take a census of this avian rookery filled with guillimots. Some 60,000 plus they counted. It was astounding to see so much bird life perched precariously from this towering rock monolith. Thousands and thousands of these mid-sized black and white birds dotted the gray and mottled face of this steep escarpment. Additional thousands darted to and from the waters of the surrounding sea. The captain shut down the ships engines and we floated along listening to the braying like calls of the guillemots. The noise reminded me of my earlier years on South Georgia, an island just north of the Antarctic peninsula where a another species–the King Penguin–makes a similar ruckus. Although this trip was mainly about bears, we’ve spent a fair amount of time time with the birds. Getting to know the guillimots has convinced me even further that the north really does have penguins. It becomes obvious on so many levels; their voices, their coloration, their size, the fish they catch and their behavior of nesting in massive colonies. Take a look at some of my photos of the guillomots on ice bergs and tell me I’m crazy.
The sun is getting lower on the horizon and a check of my watch confirms my suspicion of the approaching night. We’ve been sailing for hours when Paul yells down to me, “hey Dan, do you want to get in the water?” Seems he saw an iceberg that he thought might be interesting from below. I agreed. His plan was to get below the iceberg and shoot photographs.
Paul dropped off the side of the Zodiak first. I donned my gear and slipped in after him. I was amazed at how comfortable I was. The hood and mitts were typical, neoprene wet suit material so your head and hands did get wet. The water was cold at first -1℃ but even a wet suit keeps you fairly warm once the water gets in and the body warms it. This was by far the coldest water I’ve been in since the days of being PADI certified by Don Vanisspen in Lake Superior as a kid but when we were diving Lake Superior we were diving in wet suits. This felt like a swim in the pool almost. My lips were cold and numb but everything else was as warm and more comfortable than I could have ever imagined.
I could see Paul’s air bubbles trailing ahead of me. Not sure how deep he was but he was certainly not visible. I was content to spend my time floating on the surface, snorkeling and taking in the sights from above. Unfortunately the visibility around the iceberg was extremely poor even though the rest of the water, beyond the berg, was exceptionally clear. It looked as if the iceberg was oozing sediment, a light colored greenish haze extending out 20-30 feet from the edge of the monstrous bobbing cube. It was much the same color and consistency as you might see in the rivers as they siphon off the water from melting glaciers of the west. I tried not to think about the depth of the water I was in. I had glanced at the depth finder on the boat before I left and it registered just over 400 meters.
Below was a dark abyss but within reaching distance there was an amazing amount of life. Two little creatures swam eagerly in the -1℃ water. One looked as it it where a jelly fish of some sort, both so odd they could have been from outer space. The little jelly looking creature consisted of a sphere shaped organism about 2 inches in diameter. The outer edges of the sphere looked like dancing fiber optic wires, the ends aglow, similar to the funky, fiber optic lamps back in the 1970’ and 80’s. They sold them in the stores that would also carry black lights. In the middle of the transparent sphere were two long filament appearing pieces. I cupped the interesting creature in my hands to get a better view and the sphere disintegrated before my eyes, the pair of long filaments strands swam off out of site. The second unique critter looked like a dark, olive colored, penny sized, ball of fuzz with two flippers side to side. I never did see any eyes or other common body parts. It just flapped around in the water moving up and down, back and forth and eventually out of site. As I glanced around me I saw dozens of them at one time. No idea what they were but fascinating to say the least.
Paul surfaced after about twenty minutes below. Said he heard the ice give off a loud crack and figured he had challenged the elements long enough. We boarded the Zodiak, Captain Heinrich at the outborad throttle and zipped back to the mother ship
The sun is blasting trough the skylight of our small, v-shaped, estate room at the head of the ship. I bolt upright and smack my skull on the ceiling as I pull the ear plugs from the sides of my head. I check my watch for the time but find the digital numerals a blurr-my eyes refusing to focus. Neal is in the bunk below and awake. I ask him, “what time is it” and he responds that it’s “7:00am, there was a change of plans”. I make my way down from my bunk, the engine of the boat has throttled down to an idol. Paul, the captain and Faunas all conversing normally.
