Friday 23 March 2012

Svalbard the Realm of the Ice Bear

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.
The Noorderlicht
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?
After leaving the airport we were offered a choice of a walks, Longyearbyen town or a wildlife walk - we chose the latter. The highlight for me was the glorious little Grey (Red) Phalaropes feeding non-stop in the pools close to the gravel road.
Red Phalarope
Grey Phalarope
The other highlight was posing for a photo under the Polar Bear warning sign.
Bears Beware
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.
Blue Fulmar
Blue Fulmar
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.
Blue Fulmar
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. 
Esmarkbreen, Ymerbuckta
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. 
Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting
Roald Amundsen, NY Alesund
Memorial to the Great Polar Explorer Roald Amundsen at NY Alesund
Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern
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
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
Long-tailed Skua at NY London

Svalbard Reindeer
Svalbard Reindeer
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. 
The Noorderlicht
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
Polar Bear
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, Dovekie
Little Auk (Dovkie)
Polar Bear
Polar Bear
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. 
Monaco Glacier
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
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.
Handsome Chaps
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'
Brunnich's Guillemt
Brunnich's 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.
Pack Ice
Ice Berg
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 Bow
Ice Bow
Glaucous Gull
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.


  1. Hi Carl, enjoyed your blog, wish I was going back this summer!

  2. Hi Lee, Thanks for the comment and yes I also wish I was going back this summer.

  3. Hello Carl,
    Great trip !!!! Fine pictures too.
    It brought back some great memories, in July 2011 my wife and I went to Svalbard on a small cruise ship, the Marco Polo (ex Russian Arctic ship).
    After Norway we made our way up to the archipelago but couldn't get into Longyearbyen as the pack ice was too thick.....most unusual in July. As a result didn't see Polar Bear or Ivory Gull Doh!
    If you want to have a look some of my photo's from the trip see.....

    I would love to go back up there, I'm just waiting for a fair price.