Arctic Documentary Project – Svalbard, Norway Post #3: Whales, Walrus, Bears and Seals

Posted Aug. 5th, 2011 by Daniel J. Cox

July 27 – Clear skies, Temp Around 45F

Sailing into the midnight sun, Svalbard, Norway. Nikon D7000

The weather continues bright and sunny. For two days now we’ve had skies with virtually no clouds. Some wind yesterday afternoon but amazingly if it weren’t for the desolate landscape, void of vegetation, and cool temps, I would swear we were cruising the Bahamas. Last night Mark downloaded the ice chart and the pack ice is 80 miles to the north. The past two days we’ve managed to find two separate groups of walrus. The first on Moffen Island, a restricted refuge we’re not allowed to enter. Regulations state that even our ship must remain 300 meters out from shore. Surprisingly, with all the necessary restrictions we had a fairly productive shoot capturing walrus coming and going. We were all thrilled to be taking pictures.

After Moffen we made our way down to Murchisonfjorden and spent the night anchored in a calm bay. The midnight sun cast its long shadows throughout the early hours of the AM. Rising from my bunk and making my way into the galley was painful due to the intense glare off the water. The brilliance sent me scurrying back to my dark, little cabin to retrieve sunglasses before making my way on deck. Unfortunately my mini travel thermometer is no longer working. I’m disappointed not to be able to get an accurate reading of the outside temps. I’ll be getting something a bit more robust for my travels in the future but for now the air temperature feels something close to 45F. It’s a guess but enough time in the outdoors makes it relatively accurate.

We finally get moving around 9:30am. Mornings are always difficult in the far north since it’s all too easy to be out hours on end in the the glorious light of the midnight sun. As we slowly make our way out of the waters of Murchisonfjorden we find a pair of walrus seemingly lolly gagging but very possibly feeding in the serene waters of the fjord. We set the engine to neutral and drifted slowly, hoping they might get curious and come visit. No such luck. After 20-30 minutes we decide to slowly motor off towards the mouth of the fjord.

A curious young male walrus spy hops to get a better view of our photo group. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens.

Last night we heard from another passing vessel that there were walrus in the area. Captain Mark had a good idea of where and so we watched, scanning the horizon just above the bow. Glassing port to starboard a thin strip of land  begins to emerge. There, clumped like old discarded oil drums on this gravel laden, barrier island was what looked liked brown, lumpy boulders. We cautiously motor closer and as we do, a flipper rises from the beach to scratch an itching muzzle, a head raises to snort, two ivory colored daggers protruding from it’s upper jaw. Sight, sounds and finally smell, the stink on the wind confirms it–definitely walrus. The bizarre looking walrus, an  animal with the body of a hippo, minus the legs and a head that resembles the size and shape of a cantaloupe. Very strange looking indeed but truly one of the arctics most amazing creatures.

As we get closer we notice something unusual, lying on the beach at waters edge. It’s the color of old rotting snow, not quite white but lighter than the gray, rocky pebbles it’s a part of. Definitely a body of some sort. Someone calls out, “dead caribou” as I’m studying it intently through my Nikon binoculars. I don’t see a caribou or more accurately reindeer as they are called here on the islands of Spitsbergen. No, I see something else. First off it seems much to large for one of the diminutive creatures known as the Svalbard reindeer. Secondly, the color isn’t right. It’s too consistently light to be a local ungulate.  Then I see the underside of a paw, a black pattern in the form of a pad–large at the base and four smaller black spots at the end of the appendage. Beyond the pads are CLAWS, amazingly distinct even at 50 yards. This isn’t a reindeer– It is a Polar Bear.

