Close Encounters in Svalbard

Amanda Morrison

12 Sep 2018

NWS client Amanda recounts her experience of a truly remarkable Svalbard safari

I have recently returned from a trip that will forever be etched in my mind and in my heart. So many incredible moments and encounters – some very emotional, some scary, and many just simply beautiful.

I had the absolute privilege to be aboard the M/S Freya in Svalbard this June, with a crew who were incredibly passionate and dedicated; our fantastic expedition leaders worked tirelessly each day to get us to the best parts of the archipelago based on wildlife and weather; and, of course, I was in a spectacular landscape, home of the majestic polar bear.

On our first morning, almost immediately after breakfast, we had the announcement we had all come to Svalbard for; and as it turned out, one we would be lucky enough to hear many more times – polar bear sighting! A sow and juvenile cub were walking along the beach, so we all quickly got geared up and loaded into the zodiacs. Witnessing these remarkable animals in their natural habitat was nothing short of phenomenal, and to be a spectator to their behaviour – watching as the sow scouted the beach and sniffed the air searching for prey – was very special. They were a little lean, a harsh reality that I had prepared myself for, but I remain hopeful she will find enough food for herself and her cub to last until the sea ice returns.

In our 11 days on board we saw an incredible 38 bears – most from a bit of a distance (and one so far away he was named pixel bear!). However, some were incredibly close, and others some would say too close...

Our extreme close-up occurred when we had some early-morning visitors to the boat. We had anchored into the fast ice the night before, and at 2:40am we got the best ever wake-up call – a mother and two juvenile cubs approaching the boat. In less than a minute (I checked the timings on my photos!) they were at the boat, sniffing and checking out the anchors and cracks in the ice along the hull.

Her curiosity not satisfied, the sow then stood up with her front paws on the boat and looked us all in the eye over the edge. She then stuck her head and paws through the slots the Freya has along its side (I assume designed for water removal, not for polar bears to look in!) where myself and photographer Andy Mann were shooting through. I immediately stepped back, but Andy held his ground and got the shot of the trip. Mine were a little blurry as a result of my hands shaking and heart thumping like mad, but it makes for a good caption to the photographs! The adrenaline from the experience meant not much sleep was had following that, but in the words of our expedition leader Ben, "you can sleep on the plane!"

On that incredible day, now known as ‘Polar Bear Day’, we were lucky enough to have another three visitors to the boat that evening (although these ones were not quite as curious). We saw a sow with a collar commonly used by WWF to monitor bear numbers and behaviours, while her two cubs had smaller tags in their ears. We witnessed them struggling to scale a steep cliff edge in the heavy snow.

Proving too challenging, the sow retreated to the base of the cliff where she nursed her cubs for a while before attempting a different route. It was hard to make out what had happened through the heavy snow, but we could only see one cub and could hear the sow calling out, her cries reverberating in the fjord. When she started to walk away my heart sank – had the other cub fallen and hurt itself, unable to go on?

After what seemed like forever, we finally made out a second little bundle of white fluff running behind, and as they disappeared into the snow (and me with tears of joy and relief rolling down my cheeks) I was able to get out of the bad weather and warm up, knowing they were okay, for now at least. The harshness of this environment is so real. With this small window into their daily struggle for survival in this tough yet fragile environment, we really understood why they are the King of the Arctic.

‘Polar Bear Day’ was just one of many other great days (and nights) where we enjoyed more polar bears sightings as well as Svalbard’s other beautiful wildlife: birds, walrus, Arctic fox, reindeer and seals, observing both from the boat and on zodiac landings where we stretched our legs and explored a little on foot.

As we travelled into some of the protected fjords, a magical ice world unfolded before our eyes, blue as far as the eye could see; icebergs, ice floes and fast ice all providing stunning landscapes in every direction, set to the soundtrack of the ice breathing and moving.

We sailed through ice-filled waters, walked on the sea ice, and had a polar bear’s view into a seal breathing hole. The landscape and beautiful light from the midnight sun was a photographer’s dream.

As we headed around the southern tip of the archipelago, back to Longyearbyen, we weren’t expecting any further increase to our bear sightings due to the lack of sea ice. We were so lucky with all we had seen, but we still did want to see just one more before the trip ended. Luck was on our side again, and on our last full day we had the announcement one last time – a large healthy-looking male. We put on our life vests once more and boarded the zodiacs. As we got closer we saw he was feeding on a seal, the first time we had witnessed this. We watched until he had eaten his fill and headed over to a patch of snow where he fell into a food coma. What a fantastic way to end the trip.

We headed back to the boat, so elated by the whole experience, and spent a bit of time on the beautiful glass-like water, watching and photographing birds against the spectacular backdrop.

We knew how lucky we were to have had so many amazing encounters throughout our trip, but seeing the genuine excitement and joy of the crew and expedition team, who were experiencing many of these moments for the first time also, made it all the more special. It was a pleasure to share it with them.

In between all of the incredible wildlife sightings, we enjoyed a number of talks by Andy Mann and Keith Ladzinski who shared some experiences and insights into their photographic and filmmaking journeys. We shared our own stories with new friends while enjoying drinks under the midnight sun, and were treated to a brilliant Swedish midsummer celebration on the deck with a barbecue and hilarious games arranged by the delightful Bella.

I still have so many photographs and moments to fully process, which will keep me very busy, no doubt long beyond my next adventure. But in the meantime I want to pass on a huge thanks to all who contributed to this amazing trip – Gemma at NWS for all of her help and advice on the lead-up, the amazing crew and expedition staff for, well, everything, our pro photographers Keith and Andy for their immense generosity and inspiration, and of course to all of my new friends – my fellow passengers – for making these incredible memories with me.


All images courtesy of Amanda Morrison.

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