Svalbard Arctic Adventure
Posted on Friday, 21 April 2017
Seeing a Polar Bear in the flesh has been a lifelong dream for me.
When I was growing up our next door neighbour/ third Grandmother, Mrs Denby had an absolute passion for Polar Bears. As such she had dozens and dozens of polar bear figurines of every size on just about every available mantel and counter space in her home.
We spent lots of time here and this provided many opportunities to carefully pour over the miniature Polar bears which came from a land that was the complete opposite of Africa. I was absolutely fascinated by both the bear and the strange foreign land they came from.
Chris & I have two mottoes in life.
One: Say yes to every opportunity, and two: take the road less travelled and be different!
So when a friend we had made on our last Antarctica trip contacted us about a Winter Polar Bear photographic expedition to Svalbard we very quickly signed up for the trip. Polar Bear/Arctic wildlife trips traditionally only take place over the Northern hemisphere summer months but the much more beautiful and softer light conditions during winter and the chance to photograph (and see) Polar bears in adverse weather conditions on ice and in snow was extremely appealing.
We departed Cape Town the day after the temperature had soared to 36 degrees Celsius. Checking the weather forecast for the week ahead at Longyearbyen the expected temperatures were set to reach a low of -22C with an actual feel of – 35C. Wowzer, that was a massive 70 degree temperature change! It was no doubt that we felt somewhat worried about our African bodies standing up to the conditions.
The boat would be departing from Longyearbyen and heading north further up into the Arctic Circle. Longyearbyen at 78 degrees on the northern latitude is the most northern town in the world. Here, only 1200kms from the North Pole a tiny population of 2,500 people live in extreme conditions whereby 2 months of the year are in total darkness, 4 months of the year the sun is extremely low on the horizon and when summer does eventually return they are given 2 months of 24 hours a day of sunlight. Tough people is all I can say!
We were arriving 2 days before the boat departed and as usual our manic lifestyle had not left any time to research what we could do in Longyearbyen. Whilst waiting to catch our flight from Oslo we did a quick online search on what we could do and one activity jumped at us…dog-sledding!
Thankfully we were provided with appropriate boots and outer shell and a few kilometres out of town we approached the dog yard. We were greeted by 94 cross-bred huskies going absolutely ballistic.
One of the highlights of this experience was that we were required to be very hands on. After some instruction we were in charge of fetching and harnessing each of our 6 dogs and one of us had to drive the sled whilst the other had to be the passenger. We were shown how to brake and what to do in the event of a capsize. Good thing as this happened twice to us! The lead dogs had been chosen for their obedience and the fact that they were good at following and the middle and back dogs were positioned for their strength as they would do most of the pulling.
Once all the sleds were ready and lined up the dogs’ excitement levels reached fever-pitch. The insistent barking was incredible and we were left in no doubt that all these dogs wanted to do was run, and run hard!
The feeling driving the sled being pulled by the 6 dogs through the winter white wilderness was incredible and the scenery breath-taking. Once we got into a valley it was protected from the icy wind and all was extremely quiet and still. We were surrounded by mountains, snow and ice everywhere. Best of all there was no doubt that the dogs themselves were over joyed to be out running. On the initial get go the dogs’ start was always at a feverish pace but they would soon calm down to a comfortable jog. It was also easy to break and control the movement of the sled by using your weight left or right. Despite this we still managed to fall over twice which in the end just added to the fun of the experience.
Not only was it a fantastic experience that I never thought we would ever have, it was also a great chance to get somewhat acclimatised to the frigid conditions. Yip, there was no doubt about it, it was going to be extremely cold and challenging.
The following morning our boat that was to take us further into the Arctic Circle awaited.
Our Ship, Origo
There are said to be 3000 Polar bears inhabiting the Svalbard Archipelago and Frans Joseph Land areas. With only 8 days on a small ship to search the Svalbard Archipelago for Polar Bears it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. The area is vast and that needle is virtually the same colour of the haystack making things even more improbable.
Arctic Winter Conditions
On our first morning we awoke to a baptism of ice.
The temperature reading out on deck was a balmy -27C and with the wind gusting from 25 to 30 knots the temperature with the wind chill factor was sitting at a shocking -40 to -50 degrees Celsius.
This cold was like nothing I have ever experienced before and it was hard to comprehend beforehand how challenging it would make things.
Everything is difficult, even the most simple of tasks that one normally takes for granted.
Starting with clothing I had 3 layers of pants, 5 layers of chest finishing off with a bulky down jacket, 2 pairs of woollen socks, chunky boots, 2 layers of gloves, a beanie and lastly a balaclava. The latter being an article of clothing I never thought I would ever wear! It was a last minute purchase before departing Longyearbyen and boy was I relieved we had bought them. The cold on your face especially with the wind blowing was painful and the balaclava provided that important layer of separation from the icy cold.
On that first morning I didn’t recognise any of my fellow expedition mates, we were just various marshmallow-men shuffling around. Shuffling was not a figure of speech as it was difficult moving around in all that gear and you don’t ever feel manoeuvrable least of all graceful. It was especially challenging when dealing with iced-over railings and deadly slippery icy decks.
Trying to deal with camera gear in these conditions also has its own set of challenges. Firstly, all gear needs to remain outside on deck which is a complete mind warp given the thousands of dollars that gear is worth. Even though it’s in a bag it’s still exposed to those freakish elements. However, if you don’t do this you’ll have major precipitation problems and can potentially damage the inside workings of the camera due to water.
You have to be very careful not to breathe on your viewfinder as it will completely mist up and you can’t see what you’re shooting nor check your settings very easily. The small buttons become almost impossible to toggle and if you so much as dare take your gloves off to make things easier you will feel the consequences.
Oh, and don’t dare push your nose and cheek too hard against the back of the camera or you risk frost bite from touching it.
When I was trying to adjust my focus point I had a strange ghosting effect and had to repeat the process many times due to the delay in the push of the button and the result of the action. Everything was slow, even the battery strength was reading incorrectly.
Those who were unfortunate enough to be wearing glasses faced a new problem with the glasses completely fogging up and the fog then turning to ice on the lenses. The only option was to remove them and make do with limited eye sight.
These were things I never expected!
The unbearable cold however brings with it its own blend of extremely harsh beauty.
Once the air temperature goes below -15C a new phenomenon presents itself and that is sea-mist.
The seawater at 0C to 1C is much warmer and the resulting mist is the water evaporation that is taking place. It makes for a very moody scene indeed, just perfect for a Polar Bear!
The snow-covered mountains rising up from the sea coupled with a glacier coming down here and there makes for spectacular scenery. Bits of glacier ice that have carved off dotted the sea in front of us as we scoured the shoreline and the areas in front of the glaciers for the elusive Polar bear.
We didn’t find one on that first day but I did get to see my first bearded-seal, a new mammal for me.