We arrived in Longyearbyen, excited about our upcoming photographic expedition with Wildeye to explore the Svalbard Archipelago.
The mountains dwarfed the settlement.
A signpost at the airport showed how far it was to other cities in the world from this, the world's most northerly settlement. We worked out that it is 13,979 kilometres from Longyearbyen to our hometown of Brisbane, Australia!
Photo credit to Sarah Zito @ lifesafariphotography.com
The taxi driver told us a polar bear mother and cub passed by at the foot of the mountains on the other side of the water just yesterday. It sounded promising. We dined at our hotel, the Radisson Blu, and had a very enjoyable meal with the image below as our view.
I woke up in the morning with a COLD! I've been healthy for 6 months - and now I get sick just in time for a trip we booked a year ago! I felt very miserable. We headed into the town and saw indications that this was a very different place. It had a frontier feel, with dog sledders coming into town. We noticed signs which read: 'Please do not Park Your Dog Here' and 'Do Not Leave the City without a Gun'. (This was because polar bears pose a danger to humans.)
Photo credit to Sarah Zito @ lifesafariphotography.com
It was the end of August, but snow was already beginning to fall on the mountaintops, and it was seriously cold! In Australia I had been scoffed at by my husband for buying so many layers - but now he and our daughter went shopping for warm gear and gumboots. A tip for readers who are thinking of doing this trip - buy gumboots in Longyearbyen, it beats trying to pack heavy gumboots which take up so much space. They have excellent cold weather gear for sale - but it's not cheap!
We were picked up by a bus in the morning to go to our boat. Gerry van der Walt of Wildeye and his trusty offsider Phil Symonds were a huge help with our gear. We had so much STUFF! Many warm layers, hiking boots, gumboots, and of course, mountains of photographic gear. It was a nightmare of logistics trying to get it all onto the boat but finally we were in the saloon. Phew!
We set sail and had a meet and greet, which was suddenly interrupted because our first polar bears had been spotted! Everyone piled out on deck. It was the mother and cub which had passed by Longyearbyen the day before. Huge excitement, but even with Big Bertha, my 200-400 Canon lens with inbuilt extender, they were so far away as to be no more than blobs. Would we see any more? We were all tremendously excited and felt that it was a good omen.
Colour comes with the varied blues of the sea and stunning turquoise of glacial melt water, but overwhelmingly the impression is of an extreme environment in which survival would be a struggle. Even so, I found the pristine landscape alluring and utterly beautiful. In the Arctic, warm colours are only added by the setting or rising sun. The sun set very late at 11 p.m. and the sky never became completely dark so we couldn't see the Northern Lights. Nevertheless, the soft colours of sunset fanning out from the mountains were magical.
Apart from sunset and sunrise, the landscape was almost monochromatic. As the sun sank lower and lower in the sky, we listened as fellow photographer and keen historian Steve told of Shackleton's epic journey with five companions in a small whaleboat over these icy seas to get help for his stranded company of men left behind on Elephant Island.
The journey took 16 days in which they were constantly wet and had to chip ice off the sails and boat with frostbitten hands. They slept on top of the ballast rocks amidst water sloshing around the bottom of their boat in these freezing conditions. At one point they barely survived a gigantic wave. Incredibly, they made it to South Georgia thanks to an extraordinary feat of navigation and endurance. They made it ashore through heaving surf, then found their way to the settlement where they got help and went back to save the others left behind. The photo below, taken with a long exposure as dark fell, evokes the menace of this frigid, hostile environment.
We all shuddered as the scene before us brought home what they were forced to endure, struggling for survival in such a forbidding place.
Day one of our photographic adventure in the Svalbard Archipelago was over. We dined with an intrepid crew of cheerful photographers that night. The boat was French with a friendly, helpful crew and we had high hopes of the cuisine. Our companions were tremendous fun - ready for anything to get the perfect shot, adventurous..... and above all, with a great sense of humour!
