We are on our way to the northern edge of Europe….or that’s what my brain is telling me. Technically of course this is not correct – Russia and Greenland both reach further north in Europe, as does Canada in North America. But for some reason 3 years ago I decided that the number one item on my bucket list – exploring the Arctic searching for all the magnificent creatures inhabiting this other worldly terrain – should be ticked off in Svalbard. After making that decision, a quick and easy Googly afternoon took me to Natural World Safaris (NWS for the rest of the blog)…and the rest was history. We were booked on a trip with David Yarrow for our 10 year wedding anniversary…what could be more perfect? Of course, perfect is never realistic, and a global pandemic decided to re-write the fairy-tale slightly by postponing our adventure by a year and a few weeks. So not quite an anniversary trip anymore. However, the postponement also coincided with an upgrade to the very fancy Polarfront (and for us the Harmattan suit, which is the owners’ suite), and an additional night in the Arctic. We would soon discover that Covid did us a favour.
We arrived in Longyearbyen on Saturday, 21 May, after a lazy day on flights and in lounges: Zurich -> Oslo -> Longyearbyen, 7.5 hours’ travel time when flights are on time. Covid has ensured that European travel is a nightmare currently, with every flight being delayed, mostly due to a lack of ground staff. But, we made it without too much stress. A few tips for the layover in Oslo that we would have found useful beforehand: when flying with SAS (or any codeshare flights of SAS) you do not need to collect your baggage – we were told on the plane we must collect our baggage, and the NWS app told us which conveyor belt our bags were on, which created confusion. You also have to go through immigration to fly to and from Longyearbyen, something we found strange given that it is part of the Kingdom of Norway. We found out after some Googling that Svalbard is a special jurisdiction subject to the Svalbard Treaty that is outside of the Schengen Area, the Nordic Passport Union, and the European Economic Area.
Sitting in Oslo waiting to board our flight to the mysterious Longyearbyen, we started picking out people we suspected would be on our expedition. It was a fun game. Being Star Alliance Gold status has many many perks, one of them being priority boarding. As we stood in the priority queue waiting to get onto the transfer bus which completely negates the need for priority boarding, I allowed a guy joining the queue from the other side of the room to go in front of me. With an indiscernible accent he asked me “Are you SAS Plus?”. I was not…I was Star Alliance Gold…but for some reason the words “Star Alliance” fell out of my head, and I could just mutter lamely “no, I’m gold”. This guy clearly thought I was pushing my luck and accepted the invite to go in front of me with what I perceived as quite a scowl. We got onto the bus and grabbed seats next to the door to ensure we could disembark quickly. This also provided me a good view of the guy who thought he should be ahead of me…his face seemed vaguely familiar, but I quickly let it go and put him in the “rude adventurer who does this often” bucket, and moved on to the game of identifying people on our ship. We boarded the plane – ahead of the rude adventurer, which felt like a small moment of triumph – and made our way to Longyearbyen. After arriving and collecting our luggage, we found the NWS transfer bus and boarded it first, waiting to see how well we identified our fellow expeditioners. Slowly the other passengers boarded, and we managed a measly 2 out of 7 hit rate on our guesses. And then, the rude adventurer boarded our bus, said “Hi again” to me, and introduced himself as Hadleigh Measham, our expedition leader (we were provided with bios and photos of our expedition leaders before the trip, which I had actually looked at…and yet the one person who’s photo we had, we did not identify. Fail!) I was starting to think this might be a long 9 days…
We checked into the Polfareren Hotel for the Saturday and Sunday nights. The Polfareren has a very convenient location, but given that all the “repeat adventurers” – David Yarrow and the expedition leaders – chose the Radisson, my takeaway is to next time go for the Radisson. The windows unfortunately do not have blackout curtains in the Polfareren, which made for some subpar sleeping for two adventurers who are not accustomed to the midnight sun. Having not even a hint of twilight let alone darkness ensured that my FOMO was out in full force for the entire expedition.
