Polar Bears of Spitsbergen
by Jon Huyer
July 4, 2012
Spitsbergen is the largest island in the archipelago of Svalbard, which is located well north of Norway between latitudes 74° and 81° north. Getting there involves flying from Oslo to the most northerly commercial airport in the world, at Longyearbyen (78° latitude). It is truly a remarkable place, populated with 2,000 people and 3,000 polar bears. However you are quite unlikely to see a polar bear if you stick around Longyearbyen. Your best opportunity lies in boarding an ice-rated cruise vessel and making your way around the northern end of the archipelago.
The cruise season begins in June and goes to the end of September. The best bear viewing is early season, when the ice is still plentiful. Our small 12-passenger ship the M/S Stockholm was the first one to tour the area this year, and we did not come home disappointed.
The M/S Stockholm (500 mm @ f/5.6)
With 24-hour daylight, it was hard to go to bed at night knowing that you might miss seeing something. However the crew was quick to wake us up if a bear came into view… sleep can always be saved for the plane ride home!
Crossing the 80th parallel (Canon G12)
You don’t need an icebreaker to get around Svalbard, just an ice-strengthened vessel. Our small ship would shudder when we started pushing the floating ice blocks out of the way, but the highly experienced crew weren’t fazed at all so we quickly got used to it too. Nevertheless I paid very close attention when they demonstrated how to use the emergency survival suit!
Pushing through the ice (16 mm @ f/8)
As you might expect, the photography opportunities are fantastic. The captain’s goal is to park the ship against the ice when a bear is spotted, hoping that the bear will come closer. This is not a faint hope, because to the bear our ship provides an incredible array of delicious smells. With their innate curiousity, the bear is quite likely to come for a visit.
Checking us out (500 mm with 1.4 teleconverter @ f/8)
The stare-down (500 mm @ f/7.1)
Strength and Beauty (500 mm @ f/9)
The advantage of photographing bears from a small ship is that it is very convenient to walk around and get in the best position for the shot. You are not very high up, so it’s easier to get that face-on view. As a bonus, the climate in Spitsbergen is very mild. The presence of the Gulfstream combined with the 24-hour sun means that the temperature varies from only -3 to +3° C. I was able to use light windproof gloves, which allowed for uninhibited camera handling. I carried two cameras with a Black Rapid harness, which worked very well.
Having a blast (photo courtesy of Fathom Expeditions)
For safety reasons, the only time we wanted to see a bear would be from the ship or Zodiac. We made many shore excursions, but only after the guides carefully scanned the surroundings with binoculars to make sure the coast was clear. And one guide always carried a high-powered rifle.
Of course there is a lot more to photograph than just the bears. The walruses are amazing, albeit somewhat less cute. And there is an incredible array of bird life, from the huge colonies of guillemots to the majestic king eiders, and the fulmars that would float alongside the ship. There are also seals, and a good chance to see humpback and beluga whales. The landscape is awe-inspiring, with the sharp-edged mountains (the name Spitsbergen means ‘jagged peak’), the huge Austfonna ice cap, and the many glaciers spilling into the sea.
Walrus on an ice floe (27 mm @ f/5.6)
King Eiders (500 mm @ f/5.6)
Northern Fulmar, cruising by our ship (500 mm @ f/4)
The edge of the Austfonna ice cap on Nordaustlandet Island (500 mm @ f/8)
As you might expect from a land so far north, it is rich in polar exploration history. We visited the site where Roald Amundsen launched his dirigible to the north pole in 1926 (the docking mast is still standing). And we set foot on the site of a huge whaling station that dates back 400 years. Plus we stopped at the town of Barentsburg, an old Russian community that still mines coal on the island. Going there was like stepping back in time to 1960’s Russia.
Barentsburg, Spitsbergen (70 mm @ f/6.3)
With the wide array of photo opportunities, you will need to bring more than a few lenses to cover them all. The 500 mm f/4 lens was indispensable, giving me my greatest number of ‘trophy shots’. I also used my 70-200 mm lens for close-up action, and my 16-35 and 24-70 for the landscapes. The skies are often overcast, but there was always enough light to get a fast shutter speed even at ISO 200. So you could also do very well by bringing a long lens that has a maximum aperture of f/5.6 for example, and not have to endure quite as much arm pain by handholding a monster lens. Getting the exposure correct was a bit of a trick sometimes, as cameras will often underexpose the snow when it is overcast. You need to keep a close eye on your histogram and adjust the exposure compensation accordingly.
Bearded Seal swimming by our Zodiac (500 mm @ f/5.6)
Glaucous Gull at a Guillemot Colony (200 mm with 1.4 teleconverter @ f/5.6)
Our time aboard the ship was 7 days, and it went by in a flash. It was a fantastic expedition, and I highly recommend it to anyone who, like me, is enthralled with the north.
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