A dead polar bear lies at waters edge. Cause of death unknown but due to its location drowning is a reasonable possibility. Nikon D7000

Captain Mark gently nudges the nose of the ship into the sandy spit on the back side of island so as not to disturb the pod of walrus. He lowers the Zodiak from the bow and everybody climbs aboard. It’s a short trip, maybe thirty feet to land. It all seems kind of strange to get in a Zodiak when the front of your ship is literally resting on the beach. But Mark is cautious. Apparently the captain had a female walrus attack his ship last summer, or more accurately–the Zodiac. The small, rubber boat was hanging off the main ships, slopping stern, just above the water– a position for a Zodiac very common to sailing vessels. Out of the blue the event ensued.  From seemingly nowhere a female walrus rose up out of the ocean and began attacking. As the story is told she tore the rubber dingy from bow to stern, destroying it in the process. This strange and uncharacteristic event has made Captain Mark exceptionally cautious around walrus.

Making landfall well on the other side of the island our subjects inhabit. Nikon D700, 24-70 lens

We make landfall and spend the next couple of hours documenting these massive marine mammals on shore.  This small group of merry makers seem to be youngsters or more accurately teenagers. Short tusks and lots of cavorting in the surf suggest young at heart at the very least. Those on land rest peacefully as we respectfully make our way to the opposite side of the spit and there along the waters edge is the carcass of the polar bear.

JoAnne Simerson, a polar bear specialist with the San Diego Zoo checks the remains of a dead polar bear.

JoAnne Simerson, a polar bear specialist with the San Diego Zoo checks the remains of a dead polar bear. Nikon D7000

JoAnne Simerson, a polar bear specialist from the San Diego Zoo, is with us. She’s  a good friend and an associate with Polar Bears International. Her first reaction is to check the dead animal’s teeth, always an indicator of what may have gone wrong. From what she can tell this was a fairly young bear, most likely just beyond what would be considered his teenage years. For most people the size alone would suggest an older individual, but in the polar bear world all bears are big. This guy was tall and lanky, not unusual for a male polar bear. His slender physique accentuated by the fact he had virtually no meat on his bones. Essentially all male polar bears are relatively tall, with long powerful legs they use to swim hundreds of miles if needed. In these days of the melting arctic, long distance swims are more necessary than ever.

There is no way to know how long he has laid in silence. Pebbles on the beach have begun to slowly cover his body, specks of gray colored sand pepper the fur around the socket of his eye. This nomad of the north looks serenely out of place. There is no ice. We’ve seen barley a cube since leaving Longyearbyen and the flat frozen platform from which all polar bears hunt has been nonexistent. The contrast between the off white of his pelt and the surrounding blue of water and sky is striking. This is not the environment I’m accustomed to seeing polar bears in. This reminds me more of my times photographing whales near the equator. Our guests make comments about the fabulous weather and rightfully so. It’s only natural for humans to wake, walk out on the deck to a stunningly beautiful day and vocalize the obvious, “what a gorgeous morning”.  Unfortunately for polar bears, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

JoAnne Simerson is all smiles as she photographs walrus from shore. Lumix G2, 14-42mm lens

Our visit to the beach lasts for nearly two hours. We gather our gear and make our way back to the ship, not a sole amongst us unaffected by the intoxicating rush of photographing such unbridled nature, up close and personal. I bring up the rear of our adventurous band, each gets on our dinky, red, rubber lifeline to home. Climbing aboard I’m reflective on the supreme contradiction between life and death, walrus and polar bear, arctic ice and arctic melt.  The circle of life could not have been more pronounced on this little barrier island in the high, iceless arctic on this glorious summer day in July.

July 28, 2011

Last nights voyage was lengthy. We motored in to the the early hours of the morning to get to our anchorage in Woodfjorden. It was an exceptional place to moor our 67-foot sailing yacht that’s been our home for nearly two weeks. The protection of this bay is superb. Captain Mark navigated the deep channel that spanned an proximate width of 50 meters. Off to the port side of the boat there was a large lagoon that offered the needed protection a captain always looks for when anchoring for the night. We motored to the middle of the backwater refuge, the engine slipped into idle and shortly thereafter Captain Mark dropped the hook. Calm waters, no wind, it was a good place  to sleep.

