Northern Wildlife – Photo Journey Part II
Arctic wildlife and nature continues…
During breakfast the boat went on its journey through the Arctic sea. Waves? Yes. Big? I don’t know, but we all left our gear on the floor and not on the bed, just in case it fell off the bed! During the journeys between the stops, I spent most of the time on deck; I felt like a little kid, I was desperate not to miss any of the beauty of this amazing place, which unfortunately friends think is empty. On deck I began to talk with several photographers, the majority of whom came from Scandinavian countries and a few from a bit further down south, “middle Europe”. They were having fun and doing some tech talk of course, testing all sorts of photographs of the flying seagulls following the boat and the landscapes, until the intercom said: polar bear on the island ahead of us. Zodiacs will be loading in 15 min. Arctic wildlife in sight! Everybody hurried down into their cabins to grab their bags and all the bits and pieces they needed, including life vests, which was the first time I had to wear such a strange thing. The common life vest are easier to wear.
You got up tangled in this funny vest; it does not look like the ones you see in an airplane, which are easy to handle. Our vests were a bit tricky and we needed a bit practice. So, in the evening, after dinner, me and my cabin mate practiced with lots of laughter, and after 5 min we managed. It may seem trivial, but during the whole trip there was always someone tangled up somehow before boarding the zodiac. Before you entered the zodiac, you had to sign out on a sheet of paper hanging on the exit door, and when you came back you had to sign in again. With 35 people on board this was a very wise move. We sped off in the zodiacs, some to the right, others straight on and another zodiac a bit to the left. Walrus herds greeted us on our way to the island.
A walrus is naturally curious; the herd came over to the zodiac to investigate, and of course we were fascinated too. It was so much fun to watch. Coming suddenly out of the water, blowing water out of their nostrils in a big spray, with their long whiskers hanging down their mouth or even pointing horizontally out of their face, saying hello or just a very short hi and bye. Their bodies are massive and bulky, yet they are still able to maneuver excellently in the water.
After being “followed” by the walruses we reached the beach, but stayed at a distance; about 100-150m inland was a polar bear walking towards a mountain, too far away to take good photographs. We turned again to the walruses until the polar bear became curious and came to the beach to check us out. This was our first encounter of a polar bear, and my very first polar bear in the wild. We drifted along the beach, while the polar bear made himself comfortable in the sun.
After two-three hours in the water with the zodiac around this island, we went back to the boat to continue on the next leg of our journey. This time we had a very long sail straight out to sea on the way to the pack ice, far north at 82-83 degrees. After several hours, in the middle of the arctic sea a huge iceberg appeared, accompanied by many smaller icebergs.
Everybody was on deck to photograph this colossal iceberg, including my cabin mate and me. A seagull flew along the wall of the iceberg. Yes, that’s the missing piece in this composition. Do you see the seagull? The sense of scale was just perfect for this large iceberg.
A few hours later a polar bear was spotted, sleeping on the pack ice. I did not see it as it was 1-2km away, but the spotter on the boat was fantastic. When we were closer at 83 degrees we saw the polar bear with the large heavy lenses as a yellowish dot, not moving but sleeping. A polar bear looks tiny in this landscape, in the vastness of the wild arctic sea. The expanse of the Arctic is extraordinary; the light is to dream off. It was such a great experience to be so far north, in the middle of the Arctic sea, surrounded by ice, in the middle of nowhere! The polar bear of course woke up with the boat drifting through the ice, making all sorts of deep metallic noises. Eventually he lifted his head, very curious, coming closer and closer to our boat to investigate. Seeing this polar bear in the pack ice was a unique experience and I couldn’t help wondering what the bears will do when the ice recedes further and further north. Polar bears spend most of their time on ice to hunt seals. Hopefully they can adapt to the climate change.
On the return voyage to Svalbard we stopped at the Karl XII island. The spotter saw some polar bears on this island. I remember when waiting for the zodiac to arrive, I looked at the beach and could see a polar bear walking along the shoreline. I told my zodiac mates, who laughed and told me that this would be a “seagull bear”. On the other hand it was quite a distance to the beach. Undeterred, we took off straight to the island, where there were walruses on the beach and four polar bears. My seagull bear turned out to be a full-grown polar bear assailing the cliffs on the island. We headed for another polar bear climbing up a mountain, not too far away for us to take images. Meanwhile the full moon came up and the sunset started. After a while we saw one zodiac in the area of the “seagull bear”. We headed over to see what they had discovered and were astonished.
What a privilege it was to see, and photograph, a polar bear up on the cliffs under a full moon in such magnificent light. It will be forever etched in my memory. To photograph this polar bear under the full moon was a bit tricky: the dawn light, the rough sea and my position in the zodiac in the rear beside the guide all made it difficult. The front of the zodiac always pointed directly to the cliffs/polar bear while photographing, and the lenses of the other photographers in front of me were most of the time blocking my view.
The only way I could get a clear view was to stand up in the zodiac handheld with a big lens. With the rough sea and the long lens the polar bear and moon were just everywhere in the frame! It was quite a challenge to get into the “rhythm” of the waves to hold the camera steady. The full moon in front of us and the setting sun behind us created such magnificent colorful light.
After this outing, at dinner the only subject of conversation was this polar bear, the magnificent light and the full moon. It was extraordinary and everyone got the photographs of a lifetime! Sailing through the night the next day, we arrived at Kvitøya Island: an island wearing a “hat”. The hat is actually an ice cap covering the island, a glacier. Next day we have arrived at the famous Austfonna glacier. We had all been looking forward to this glacier, especially the waterfalls running off the glacier tongue into the sea. We did not see too many waterfalls, but instead we got some stunning views with lots of fog, clouds and much more. We moved very slowly along the glacier wall, giving all on board lots of opportunities for creative photographs.
The next stop was in Svartknausflya for a landing for landscape photographs. Zodiac loading again, this time everybody took a tripod along. We had five guides with rifles. 2 guides went right after landing further inland to see if any polar bears are around. If there had been one we would not be allowed to stay on land. When all photographers were on stable ground we split into groups to take landscape photographs. Every group included a guide with a rifle. It was a very rough, rocky place and the rocks were carved like knife blades in some areas, which was an extraordinary sight. We stayed until the sunset was nearly finished. What means finished in the Arctic with sunset, it felt like it never ends at all. I went with the last zodiac back to the main boat after taking several long exposure photographs, which as the name suggests takes a while. Back on boat, dinner was ready already, guess I forgot to mention, the food was excellent on board, loved it, as well the company I was with. After dinner I went on deck again with my camera, taking some photographs, till I realized, was going as fast as possible back into my cabin, grab my tripod, run on deck, set up the camera, composition, oh well it will work what I have in my mind, filter on the lens and shoot. 30 seconds first, wow, can be longer, 1min, yep that fits.
What did I realize? The engine was switched off! Sunset in the arctic was taken with tripod from the drifting boat around its anchor. Just perfect to use a tripod. With the machines on the vibration of the boat would have been too much. Some photographers joined me and we tried all sorts of long exposure photographs. Lots of fun. Continue to part III
You may missed Part I of the Arctic Photo journey.
By Anette Mossbacher