Four hours earlier it was agreed that Neal and I should hit the sack. It was another late night that included scouring the ice edge under perfect blue skies and the warmth of the low hanging midnight sun. We had all been on deck for nearly the entire day– glassing every berg, checking each pile of frozen rubble, investigating every mound of dirty ice, hunting for the elusive needle in a haystack or more appropriately a spicific snow flake in a raging blizzard. Suffice it to say, polar bears have been rather elusive.
Our plan was to search the floating, shifting ice until 6:00am and then take a straight shot south, leaving the congested, frozen chunks of ice for the open waters of the sea. As we discussed at 3:00am, I would be the first to take the captains seat. At that time we were all on deck each doing our part to find a bear. The captain suggested some of us needed sleep since the morning was coming fast and he would need a break. Without somebody going to bed soon, we would all be too tired at the same point on the clock. I hit the rack first and so in turn am now writing this from the captains chair, the ship rolling comfortably across the open ocean towards our destination five hours to the south.
Sailing a nearly 50 foot vessel isn’t all that difficult. Especially since the captain put it on auto-pilot before turning over the controls. The real sailing is done from the back of the ship, standing at the wheel out in the elements of rain, fog, snow, wind and whatever else mother nature might have in-store for you at just short of 80 degrees north. However, this morning I am lucky. I’m on watch of the controls inside the electronic wheel house. In front of me are the windows with a shelf that hosts the Furuno depth finder currently registering a depth of 450 meters. To my right on an additional shelf is the Radar screen set for three nautical miles. It too signals all is well with nothing in sight that might break our momentum. To the left of the radar screen is the throttle and the prop pitch, to it’s right is the laptop computer that runs the auto pilot. Next to the computer is the Iridium satellite phone and the auto-pilot control box. Lots of electronics that makes sailing the high seas a piece of cake for a guy that lives in the mountains. As a rookie my instructions are to deviate left or right of any ice by way of the auto-pilot override controls. If land suddenly appears shut down the throttle and back off the prop pitch. If the fog rolls in wake the captain. In short, any real emergencies, wake the captain. Meanwhile I sail blissfully along, seas 1-2 feet with a slight rolling swell. Clear skies have given way to gray clouds and the drone of the 130 horse diesel engine makes me sleepy.
Almost two weeks ago, just a few days after the start of our adventure, we found a whale floating in one of the fjords as we motored north. It was dead and bloated, its stomach distended obviously filled with the gasses of rotting tissue. It was a behemoth, at least forty and possibly sixty feel long. None of us could make a positive ID but it looked most like a Humpback. What a feast for polar bears we thought as we left it behind, floating far from land. That was two weeks ago.
Fast forward to yesterday when the captain heard chatter on the radio that there was a dead whale somewhere further north. He politely broke into the conversation of the jabbering norwegians and requested additional information on this dead cetacean. Based on the location it’s obvious it’s the same whale we saw two weeks earlier and now it was beached with as many as eight polar bears feasting. It could be an amazing photo opportunity. Not something you’ll see in a calendar or hanging as art but most certainly an important behavioral event that is important to document. I can imagine the pictures in my mind and it won’t be pretty. We’ll know soon enough. I have another hour on deck before Neal comes up to spell me off. Three and a half hours from now we should be closing in on our target.
The end of our three week journey is fast approaching. We’ve been anchored fast in a small little bay known as Sally’s Harbor for the past two days, a welcome refuge from howling winds that have come screaming from the north. The weather is even cooler than it has been and yesterday morning we woke to snow covering most of the mountain tops around our safe harbor.
We arrived here two days ago, The beached whale we had heard about lies partially aground, partially submerged, it’s decaying flesh white and pale with major portions missing. The shoreline, patches of snow and the rock laden bowls of this quarter mile cirque holds eight different bears. There are two or three monster males, their guts nearly touching the ground. There’s a female, so large I originally thought she too was a male, a pair of two year old cubs shadow her. The others are nondescript, some mid-sized, some small, all of them mesmerizing, impressive for what they are.
The whale is a free meal. No hunting needed. They just follow their nose to the stinky pile of floating bio mass and start to feed. Watching a polar bear eat is a rather new experience for me since most of my time with these animals has been spent during their fasting period on Hudson Bay. The female and her cubs tearing at the blubber and stringy muscle tissue in small consistent bites is similar to all other feeding bears that I’ve witnessed. I’ve always been surprised at how small bites bears take in most situations. My dreams of horror have always been a scene of a bear feeding on my dead, lifeless body, tearing pound sized chunks of meat and wolfing it down. Something similar you see when you throw a lab a large piece of steak or burger. Simply put, bears don’t eat like wolves or even large, full grown, hungry dogs. They are actually rather dainty, some more hurried than others but slow, methodical and always taking what might be considered bite sized portions. They certainly seem to have what we humans would consider better table manners than other animals in the world, especially wolves.