We retired to sleep. Our cabin was pretty small, it was a real trial trying to find space for our gear but we more or less made it possible to find the things we wanted when rushing to dress and get topside to make the shot - with one notable exception, of which more anon. There was an en-suite bathroom which was a luxury, but we searched for a shower. Finally we realised there was a shower rose in the ceiling, and the bathroom itself became the shower! Everything had to be put away so it wouldn't get wet, towels put outside the door - and this is the first time I have ever seen a shower curtain to prevent the toilet getting wet!
Our bed was right up against the wall and I was on the inside, so I had to clamber over my husband to get to the loo in the night. Not so good for an aging semi-decrepit traveller or her husband. We weren't expecting luxury but the boat was comfortable. Photographic trips are not cushy luxury cruises and the people you meet are generally optimistic, hardy, and more interested in getting a great image than the creature comforts. I am more of a glamper at heart, but my inner princess was relegated to a back seat.
Next morning we donned many, many layers. Suffering as I do from hot flushes, I became boiling hot and desperate to get outside once I had donned three layers, waterproof pants, a parka, neck warmer and hat covered by my hood. I burst out onto the cold deck sweating as I tugged on the lifejacket, getting it back to front once in my desperate hurry to cool off! A crew member informed me gently that the way I had it on, I would sink, and helped me adjust it.
When everyone was ready, we left Polaris 1 and set off in tiny zodiacs to see walruses.
We needed every stitch of clothing and wished for more, once we were out there buzzing along in our zodiacs, frigid water slopping over the side and the icy wind augmented by the wind of our passage. On a spit of land we all clambered out of the zodiacs into the gelid sea and sloshed ashore through gently waving seaweed. Those gumboots had already come into their own, as had the special booties and two layers of socks inside the gumboots!
Then the keen photographer in us took over and we snapped away madly, getting who knows how many gazillions of photos of an ugly of walruses.
Walruses lie in the sun to warm their bodies which become pink as blood comes to the surface, perhaps you can see that in this photo.
One walrus even got too hot, and headed into the water to cool off. One of our world class photographers later showed us close-ups which seemed to show that this walrus was in the throes of a sexual urge! Nothing of that shows in my decorous image, but I liked the angled line of the sea washing onshore as he wallows in the frigid water.
Then it was back to the zodiacs again and around to the other side of the spit on which the walruses lay. One of our party called them 'aubergines' and you could see the resemblance! We sat in the zodiacs watching. The icy fingers of wind found their way under my parka and froze my kidneys as we sat for ages - but I got what I considered to be my best image, the walruses captured in their natural habitat with moody clouds overhead. Never mind the cold - I was a happy photographer!
As we headed off to the end of the spit to see birds, two very curious walruses followed us. On was only a metre away. I was lined up to take the shot when my dearly beloved, who was in front of me, leaned forward into the frame, saying, 'Hullooo!' to the walrus. He photobombed my shot! Hell hath no fury like a photographer bilked of a shot by their husband, of all people! The image I did get shows how close these formidable creatures came to our tiny craft.
I took my longest lens, which I call Big Bertha. It is a 200-400 Canon f/4 L IS USM with inbuilt1.4x extender, on a Canon 7D Mk II. In the next photo, it is the same as the one closest to the camera. I cannot manage the weight of it without a tripod and found even a monopod impossible to use in the little zodiacs. All the others got down in the bottom of the rubber craft and used the cushion to steady their lenses, but my knee is bone on bone - if I got down I would never be able to get up again!
In the end I used either the Canon 5D with a 16-35 mm lens, or the lighter Sony a7R MkII with a 24 - 240 lens. Thanks to my encroaching decrepitude, I took mostly landscapes and animals in their environment, rather than close-ups - but that turned out to be a marvellous experience in itself. The Artic is pristine and stunningly beautiful. In the end I captured very satisfying images. There's a seal on the ice floe at the bottom of this mountain - the Arctic Paparazzi in the photo above got close-ups, but I was pleased to capture the whole scene.
The others went on a hike, looking for deer. I can't walk that far so I stayed on the boat. I was not sorry to lie down - my cold had worsened sharply out on the freezing sea and I'm sure the others thought I had brought the plague to Svalbard!
They visited an abandoned shale mine and went on to find a magnificent stag, which promptly lay down against the rock face the minute he saw them.
My husband, the not so decrepit half of the team, took this photo, which he calls 'The Bum Shot'!