Lorna aboard the MS Freya in Svalbard

Natural World Safaris

22 Jul 2016

Arriving in Longyearbyen

After a crazy early start this morning to get to the airport, sitting at the gate at Heathrow it started to sink in that I'm really on my way to see polar bears!!

Flight one from Heathrow to Oslo went without a hitch, smooth flying but unfortunately not much of a view thanks to the cloud cover. A short connection in Oslo, and it was onto flight number two to Longyearbyen. Leaving Oslo at 9.35pm, I wasn't expecting much of a view but thanks to the midnight sun, once we were up above the clouds it was beautiful.

Arrived into Longyearbyen at 00:30 in the pouring rain! Jumped in the shuttle to head to the Coal Miners Cabins for a good night's sleep!

Days 1 & 2 aboard the m/s freya

After a free morning to explore Longyearbyen, we embarked the ship around 5pm. The first evening consisted of getting to know the group, some introductions from the crew and a couple of hours up on the bridge watching the scenery. After dinner, most of the group went out onto deck, and we had been outside about 3 minutes when we spotted what looked like a whale. The bridge confirmed it was a blue whale! The captain slowed down and changed course and we watched the whale for about 40 minutes. Thankfully due to the midnight sun, the light was great and the whole group got some good shots, even though they were from a distance.

Great first day!

Day 2:

It was a very foggy start to the day, no sign of land since we were heading straight north to the pack ice. Mats gave a talk on polar bears which the whole group attended seeing as there was no view! Throughout the day some of the group spent time on deck bird watching and managed to see fulmars, guillemots and little auks. There were a couple of puffins too, but they moved pretty quickly so I think only a couple of people managed a photo. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to a tour of the engine room, and a quick briefing on how to get in an out of Zodiacs. 

4pm, and it was back to the mess for a talk on photography from Shannon Wild, one of the photographers on board. She talked about composition and gave the group some tips before we went out to see the walruses after dinner. At 9pm, we went out to Phippsoya, and managed to find a group of walruses through the fog! Despite the poor weather conditions, they came pretty close to us as we sat on the beach and watched them in the water, and most of the group got some great photos! 

Hoping for better weather tomorrow, we all called it a night, getting back on the ship around 11.45pm - still daylight! 

See the M/S Freya

Day 3: the best day so far!

Around 8.15am, Mats announced we were getting close to the pack ice. We finished breakfast, rushed outside and around 9.30am, spotted our first bear a long way off in the ice! We spotted several others before 11am (bridge count was 5), but all a long way away. We saw one sleeping bear on the ice straight ahead of us, so we moved in to get closer. The ice was really thick in places, but we crept closer. We reached a point where the ship couldn't go much further, but as the weather had cleared up, we could see the bear through binoculars, so the Captain and Mats decided to wait and see if he came to us. Gabriella bought us coffee and cake up on deck, and we waited in the freezing cold! 

It was about 3.30pm when Mats saw a bear heading towards us. This was the first to show real interest in our little ship! Oskar told us to grab our cameras and get out on deck to see if he would come all the way over. Very luckily for us, he did! It was a young male, around 4-6 years old, who was exceptionally curious! He got right up to us and put his paws on the ship, as the entire group clicked away with cameras. He stayed with us for a while before wandering off to the south for a little sleep. The group were SO happy!! We went in for dinner, and were half way through eating when Russ MacLaughlin (our other resident photographer) started banging on the windows to say he was back! So we ran out with cameras again and this little bear ran round the ship a second time to see what we were up to! He only stayed 10 minutes this time, and then obviously found us boring enough that he disappeared. 

After finishing our abandoned meals, Mats told us there was another bear coming in to see us! This time a female, with ear tags on, she did the same as the first bear, and came right up to see us! Two bears right up against the ship within the space of a few hours. Incredible. 

I don't think any of us thought we would be this lucky. 

If the day needed anything else to be perfect, the evening provided us with the opportunity of a lifetime, the Captain had agreed that we could do an Ice Walk, and head out from the ship, down the gangway onto the pack ice. Wow. We wandered around on the ice taking photos for an hour or so until we couldn't feel our feet or fingers from the cold, and then it was back to the ship to look over some photos and try to get some sleep!

