It has been one of our dreams to head into the Arctic Circle to see the polar bears, especially since our trip to Antarctica. We’d researched the various places where you can go (mainly Canada, Svalbard in Norway, Greenland and Alaska), and it didn’t look like there were any reasonably priced trips available. After hearing about a photographic expedition heading to Svalbard at a convenient time for us, we decided to bite the bullet and splash out on the trip. We don’t normally do an organised tour-type holiday, but after a bit of research it appears that a cruise is the best way to see Svalbard.
We chose to do the trip through Wild-Eye (http://www.wild-eye.co.za), a Joburg based company that specialises in small group photography safaris in Africa, but that is also branching out to wildlife photography trips to other places around the world. Photos from their previous Svalbard trips were spectacular. We know someone who has been in trips with them before, and so we knew that they were an excellent outfit. Best of all, there were only 11 guests on the trip – a far cry from the 100+ that most trips have!
Our boat was the glorious M/S Stockholm, a 1953 mini-icebreaker that spends most of the summer around Svalbard. Although the boat has been refurbished to make the cabins and common areas more comfortable, it still retains a charm that you don’t get on the larger ships. It’s a kind of protected artefact in Sweden, and so there are restrictions on what can be changed on the ship, and much of the orginal equipment is still in place (and still works!). The rooms themselves are quite large (for a boat) and really comfortable (as long as you don’t mind bunk beds). The best spot to chill and enjoy the spectacular scenery has to be the lovely sunny wooden bridge. The food was of a really high standard, and we could feel our many layers of clothes gradually getting tighter as the week wore on. The highlight of the boat was the crew, lead by the epic Captain Magnus, who really made our trip something special. In particular, our two expedition guides, David (the Swedish Viking) and Christiaan (the funniest German ever), were amazing, and kept us informed and entertained the whole way through the trip. The company that owns the boat, Polar Quest (https://www.polar-quest.com) does several other trips that look rather tempting.
Svalbard is a large group of islands with an interesting history and an even more interesting present. It is a territory that was established by a treaty (similar to Antarctica), and is governed by Norway. It seems like anyone can go there, as long as they obey the laws of the place. These days it is populated mainly by Arctic researchers and tourist guides, but in the past it was a centre for whalers, trappers and Arctic explorers from all over the world. It is the world’s most northerly populated area, with the main town Longyearbyen sitting at around 78 degrees north. People get around on snowmobiles, boats and occasionally dog sleds, and many people walk around with rifles in case of polar bear attacks. In fact, polar bears are so dangerous that no-one locks their doors in case you need to take refuge when a polar bear strolls into town. In addition to the polar bear boat trips, you can do dog sledding, snow mobile yours and some tough looking hikes.
Our trip was lead by Gerry van der Walt, the owner of Wild-Eye, and a great person to have around to help with developing your photography. The other people on the trip were also great fun and we got many great tips on composition and unusual techniques that we’d never tried before. Gerry also help us a lot on post-processing, and hopefully it will start to show in our photos! Although the trip was focuses on photography, we found that it struck a really good balance between encouraging us to ‘get the shot’ and letting us chill and enjoy the holiday. It was our first photography-focused trip and we really loved it, and would be tempted to do something similar in future (subject to costs!). For a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this, it was certainly worth the extra cost.
Our days aboard the M/S Stockholm varied depending on where we were. For the first few days we headed north to the edge of the sea-ice, effectively the edge of the enormous (but sadly shrinking) polar ice cap. This is typically the best place to see polar bears, as they like to hang around where the seals tend to congregate. We were surprised to find out that polar bears do not hibernate, and prefer to spend as much time on the sea-ice, other than when females need to den to give birth. They are occasionally found on land, but these tend to be females and cubs, rather than the large males. We were luck to spot two bears on the ice, including one stalking what he thought was a nice meal, but which turned out to be walruses, whose incredibly thick skin make them impossible to kill. The rest of the trip was spent exploring various fjords on the main island, including several landings and boat trips to check out historic sites, research stations, bird colonies and glaciers. We had unusually good weather throughout the trip, with many sunny days, some very atmospheric snowy days and no rain, strong winds and rough seas – a rarity at this time of the year. It was also unusually cold (up to -11C before wind chill), so we really had to layer up to keep warm. We were there at the end of May and the landscape was still completely covered in snow, which made for some incredible scenery.
We had a short overnight stop over in Oslo on the way back, and managed to have a quick explore before we had to head to the airport. We weren’t really there long enough to get a proper feel of the city, but we managed to get some good (and fairly reasonably priced) food and got to stretch our legs a bit after the slightly sedentary time on the boat.
This trip was one of our best ‘organised’ trips we’ve done, and it is highly recommended. Every aspect of the trip was great, and we came away not only with great memories and experiences, but also (hopefully) with some new photography skills!
Next stop: some time at home in Joburg, before a short trip to the bush!