After many years of dreaming about visiting the Arctic, I finally took the plunge and booked a 16 day wildlife photography cruise to Svalbard on board the Noorderlicht - a two masted sailing ship.
We had to wait two years from booking to setting out, but on July 12th 2011 we headed to Heathrow airport and boarded a flight to Oslo where we stayed for a night at the Raddison Blu hotel - very nice indeed. The following day we continued north to Svalbard leaving clear blue skies behind as we did.
|First View of Svalbard|
Hats and gloves were the order of the day as we walked from the aeroplane. The first thing you see as you enter the airport building is a massive stuffed Polar Bear.
|Never Mind the Polar Bear, Where's My Case?|
The other highlight was posing for a photo under the Polar Bear warning sign.
On board the Noorderlicht we were introduced to the crew and given a safety briefing. Once our kit had been stowed we sat back and waved each other bon-voyage. However, we were soon given the task of raising the sails and this required a good technique, which was missing on this first attempt. Northern Fulmars were the first birds to entertain us and they made excellent photographic subjects for much of the cruise.
The Fulmars this far north are often called 'Blue Fulmars' because of the blue wash to their plumage. They varied greatly in colour, some were very dark blue all over and others were a paler blue with white heads.
We spent our first night anchored at Ymerbuckta where we enjoyed wonderful views of our first glacier. Brunnich's Guillemots were ever present and we also delighted in distant views of King Eiders.
The next morning we were offered the chance to go ashore and have a walk on the glacier.
|The Noorderlicht at Anchor|
Recently deposited glacial moraines littered the area where we landed. Mud is an ever present danger around the edge of glaciers in summer, so we had to be careful.
|View From the Esmarkbreen|
After our adventures on land we sailed through the night to NY Alesund. I was woken at 04:00 by the sound of the anchor dropping. The most enthusiastic amongst us asked the captain for permission to go ashore - everyone else followed much later when they got out of bed. Family parties of Barnacle Geese wandered around the town, Snow Buntings busily fed their young and Arctic Terns tried to take chunks out of our heads.
|Memorial to the Great Polar Explorer Roald Amundsen at NY Alesund|
|The Post Office at Alesund - The World's Most Northerly One?|
At the husky kennels a couple of Ivory Gulls were taking advantage of some free Seal meat.
|Ivory Gull Taking a Bath|
After breakfast we sailed to the nearby NY London, the site of a failed marble mining attempt. Ice had penetrated the marble and so it crumbled as the ice melted. Here we looked for a pair of Long-tailed Skuas. This is a reliable site for this species, which is otherwise scarce on Svalbard due to the absense of Lemmings.
|Long-tailed Skua at NY London|
From NY London we moved on to spend the afternoon enjoying close views of Brunnich's Guillemots and Kittiwakes. The weather was magnificent and the Noorderlicht made a great photographic subject as we looked down on it from the sea cliffs.
|Into the Sun|
The glaciers opposite NY Alesund, for me, were the most scenic of the trip. The peaks of Pretender, Dronningfjella and Garwoodtoppen towered above the glacier..
The next part of our adventure took us north and into the realm of the King of the Arctic.
|A Good Place to Look for Polar Bears|
|The First Bear of the Cruise|
Eventually, after visiting the skeleton of a long dead whale, the bear slipped into the sea and swam away. During the afternoon we visited a Little Auk colony. Unfortunately the already murky conditions had got worse, but we still enjoyed being amongst hundreds of these cute little chaps. Their calls are unforgettable - manic laughter is the most accurate way of describing the sound. It was at the Little Auk colony that we got our one and only brief view of an Arctic Fox.
|Little Auk (Dovkie)|
That evening we anchored in a sheltered fjord where a young Polar Bear was searching for food high on the rocky slopes. Eventually the bear came down to the water's edge and checked us out.
The following day we sailed around the top of Svalbard's largest island, Spitsbergen, and visited Woodfjord and the Monaco Glacier plus Moffen Island. In Woodfjord we enjoyed close views of Minke Whales and more Polar Bears. Walrus are to be expected in the seas around Svalbard and in particular around Moffen Island, which lies just north of 80° and is a traditional haul out site for Walrus.
|Part of the Monacco Glacier|
We left Woodfjord in the afternoon and sailed through the night to arrive at Moffen in the early hours of the morning. The sunshine was fabulous, but only the captain, my wife and I enjoyed it, as everyone else was in bed. In addition to Walrus, Moffen is a breeding site for Sabine's Gull. We quickly spotted the gulls, however, the views were distant as boats are forbidden from approaching the island closer than 300 metres.
|Moffen Island, With Spitsbergen in the Background|
|Walrus Inspecting the Noorderlicht and its Passengers|
After leaving Moffen we sailed east to another island where Walrus had hauled out. This time we landed and got much closer views.
Our journey took us south into the Hinlopen Strait. First we enjoyed a seabird spectacular and then we got aquainted with ice.
|Alkefjellet - 'Mount Guillemot'|
From the seabird colony we sailed east across the Hinlopen Strait towards Nordaustlandet. We sailed into the massive Wahlenbergfjord, which is 50 or so kilometres long. Our destination was a smallish bay called Palanderbuckta. This was one of my favourite destinations - the weather helped. This location is very remote and rarely visited. We enjoyed a landing and ambled around spotting many fossils and some very hardy wild flowers. The weather was perfect and I'm sure we all felt very privileged to be there.
|The Noorderlict at Anchor in Palanderbuckta|
The plan was to circumnavigate the island of Spitsbergen, but sadly ice blocked our way. Just south of the Island of Wilhemoya the ice was one complete mass. Our captain declared from the crow's nest that we would have to turn back. We spent the night anchored close to Whilhemoya. Our sleep was disturbed by large chunks of ice, which collided with the ship. The following day we were to search the edge of the pack ice for bears. Unfortunately due to a combination of poor visibility and fast moving currents, we ended up stuck in the pack ice for almost 24 hours.
Once the crew had found a way out of the pack ice we ran north to find a safe anchorage, but while we rested the ice caught up with us. You can see the ice on the horizon in the picture above. We managed to out run it again and once we were in safer waters we spent time looking for Polar Bears.
|Female Polar Bear|
|Polar Bear Hunting Eider Ducks|
The Polar Bear above stealthily crept up on an Eider Duck and her young chicks. She spotted the bear in time and feigned injury, which drew the bear away from her ducklings. The bear rushed around but failed to catch her and had to settle for a salad (kelp). As we slowly sailed south we chanced upon two more bears, a mother and her one year old.
|Polar Bear Cub|
|The Noorderlicht Anchored Near the 14th July Glacier|
|Christian, Our Guide, Keeping an Eye Out for Bears|
|14th July Glacier|
Although we thought we had left the pack ice in the east, we encountered more ice on the western side. Ice had gathered in the sound between mainland Spitsbergen and the island called Prins Karls Forland. We had to head back north and then sail down the exposed western side of Prins Karls Forland. The island is narrow but 86 kilometres long, so it was quite a detour. Eventually our captain guided us past the danger and brought us safely back to Longyearbyen.
|Dickie, the 1st Mate, Helping to Guide the Ship Through the Ice|
Ice plagued us all the way back to the Adventfjord at Longyearbyen, so much so that the Noorderlicht could not make it to its mooring. We were dropped off on the shore by zodiac and had to carry our gear to the road where a coach collected us and took everyone to the airport.
I took so many photos that this post could go on forever, but I'd better finish and just say thank-you to the crew of the Noorderlicht
Part Two of Svalbard Trip.