Another morning, another day in sunny paradise. Today’s temp registers 51F on a mini weather station Steve Henry brought. We get a late start, but it’s a worthwhile morning with opportunities to photograph Minke whales fishing in the surf. We were first alerted by several groups of marauding seagulls, diving into the waters, obviously feeding. We never did see what they were catching but the birds were having a feast. Between the flocks and sometimes beneath; the dorsal fin of a Minke would breach the surface as it emerged from the depths for a gulp of air. We watched for well over an hour as our ship bobbed quietly amongst the excitement.

A Minke whale forages in the waters of Woodfjorden. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens

Later that day we motored across from Woodfjorden into Liefdefjordan where we found a polar bear on one of the many islands. The winds were high and the island was too large to try and work him from the Zodiacs. We stayed on our mother ship and Captain did his best to maneuver us into positions that gave everyone a chance to take pictures. The opportunity didn’t last for more than 30-45 minutes but during that time there was obvious chaos with the nesting terns. From one nest to the next the polar bear wandered, guided by his magnificent nose, snacking on the mottled brown camouflaged eggs of the itty-bitty arctic tern.

A lone polar bear searches for food on an island in Woodfjordan. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens

We end the day in another calm anchorage in Liefdefjorden. After dinner we take the Zodiacs out for a short tour hoping to find bears, and it is this evening that brings us a glimpse of the highlight of our tour. There on a ridge, a hundred yards or so above the shoreline was a resting mother polar bear and her two cubs. She looked as though she was settled in for the night. Not wanting to disturb her we quietly made our way back to the ship, all of us hoping desperately for a chance to get a better view when we returned in the morning.

July 29

We all awoke this morning with eager anticipation for the photo opportunities we saw in our dreams. The wind had calmed and the waters were peacefully still, perfect for working from our Zodiacs. Breakfast went quicker than usual. Once we were done everybody anxiously gathered their gear for the excursion to the family of bears. We all hoped they were still in the area. Circling the island they inhabited the prior evening was our first priority. It didn’t take long for the excitement to begin. Just halfway around the rocky refuge we find the trio of bears. They’re up and moving, walking the shoreline scavenging for what they can

From the safety of the water and our Zodiak our group photographs a mother polar bear and her cub from the safety of our Zodiac. Nikon D700, 70-200mm lens

find. The excitement is palpable as we maneuver the Zodiacs one hundred or so yards out from shore. She seems to be completely oblivious to our presence as we quietly maneuver, positioning our craft doing the best I can to give everyone an opportunity to shoot. At one point she lifts her nose high into the air, then walks down to the ocean’s edge and plucks something from the icy waters. As she pulls it ashore the cubs come running. It’s not large, and as I look through my lens it becomes obvious it’s a bird. A dead bird, possibly a gull that has washed to the sidelines of the Arctic Ocean. She tears at the carcass, removing the feathers as the cubs anxiously watch, squalling loudly, begging for a bite of this decaying chunk of nourishment. One cub tries grabbing the forage from its mother and she swiftly lashes out with her teeth to the back of the neck. He bellows profusely, even as she returns to the miniature piece of decomposing fodder. Though small, this may be the largest source of food she has encountered since the ice retreated many weeks earlier.


A mother polar bear feeds on the carcass of a scavenged bird as her cubs look on crying loudly for any part of the feast.

To the untrained eye, reprimanding a cub for trying to eat seems unexpectedly harsh. However, it’s essential for a mother polar bear who is still nursing. She needs all the nourishment she can get to make certain she has enough energy to continue providing milk for her two growing offspring. If she is malnourished and can not nurse, her cubs will die. It is as simple as that in the far reaches of the harsh, arctic ecosystem.