We spent Sunday and most of Monday exploring the whole of Longyearbyen. Yes…all of it. We covered the full town on foot from the northwest to the southeast, and the parts of the 19.8km of tarred road we did not cover on foot, we covered in a squeaky van with a Latvian tour guide from Spitzbergen Adventures called Loris. Two ladies from Miami (Maria and Veronica who ended up on our NWS expedition and became our friends) joined us on the tour – Lens and Perspective – which gave an interesting overview of the mining history of the town. I would however not recommend it as a photography or wildlife tour, it is not. Most importantly Loris gave us a good tip, to look out for arctic foxes around the river in town after 11pm, when the human activity dies down and they come scavenging for leftovers. Of course, we listened, and at 11pm we were walking in the bright (albeit cloudy) daylight around the river, hoping to spot the animal at the top of my wish list (yes…I’m strange…I prefer foxes to bears). And we got incredibly lucky – not only did I spot him moving in the distance in the riverbed, but he ran straight towards us and crossed the road 5m from us. And no, he is not sick – he is in the process of losing his white winter coat so that he can better camouflage in the summer vegetation. Night two and I already ticked off number one on my list…this was starting well from a wildlife perspective.
It is always a treat seeing bird species that we had never encountered, and our time in Longyearbyen was well spent becoming acquainted with some of Svalbard’s birds. We had fantastic sightings of barnacle geese (including a white “leucistic” individual which I later discovered was quite a rare sighting), pink-footed geese, rock ptarmigans, common eider, a purple sandpiper, and snow buntings.
At 16.30 on Monday, our NWS bus picked us up at our hotel, and we met our other expedition leader, the infamous Mats Forsberg. Storytime began almost instantly, and we were entertained with stories of Longyearbyen’s history until we disembarked with our belongings at the docks, ready for our first zodiac trip to our new home, the beautiful MS Polarfront.
Onboard we were greeted by the French crew with massive smiles, cocktails, and canapés. It was clear right away that this was going to be a French affair of hospitality, style, wine and fine dining…and this initial impression remained the theme onboard for the rest of the trip. Sonia, our head stewardess, took us to our very spacious room, and we unpacked before heading back upstairs for introductions and an overview of what to expect for the remainder of our stay. Chief Matthieu did the honours of running through the basic safety instructions, and Captain Pierre ensured we knew the rules of the ship – for instance that it was a non smoking vessel, but that they were French meaning there was smoking allowed at all the designated ashtrays (of which there were many). Captain also introduced the crew and we had the honour of having Yann, the owner of the Polarfront, onboard for our voyage. David Yarrow also introduced himself, and after all introductions of guests, crew, expedition leaders and celebrities were done, we settled in for possibly the greatest surprise of the whole trip – a three course five-star dinner. We assumed that since it was night one the food was still fresh and Angui, the chef, obviously had to make a good first impression…only this continued for every lunch and every dinner the entire expedition. We were all just as excited to see what would be on the menu every meal, as we were to see polar bears (or at least, that was how it felt given the excitement each time stewardess Yael brought out the newly written menu for the next meal). I would say that Angui soon became a celebrity onboard, and I would happily steal him away from the ocean to bake desserts for me every day (my hips are grateful that Yann will not part with him).
On Tuesday we woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first full day aboard the Polarfront. Breakfast was typically French – croissants, cheese and ham. Arno and I immediately went to the deck after breakfast, and soon found our rhythm, spending most of our time onboard either outside, or on the bridge with Hadleigh and Mats scouting for wildlife. We very quickly learned that the best way to see something fleeting like a whale or puffin, was to be close to the action – which generally meant being close to the expedition leaders. We adopted this philosophy for the remainder of the voyage, and had a lot of fun scouting, joking, and trading stories about Africa and the Polar worlds. It turned out that Hadleigh the “rude adventurer” was actually not that at all, and we traded our initial scowly meeting for lots of banter, the odd deep reflective moments, and long hours behind binoculars sharing our passion for raw nature (which was definitely in no way driven by my need to beat him at scouting, a competition I lost dismally). Mats intrigued us with stories, especially of life in the polar regions in the 80’s. We also spent long hours on deck, Arno reading or playing games on his phone, me capturing the beautiful, sometimes surreal, landscapes we sailed through (and enjoying the northern fulmars soaring elegantly around the ship).
