Svalbard Revisited

Caron Steele

22 Jul 2019

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NWS client Caron returns to the Arctic for her second Svalbard safari

I first visited Svalbard in July 2016 with Natural World Safaris, the year that a dramatic decrease in sea ice meant that we could actually circumnavigate the Svalbard Archipelago. Although this presented us with an amazing opportunity, it was chilling to see the extent of the decline in the sea ice. The Norwegian Ice Service tweeted, “This is the lowest area for this day of the year in our records dating back to 1967”.

This previous trip was a Svalbard Polar Bear Explorer expedition aboard the M/S Freya. This year I returned in May on a photographic safari with Chase Teron on the M/V Kinfish. The ice was thick and we could only navigate the western edge of Svalbard – a totally different experience but each with their own merits.

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In July the wildlife was definitely more abundant, with excellent polar bear sightings, although there was not a lot of snow around. In May there was endless ice and snow – quite beautiful, but the wildlife was scarce. However, when we did spot wildlife the settings were beautiful, with snowy white backdrops.

I particularly loved being on a boat with a photographic guide, as I am a bit of a photography nerd, and Chase Teron was excellent. He helped us all individually with our photography and in quiet times he and the other guide, Nate (also great), gave us excellent talks in the lounge.

The Kinfish is a smaller vessel than the Freya, which meant that we were a small group, so everyone got the help and attention they needed. The crew on the boat were fun, amazingly helpful and diligent.

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On Day 1, our expedition leader Beau spotted our first polar bear. We boarded the zodiacs and got within about 30 metres of a beautiful young male dozing on the fast ice. The light was lovely – it was 1am!

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The bear behaved beautifully. He was totally chilled and it was a superb sighting that we were all very excited to share in.

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On our way back to the ship we even spotted a distant Arctic fox!

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The next day when we awoke the bear had moved inland and had become a “pixel bear” (so tiny in our viewfinder that he was barely a pixel big!) – something that we became quite familiar with on the trip! Days 2, 3 and 4 we headed out into the pack ice all the time scouting for polar bears.

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It was really beautiful, but progress was slow due to the heavy ice and no bears. We did however see walrus and rare hooded seals (Cystophora cristata).

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Over the next few days we visited several beautiful fjords. Glassy calm waters gave us beautiful mirror-like reflections.

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We also managed a landing where we had an invigorating hike and came across several very obliging reindeer.

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We saw lots of photogenic seals and possibly one of the highlights of the trip for me was hearing them ‘sing’ in one of the fjords – it was the most haunting sound.

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As well as the beautiful wildlife encounters, we had great fun on the Kinfish. During our expedition we all did the "polar plunge" at -1.5 °C, which is damn chilly! And the mad crew went wakeboarding with various degrees of success!

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As we were lacking in bears we built our own…

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The Chef produced great food and wine, the crew mixed interesting cocktails and played many dodgy games of cards. The banter on the bridge was always entertaining. Beau and our guides searched tirelessly for polar bears. There were several “pixel bear” sightings – lovely to see but too far to photograph.

Then, finally, on our last day surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, we spotted a bear chasing reindeer on a ridge above the beach. Still over 500 metres away but clear enough to watch some great behaviour through the binoculars – a really special sighting. It was a good end to a great trip with a really lovely group of people.

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