We spend the next two hours quietly following this family of bears, never too close and always at a distance so as not to disturb. Our two hour window documenting their lives showed some amazing behaviors. At one point the mother bear came down to the water’s edge, slipped into the ocean and began diving beneath the surface. We had no idea what she was actually up to, but based on seeing similar actions on the dead whale earlier in the trip, it suggested she was either finding some sort of food or at the very least, she was searching. As mother bear worked beneath the surface, the two baby bears sat perched on the rocky ledge above, all eyes on their mother below. It was obvious they were taking it all in, learning the ways of becoming a competent polar bear.  Every ounce of knowledge they gain by learning from their mother puts them at a greater advantage of living in this difficult environment.

Polar bear cubs watch their mother from above as she dives beneath the ocean's surface searching for food. Nikon D700, 70-200mm lens

The family of bears crossed from one island to the next, sometimes swimming, sometimes walking, picking their way over half-submerged boulders that gave them dryer access. Quietly they wandered from water’s edge to the rocky summits. More than once I thought of my work with mountain goats in the Rockies as mother bear searched the tops of the craggy, vegetation free islands with backdrops of mountain peaks and glaciers. This is definitely a land of extremes with scenery drastically different than the coastal areas of Alaska and Manitoba where I’ve done most of my prior polar bear work.

A mother polar bear searching high and low for any food possible. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens

Eventually the family of polar bears returns to water’s edge. This time mother bear pauses briefly with one foot in the water, lifting her nose to the air, she sniffs the wind, her head moving from side to side. The scent she smells seems to be coming from the head of the bay of Liefdefjordan where very possibly there are seals. She takes another step and soon her body is floating, the cubs quickly follow. Off they swim, just the top of their backs exposed along with their ears, nose and eyes. You can barely see that they are bears. The excitement is finished for the day. We all watch as they swim in to the distance and eventually disappear.  I turn my back on the Zodiac bow reaching for the outboard starter cord. With a solid tug the engine fires and we begin our journey back to the ship. On the way back hardly a person spoke; we were all still mesmerized by the experience of an up-close and personal view in to the lives of these amazing animals.

A polar bear cub leaps out in to the water as it follows its mother. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens

August 3

After our day with the mother polar bear and her two cubs we came across many other opportunities we had been hoping for. On July 30 we spent the day at the head of the Liefdefjordan photographing the glacier and the ice chunks it was birthing. Our efforts centered mostly on a few seals, birds and the glacier. At one point a bearded seal surfaced relatively close to the boat with what looked like and arctic cod hanging from its mouth. It was a nice opportunity to see another part of the arctic ecosystem that doesn’t typically show itself. Arctic cod depend on the ice pack to survive, using the cracks and crevices of beneath the sea ice as areas of safety for their tiny offspring.

Bearded seal with a fish that looks to be an Arctic Cod in its mouth in the waters of Liefdefjordan, Svalbard, Norway. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens

On July 31 we make the decision to start heading back down the western coast of Svalbard. We have a few days to make it back into Longyearbyen and depending on the weather it may take all of that time to return. In fact we did hit a stretch of 8 foot swells, rain and very rough seas that put most everybody in their bunks. I’ve never been one to succumb to sea sickness, but I was even feeling a bit woozy. Getting horizontal and closing my eyes put the nauseous feelings to rest, and it was a great excuse to grab a nap.

One of our stops down the coast included an old whaling camp that is now used by park officials otherwise known as “The Sysselman”. Not exactly sure how it translates but fairly confident Park Ranger would fit quite nicely. We get out and are reminded not to touch anything. There were lots of old nails, some broken bottles, split wood for a fire, an old wooden boat in ill repair and many other artifacts. The little hut was made of wood and covered with tar paper. Tiny windows were protected by pieces of board made into a solid shutter type system, a wooden latch used to lock them in place so bears can’t  destroy the glass. The building was maybe 200 square feet in total and it sat on an open spit in total isolation.