Back to Tuesday afternoon: after an amazing lunch, we got ready for our first landing of the expedition. We were at Alkhornet in Isfjorden, an absolutely gorgeous cliff and home to tens of thousands of breeding Brünnich’s guillemots and a large colony of kittiwakes. We also had our first (and only close) encounter with a harbour seal who posed beautifully on a rock in the ocean, and watched a glaucous gull catch a fish and share it with a friend. Our first close sighting of Svalbard reindeer followed, and we spent a not-so-insignificant amount of time photographing them and waiting for the one with the most beautiful antlers of the bunch to give us a pose. Luckily our expedition leaders saved us from the frustration by suggesting a “short-ish” easy hike to look for foxes underneath the bird cliffs. The hike was neither short nor easy, with a number of steps ending knee deep in snow, but it was beautiful, and I really enjoyed being out in nature and burning off some of Angui’s desserts. Hadleigh also spotted the promised fox which was a nice bonus albeit the fox was quite far away. The sound of the breeding guillemots was surreal to listen to: while these spectacles are common at bird cliffs around the world, it is not something I had ever witnessed before, and I was captivated.
After boarding the Polarfront again, we raised anchor and set sail for a slightly rocky overnight jump from the quiet waters of the fjords to the slightly less tranquil waters of the Arctic Ocean to reach Smeerenburgfjorden by the next morning. David Yarrow hosted a presentation on his photography in the lounge while we enjoyed drinks and canapés. It wasn’t a stormy night, but the motion was enough to lead to a few skipped dinners. I was however grateful to prove that I don’t have an issue with seasickness (even though glancing down at my phone in a moving car immediately makes me sick), and thoroughly enjoyed the best dessert of the trip, a delicious lemon curd tart.
On Wednesday morning we arrived in Smeerenburgfjorden, and during breakfast we got the exciting news from the bridge that they had spotted a polar bear. After a visit to the bridge to see the said polar bear, Arno discovered that it was not only one, but a mom and her two cubs. The mom was hunting for seals on the fast ice, while the cubs remained a distance behind her. At that point they were a few kilometres away – binocular bears (the first photo below is not cropped and taken with a 700mm lens, to give an idea of how far away she was, and how difficult the scouting game really is). In fact, I feel it is important to state here that all my wildlife photos in this blog were taken with a 200-500mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter – 700mm reach in total – and they are also in some instances significantly cropped. I would not recommend anything less for a trip to Svalbard!. Back to the bears – even at such a distance we could see them from the deck, which was already ticking off the major sighting for most of the people onboard. Adding two cubs (born this season) to the mix only added to the excitement, and we started getting kitted out in our “telly-tubby” floatation suits (mandatory when going out on the zodiacs and not making a landing) for our first zodiac cruise of the trip. Once kitted out and in the zodiacs, we moved towards the fast ice where the mom was lying down staring into a seal’s hole. She was still kilometers away and it was not looking likely that we would get a closer sighting, but we patiently waited in the most spectacular scenery of the trip (with beautiful moody skies), so I took a cue from the landscape photography expert on our zodiac, Veronica Arcelus-Martinez and captured one of my favourite scenes of the entire trip. Once a landscape photographer, always a landscape photographer, even when there are polar bears around.
Eventually we decided to move on in the zodiacs and see what else we could find that was exciting. Not long into our cruise we found a walrus chilling on an icefloe, where we stopped to take some photos.
We returned towards the fast ice to see whether mom and cubs had moved, and found that indeed they were on the move. We quickly saw that she was collared and branded with a “33” on her bum – used by Norwegian scientists in their research. So, to capture her in a natural state without ruining the emotion behind the photos with human elements, all photos of her that I have published have had the branding and collar removed. The rest of the photos tell a better story than words ever could. Needless to say, we were captivated for a few hours. Watching her nurse the cubs was a highlight – afterwards Hadleigh told us it was in his top five sightings of polar bears in his career.
Eventually we decided to leave them in peace: it was lunch time anyway and we were thoroughly blessed to spend so much time with this beautiful family. It was day three of our expedition (the second full day onboard), and from here the pressure was off, now we could all just enjoy the rest of the voyage with an unforgettable encounter in our hearts (and on our SD cards).
Needless to say, we were on a high after an eventful morning, and soon we raised anchor and continued our journey north. I spent my time on the deck as we were sailing through water that represented mirrors, with moody skies and ice floes in the ocean: the scenery was breath-taking, a landscape photographer’s dream.