Getting a good mouthful of whale isn’t easy. The outer skin is obviously extremely tough and the bears tug, tear, pull and twist. A bite comes free but it’s a small reward and they continue. The female uses her claws to rake the flesh that has been exposed beneath the outer hide. First one forepaw and then the other, raking like like one might gather leaves. You can hear the scratching sound as I sit a safe distance out in the Zodiak taking pictures. She rakes for several seconds then pushes her snout into the yellowish cream colored goo, takes a bite and raises her head. Pulling back, lifting her meal reminds me of what it might be like to shove your face into a plate of spaghetti, grabbing a mouthful without using your hands. It isn’t pretty to say the least. Combine that with the rancid smell and it’s hard to stomach. We shoot for a couple of hours and then head back to the boat.
The rest of the past two days has been spent documenting the other behaviors we’re seeing. Captain mentions how unusual it is to see more than one bear in the same area. They just don’t congregate here like they do on Hudson Bay. In this region they typically lead a more solitary life but watching them interact around the whale suggests that they aren’t really unsocial. We watched two large males tussling and wrestling similar to what they do in Churchill each fall. The mother and cubs gave us a great show playing with each other in the water for over an hour. This morning it is quite and we’re talking abut moving on. We have at least a 24 hours of sailing to get back to Longyearbyen for our flights out on Saturday morning. The discussion is how do we spend the last six hours of time we have available in between now and when we need to beback in civilization.
We’ve decided to move on and head south to Krossfjorden
Our plan is to overnight at Krossfjorden. There are several beautiful glaciers in this area and a chance to get out on land. It’s another cloudy day. Unfortunately this has been the norm for this trip but nothing you can do. Just try and do the best you can with what you have. We spend the night shooting the glacial ice at Krossfjorden and the next morning we’re headed back to Lonyearbyen. It’s been a fabulous trip. Many more opportunities for other wildlife than I had hoped. The whale was an extra bonus. As you will see from the photos, these aren’t calendar images but they do tell a story and I will probably never have a chance to ever photograph it again. Interestingly, a BBC film crew was in the area for the past three weeks as well. However, they had just heard about the whale on their last day as they packed in Lonyearbyen. They cancelled their plans to leave and sailed back out the carcass although by that time the remains of the large animal was floating back out to sea. Who knows if they were able to get the images we were fortunate enough to capture.
We pull up to the docks in Longyearbyen at 2:00am on Friday morning. It was a rough ride down the straits , wind howling, swells rolling, the little ship taking it all in stride. The next morning we wake to beautiful blue skies. Par for the course for photographers wanting light. Seems it’s always plentiful when the trip is done and you have to head home. We spend the remainder of the day packing for our flight that leaves at 4:50am Saturday morning. Evening rolls around and we meet at the Radisson for our final meal as a group. Dinner conversation includes a discussion of a possible redo for next year. I cast my vote as an enthusiastic yes. The others concur. Time will tell but I’m hopeful to give the wilderness waters of Svalbard another shot.
The clear night skies turn to clouds as we exit the restaurant and head for the ship. By the time our taxi arrives at 2:00am the wind is back in forceful furry but this time it’s packing rain to boot. I’m ready for summer in Montana. Even so my mind is already thinking about returning for another season of arctic exploration and photography. When the arctic gets in your blood it’s difficult to extract.
See the entire gallery of images from this trip at Svalbard Polar Expedition
I want to extend my deepest appreciation to the four generous folks who without their financial support this trip would not have been possible. These are Alvin Huss Jr., Anne Field, Greg McNeely and Elise Donohue. These were all patrons from the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota who donated funds for this documentary work to Polar Bears International’s Media Library. With one exception being Elise Donohue, a passionate conservationist who is also my neighbor on Brackett Creek here in Montana. Each of these folks will receive a Fine Art Limited Edition print of one of the images I select for my Fine Art print collection. Than you for your kind and generous support and we’re grateful for your interest in this long term project.