Days 4 & 5: birds galore

Day 4:

Due to a strong weather front coming in from the east, the Captain decided we should be moving south out of the pack ice ASAP. We left around 8.15 for a day sailing south. After a mostly lazy day, we arrive at Karl XII Island around 5.10pm and planned to head out after an early dinner. The fog was low and it was very cold, so we dressed in dry suits and a lot of layers and went to look for bears. Sadly, the bear we found was dead on the beach, washed up by the tide. Mats estimated he had died of starvation trying to swim away from the island in search of food. Very sad. 

We did see one living bear at a distance, sleeping up in the rocks but he decided not to get up and come say hello. We left him to it and went back to the ship as the weather had really closed in and it was cold and raining. Once on board, Oskar showed us a video of a BBC documentary he helped film, and then kept us laughing long into the night with stories from his adventures.

Day 5:

Breakfast came around and the group were eager to head out and get some fresh air. It was raining again, and the fog was low, but we went on a Zodiac drive to see Kinnvika island and the old science station. After some exploring and stories from Mats, we went over to Cross island, a short Zodiac ride away. The rain was really coming down and the wind was strong, but we plowed on to get to the island where Mats told us stories of sailors stranded on the island for four years. It was a wet, cold group that went back for lunch, and then set out again for Gyldenoyane Island, to see the nesting birds. Lots of Arctic terns, who didn't seem all that happy to see us and decided dive bombing us was a fun afternoon activity! 

Last trip of the day was out to the guillemot cliffs.

I'm not a huge bird fan, but WOW.

The cliffs were spectacular. I don't even have words to do justice to the sight of 400,000 birds swooping through the air and sitting on the cliffs. One of the most incredible and unexpected highlights of the whole trip, with an Arctic fox sighting thrown in right at the end too!

day 6: glacier cruising

After a quick breakfast, we were out on deck again as we were sailing through the most incredible icebergs. Sailing towards the largest glacier any of us would ever see, we planned a Zodiac trip along the face of the glacier. It was so worth it! Amazing waterfalls and the bluest ice. Our original plans had been changed due to the fog that was still following us around, but once we were right up at the face of the glacier, the scenery was stunning. The afternoon saw us landing at Torrel Point to see another group of walruses. This time the fog had lifted enough that we managed some much clearer shots, which made us all happy! There was a big group of about 15-20 walruses who kept approaching us on the beach before getting scared and running away again  - a game they played for at least an hour! 

Eventually we all got way too cold to sit much longer, so we went back to the ship for dinner and a talk on Adobe Lightroom and processing images from Shannon. Another great day and a very sleepy group who went to bed to look through their walrus shots from the evening. 

Day 7: Beautiful blues and belugas

It was a rocky night last night, so the fresh air and glaciers we woke up to were very welcome! It was a big foggy again, but at this point we are used to the fog! We took the Zodiacs out to sail around the fjord and look for bears. Mats said there had been bears spotted around the area so we all had binoculars at the ready. It wasn't long before we spotted a bear, a very very thin male, walking along the beach. Mats predicted that he wouldn't make it past this summer. A sad reality of what life is like for the bears up here as the ice retreats. We cruised around some more but didn't see any other bears. 

After lunch, we took the Zodiacs out again to get closer to the glaciers and icebergs. The ship had moved a little since the mornings excursion, so we set out again to look for more bears. We saw a mother bear and a cub on one of the islands, but she disappeared behind the rocks. In the time it took us to circle the island in the Zodiacs, she had jumped in the water with her cub and was swimming over to the next island! We watched them finish their swim and climb up onto the beach and over the rocks. It was clear she was, as Oskar put it, an ass bear. Determined to keep walking away, and generally pretty uninterested by us humans!

Leaving the bears behind we sailed over to the ice, marvelling at the incredible formations and colours. The blues were so clear, it was absolutely beautiful.

After dinner, Mats came running in to the mess to let everyone know there were hundreds of beluga whales swimming around the ship! As quickly as possible everyone ran out on deck to see if we could get a photo! These belugas were everywhere! Little white whales bobbing along the surface with the fjord as a backdrop. We had a couple of minke whales swim past too, and although they didn't stick around for long, it was an unexpected but beautiful way to end the day!   

Mats rounded things off with a talk on walruses in the mess. He and Oskar answered questions from the group on the wildlife we had seen so far on the trip. 

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Day 8: The polar plunge

It was yet another very foggy rainy start to the day today. Although we were used to the bad weather by now, a sunny day would have been nice!

The plan for the morning was cruising around Holmear Bay where we were anchored for a couple of hours, the hope was the fog would lift while we were out. 