A bit later we arrived at our next adventure: a walk on some fast ice, to feel like polar bears. We were in Raudfjord surrounded by beautiful scenery, and the eager adventurers disembarked the zodiacs onto the fast ice with slight trepidation. However, we were comforted by the guides that this was solid ice and walking on it did not pose any risks. Well…we followed instructions and walked in Mats’ steps until finding a crack in the ice. Mats plotted a new route to avoid the crack and being last in the walking queue Arno and I followed the new route (begrudgingly, I was more keen to follow the route already trodden by the rest of the group). Well…let’s just say walking on fast ice would be so boring if nobody fell through it, so I took one for the team. I ended up breaking through another crack in the ice, and my one leg ended up thigh deep in icy Arctic water. Our resident videographer, Sofia Ortiz, ensured that the moment is captured on film, and how grateful I am that she decided to hit “record”. My boot was flooded, and in the zero-degree temperatures my toes were not too thrilled with the rest of the walk and story time with Mats that followed. Luckily we returned to the Polarfront before any real damage was done, and Arno and I immediately went to the hot tub: what a pleasure! It was less of a pleasure to dry out my boot, but two days later it was finally dry and useable again.
Thursday brought yet a new experience: our first ever encounter with the northern pack ice. We were at 80 degrees north, and I don’t know what I expected, but the scene that unfolded infront of us as we headed more north was something I would never forget. Large blocks of drift ice surrounded us, floating next to eachother and creating the platform that polar bears prefer as their main habitat to hunt on. Even though we were not lucky enough to spot a polar bear on the pack ice, this moment was Arno’s highlight of the trip, and gave me a new appreciation for the magnificence and fragility of this frozen world we were visiting.
After a few hours scouting without luck (but finding an extremely lost sand martin on board the ship, which unfortunately would not survive the predators and cold at this high latitude), Hadleigh and Mats decided to head back down to the beautiful Bjørnefjorden to anchor for the night. After dinner news came from the bridge that the mom and cubs had been spotted again. Excitement filled the lounge as Hadleigh shared the news (how lucky could we get?), and we got into our floatation suits and boarded the zodiacs. I was yet again blown away by the beauty surrounding us – the clouds were lifting and the light falling on the glaciers all around us was spectaculor. It was also very difficult to believe that it was approaching midnight.
While they were napping, we took a zodiac tour around the bay and found a large walrus with very impressive tusks lying on shore, so we spent some time with him.
When we eventually returned to the site where the mom and cubs had been sleeping, we discovered that they had moved over to a massive, gorgeous iceberg, and this mom and cubs gave us yet a new landscape to use in our photos.
My favourite photo of the entire trip was created through a moment when our zodiac unanimously decided to take a risk. We were on the side of the iceberg where the mom and her cubs were sleeping. We had gotten some fantastic shots, but the backdrop was also uninspiring, and being in a fjord with a number of glaciers all around, I really wanted to get a shot of the family on the iceberg, with the glacier behind them. However, moving around to the other side of the iceberg meant we would lose sight of them, and potentially miss another great shot or moment. I pitched my idea to Hadleigh, who pitched it to Maria, Andy, Sofi and Emily on our zodiac, and they were all happy to take a chance. We moved around to get the glacier as a backdrop, and the mom had moved to a position where we could see her, but barely see the cubs. I went to stand on the bow of the zodiac to get some height to ensure the backdrop covered her should she stand up…and then we just waited. She didn’t make us wait long. And the photos I took are what dreams are made of.
After one of the best mornings of my life, we headed off to Magdalenefjord where the afternoon activity would involve spending time at a walrus haulout in Gullybukta. I was excited as I started this trip with a very specific photo in my mind at a haulout, and I wanted the chance to hopefully turn it into a reality. I needed a bunch of walrus bodies close together, with good directional lighting, and height but proximity. We found a beach where the awkward bodies grunted and farted and moved around as they helped eachother moult. There were also a few large individuals in the water near the shore, and everyone set up camp to get those amazing shots of the tusks in the water with the glacier behind them. I, however, had a mission, and left the water to look for a higher spot on the beach. It proved challenging, and I instantly regretted our decision to leave the block we used to embark and disembark into and out of the zodiacs on the ship. However, eventually after some extensive scouting, I found the perfect spot. Now I just needed the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place…I needed only one walrus in my frame to look up while the rest stayed down. So I waited. And waited. They are awkward animals, but boy do they move around! My wait paid off though, and I got the shot I planned. Few things are as satisfying as an envisioned shot working out with wildlife.