Steve Henry, the rust and ruins master photographer, practicing his craft at the Bjornehan historical site on Svalbard, Norway. Nikon D7000

We spent a couple of hours poking around and trying to imagine what it would have been like to inhabit this place in the days of the whalers. Steve Henry, a good friend and  by far the finest rock and rust photographer I’ve ever known, was having a blast. He was extremely patient with the rest of us the entire trip as we searched for all things living. Steve’s idea of a good time is a pile of old, rusty barrels so for him we were in just the right spot.


A Bearded Seal looks on as we take its picture. Its rust colored muzzle comes from contact with ferrous compounds in the bottom sediments that adhere to the surface of the hair and then oxidize when brought to the surface. Nikon D7000, 600mm lens

As we left the ancient signs of civilization behind we pointed the bow of your 67 foot sailboat in to the open water of the Arctic Ocean. For many hours we sailed in stormy seas. Half way into our day we took a rest to check out a location for harbor seals. We found a small group resting on the shore so well-camouflaged they were nearly invisible. A couple of hours with the seals and we were off again. August 2, our last day at sea, took us to a beautiful tidewater glacier in Hornbaekbukta Bay that gave spectacular opportunities to document Bearded Seals. Mark skillfully maneuvered our ship in to perfect range for fabulous photo opportunities, and after an hour of extraordinary shooting we quietly backed out and left all our subjects as we found them, peacefully resting on their own private chunk of glacier ice. Capturing great images is one goal but equally important is to not disturb our subjects. It’s always a satisfactory feeling to accomplish both.

A flock of Little Auks cruising the ice filled waters of Isfjorden as we head in to Longyearbyen. Nikon D7000, 200-400mm lens

Off again, our destination Isfjorden, the long narrow valley filled with water from the sea. At the head of the fjord is the town of Longyearbyen a village most noted for it’s early days of mining coal. Now it’s filled with tourists, many coming to this civilized oasis in the arctic hoping to see a polar bear. As we approach the mouth of Isfjorden, we begin to see expansive amounts of floating ice. All throughout our journey we searched for just such a site but nowhere could we find anything similar. The closest we came was about 80 miles south of the ice pack at our furthest point north. Yet here, at the southern end of the Svalbard archipelago was more ice than we had seen the whole trip. This reminder of where we are and why we came apparently showed up during our two weeks away from town. This massive amount of sea ice had come up from the south to block the channel into Longyearbyen. We had heard about the chaos it created over our two-way radio – troubles that included cruise ships unable to enter the port, smaller vessels at dock having their props jammed into the holds from crashing ice, small ships being locked out of Isfjord. Quite simply, the ice grounded all human activity that needed to go through or around it to an absolute halt. No way to fight an obstacle of this size. Thankfully the worst had passed and we were able to navigate the maze on our way to our final destination.

It’s 1:00am before the trusty blue Perkins, the ship’s diesel engine from the UK, shuts down in silence. The normal slip the Captain typically uses is damaged from the ice invasion and so we anchor the boat out from shore. We all hit the sack and morning comes all too quickly. The first of our two adventures to the far reaches of the arctic is over. Our guests spend the morning gathering their gear, doing some last minute shopping and preparing for their flight to Oslo, then home. Tanya and I make our way into and find our little apartment we’ve rented for the next several days as we wait for our next set of friends and guests that will do it all again. I’m often asked if I really like doing back to back tours like this. Admittedly it can be tiring to the bone but my answer is always, “yes”.  I come to these places because I want to spend as much time as possible taking it all in. That’s how great pictures are captured, more time means more opportunity.

With that in mind I’ll be doing it all again in three days. Let me know if there are things you want to know.  I’m happy to share my thoughts and information if you drop us a note .

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There are 2 comments on this post…
  1. VelmaOn Aug. 6th, 2011

    Very impressive story. I am always intrigued by your photos and dream that I too could one day be on the waters taking photos like you but I am an amateur at best. You are one blessed man.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Velma Knowles

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Aug. 6th, 2011

      Thank you for the nice comments Velma. I appreciate you following my work.

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