After finishing at the haulout, we returned to Polarfront where Arno and I got into the hot tub on deck to enjoy the sunshine and gorgeous scenery with a cold beer while waiting for dinner. In the lounge the other guests had settled into a pattern during downtimes of playing perudo, uno, trumps or chess, reading, or editing photos. All combined with a healthy serving of alcohol – at a stage we wondered how the ship managed to continuously top up our seemingly endless thirst, especially with wine. Another amazing dinner followed while we made our way across the remarkably quiet ocean to Kongsfjorden.
On Saturday morning we were out on the zodiacs right after breakfast to make a landing at Ossian Sarsfjellet. Sofi, Emily and Julie stayed with Hadleigh to explore the area by zodiac (and a short walk), while the rest of us decided to go on the “roughly 2km, 100m ascent” hike (according to Hadleigh – he was only off by about 1 km and a 90m ascent) with Mats. It was a gorgeous hike to the bird cliffs, albeit we got slightly lost. The views from the top of the cliffs were spectacular, and we took our fair share of “profile pic” photos. Eventually we managed to find the spot where we could climb down to a ledge at eye level with the breeding birds. The climb down was scary, and only Andy, Maria and I decided to take the risk – at one place I slipped quite badly, and realised that with a bit less luck I could have ended up at the bottom of the cliff. But being at eye level with the kittiwakes and guillemots made the danger worth it, and I stood and just enjoyed the noisy interactions of these beautiful birds. Eventually we climbed back up from our ledge, and walked down to the zodiacs to go get some lunch. And were we in for a treat!
Before our trip I had seen Instagram photos of barbecues on the deck, and I was hoping all trip that we would have that on our trip. So I was ecstatic when we arrived back at Polarfront with a table and chairs on the deck, and French music setting the party atmosphere.
After our amazing barbecue we raised anchor and first took a detour to Kongsbreen to see whether we would get lucky with a polar bear sighting. However, after some serious scouting from behind our binoculars we gave up and Hadleigh made the call to embark on a long afternoon and evening on the open ocean, heading south to Bellsund. I was thrilled to finally get a proper sighting of some beautiful Arctic Terns as they finally arrived in the Arctic after their long journey from the Antarctic.
Early on Sunday morning we arrived in Bellsund, and the scouting started. Eventually Hadleigh made a breakthrough in our polar bear drought, and found a dot on the fast ice in Van Mijenfjorden. This dot was kilometres and kilometres away and I found yet a new respect for the scouting skills of our expedition leaders. We waited patiently in the hope that the dot would be curious and move towards us, and eventually the bear moved closer to the edge of the fast ice, where we could get a clear view and some nice shots of him / her (Hadleigh believed it was a young male, but difficult to tell) from the Polarfront deck. We watched him traverse this tricky environment through jumps and runs, and after my rather unsuccessful attempt at walking on fast ice, I was in awe of the agility of this massive animal.
After lunch we were on our way to Vårsolbukta to spend some time at a little auk cliff. We set out again on a “short-ish” hike which ended up not being short, but was again incredibly beautiful and gave us three sightings of arctic foxes – one still in its full white winter coat – albeit from far away. When we reached a scree where we could climb up to be eye level with some of the little auks and sit below a massive flock of them, we sat and simply waited for them to fly. It didn’t take long for them to lift off in unison in a massive flock and fly back and forth to and from the scree. I was spellbound (and lost the ability to take proper photos or videos). As they flew overhead, squawking and fluttering, the sound of their wings gave me the sensation of millions of butterflies fluttering around me. It was one of the most special moments of the trip for me, all my senses engaged by the production nature so effortlessly staged for us.
We returned back to the Polarfront for the special captain’s dinner, followed by a lot of drinking, playing Uno, and dancing while we sailed further south to Hornsund.
The midnight sun (and alcohol and party atmosphere) ensured that we stayed up until well past 2am, and I had planned to help Hadleigh with his scouting duties when we arrived in Hornsund at around 5am. Needless to say…I was late…two hours late to be exact, and after being chastised we both glued ourselves to our binoculars and started (or in his case continued) scouting. After some time, Hadleigh let out what sounded like an excited mumble, and showed me what was definitely a polar bear a million kilometres away. I confirmed that it was definitely a polar bear, as did the chief, and Hadleigh and I exchanged a high five and the chief steered the ship closer. At least our very limited sleep paid off…or so we thought. But as we approached the said bear, it slowly and awkwardly turned into a rock. Apparently high fives when you’re millions of kilometres away from a possible sighting instantly turns a bear into a rock, and we scowled at our premature elation. So the scouting continued…we were now close to Treskelen next to some fast ice in Brespollen, and I spotted a dot on the fast ice in the distance. It was a warm day already (for the arctic in May standards at least), and at such a distance the heat waves were making it very difficult to identify the animal making up the dot. It could be a polar bear, it could be a seal, we just could not be sure. So we waited for any form of clarity…and I waited to be a possible heroine. But as the morning dragged on it became clear that the dot was in fact a seal, and my heart sank. It was not a good morning on the bridge. We covered the rest of Hornsund for the remainder of the morning and early afternoon, covering Burgerbukta and Samarinvågen. So Mats and Hadleigh planned another hike for the afternoon: this time we could (safely) walk on the edge of the Hansbreen glacier in Isbjørnhamna. The hike was 2km one way and we had a lot of fun taking photos and hearing horror stories of how you died if you fell into a glacier crack…note to self, don’t ever do that!! After hiking back to the zodiac, we took a zodiac tour of Hansbreen. The blue skies and sunshine we had experienced for the last few days of the trip might have lifted our spirits, but were not ideal for landscape photos, and I had to settle for the odd photo of a bird. So I was ecstatic when we saw two red-throated divers in the water…a new species ticked off (and a gorgeous one at that), and something to point my camera at that did not involve people. And super grateful to Andy who warned me that I was focusing on the wrong bird, which ensured I was focused on the bird closer to us when he decided to take off.
Before we knew it, the last day onboard the Polarfront had arrived. We had made our way back to Isfjorden overnight, and were doing our last bit of scouting in Borebukta before getting ready to take the infamous polar plunge. The water was roughly 4 degrees Celsius, so not quite -1, but still pretty cold, and Arno, Andy, Cameron, Alex and I signed the indemnity forms in case our hearts stopped or something similar, before making our ways to a very sunny spot on the zodiac. Arno went first and theatrically dived into the water, making it look easy, so easy in fact that both him and I went twice. David Yarrow took an amazing shot of Arno – it will probably be his profile pic forever.
After the plunge we decided we deserved some time in the hot tub before lunch. Lunch followed, and then the last excursion before anchoring back in Longyearbyen: we were on our way to a puffin breeding site at Diabasodden. There were not a lot of puffins, but enough to be promised a sighting of at least one breeding pair. We were in luck, and spent our last few hours with the puffins, and then back in the zodiac moving slowly along the cliffs, making jokes and enjoying the birds flying around us. Unfortunately, eventually we had to make our way back to the ship to set sail for our final destination: Longyearbyen’s harbour.
We had one last activity planned for after dinner though: a trip to Karlsberger, a whiskey bar in Longyearbyen. So after dinner we all headed to the bar, where we enjoyed the last few hours of each others’ company, and the crew even joined us for a few drinks. Eventually, when the owner politely told us “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” at 2:30am, we decided it was time to head to the Polarfront for our last sleep onboard before disembarking early the next morning.
On Wednesday morning, we left the Polarfront with sad but very fulfilled hearts. How do you describe something indescribable? It felt like I had been living in a parallel universe for 10 days…at the edge of the world physically and emotionally removed from reality. I had waited years for this trip, and usually when your expectations are as high as mine were, you are left disappointed. But that was not the case this time. We saw landscapes and animals I had previously only seen on TV. We made new amazing friends. We took the polar plunge in the Arctic sea. We partied in the sun at 2am. And most of all, there was peace. An indescribable, beautiful, peace that you can only experience in a place so totally removed from the outside world. What a blessing it was!