As we got into the Zodiacs at 9am, we sailed through the fog and rain towards the glaciers. We spotted a beautiful male bear (around 8/9 years old) walking along the beach. We followed him along the shore line for about 20 minutes, he was completely unfazed by our presence and just carried on doing his bear thing! It was really nice to see him looking so healthy after the skinny male the other day.  

The afternoon saw two of our group, Alex and our stewardess Gabriella, do a polar plunge off the ship! The air temperature was about 6 degrees, but there were huge chunks of ice floating around in the water, so the rest of us took up the challenge of filming from the deck! Alex jumped a few times, first time round he was wearing his NWS hat! Gabriella jumped once to start with but not wanting to be outdone by Alex, she went back in twice more to prove a point!  

After the polar plunge, the group went out to hike up a bird cliff, in the hope of seeing the little auks up close. The auks were out in full force and everyone got some great shots. A friendly group of walruses also happened to be hanging around, so out came the cameras and everyone got even more walrus photos. 

I think everyone is debating what to do with 600+ walrus photos when they get home! 

Day 9: arctic fox cubs! 

Just to prove how flexible you need to be on an expedition like this, our plans changed several times before we had even finished breakfast today! The original plan was to head out to a bird cliff and glacier, but after realising that there were too many other ships in the area to give the group the best experience possible, Mats and the Captain decided that we would head for a nearby fjord and attempt a glacier hike.

We landed on the beach nearby and started the hike up to the glacier in the hope it would be stable and safe enough for us to attempt without crampons. The views while we hiked were absolutely beautiful and every now and again we could hear cracking and rumbling as the glacier moved and calved.  

Once we made it over the ridge, we all stopped to take a few photos, while Oskar determined that it wasn't safe to attempt the climb. Nevertheless the hike to get there was fantastic and the views were worth it.  

Back on the ship and we re-positioned around the corner to the fjord we had hoped to see that morning. Mats directed us through yet more fog towards the landing point. It was a short walk to get to the bird cliff over some spongy green moss which made a change from the rocks we were used to. At this point, right before our last landing of the day, the group had accepted we were heading out to see some birds and go for a nice walk before the end of the trip. What we got instead was more than we ever could have hoped for!  

It started with three reindeer just sitting relaxing a few feet from us! They watched us for a while before wandering round and allowing us to take photos to our hearts content. Amazing way to round out the trip! The one animal we all wanted to see but hadn't was so close we could almost touch it. The group was really happy as we wandered towards the bird cliff that we could barely see because of the fog.  

Mats - being the superstar he is - directed us towards a patch of rocks where he had previously seen an Arctic fox den. We all took up our positions and waited. And waited. And waited a bit more! Nothing. Mats had a walk around to see if he could find the fox, and just around the corner we, found him sleeping in the shade of an overhanging rock. The group quickly moved into position and snapped away taking photos. Although we had seen one other fox before this, it was a treat to see this little guy as he stretched and yawned while sizing us all up! We got to watch him until he moved right up over the rocks to find a different sleeping place. Spectacular.  

If this wasn't enough, the reindeer had followed us over to the fox, so we got a few more photos of them too. As we were walking away, a couple of the group had walked back up to the fox den. They watched as a gull swooped low over the entrance, and out came a mother fox to chase him off. As she did, out of the den barrelled 7 adorable little baby fox cubs! The couple of people who were watching already called the rest of us over and we sat for about an hour just watching these cubs play around, absolutely mesmerised by their games! Photo after photo, we couldn't believe what we were seeing. The mother ran and fetched a dead bird at one point, putting it out for the cubs to eat... although none of them seemed sure what to do with it! They played and jumped and squeaked and put on an amazing show. As we finally decided we had to leave them, both Mats and Oskar were buzzing about what we had seen. Sightings like that are extremely rare, so we couldn't have been any luckier!! 

As we walked back to the Zodiacs we all struggled to articulate how amazing the landing had been. 

As we sped back towards the Freya, with Mats leading the way, he suddenly diverted his course towards what looked to most of us like an empty beach. Of course Mats being Mats, he had seen yet another polar bear. Male, maybe 8 years old, walking along the beach just doing his polar bear thing. Incredible.  

Back on the ship, and it was time for packing bags, the Captains dinner, and some thank yous before one last Zodiac ride into Longyearbyen for a drink as a group.  

I've overused all the adjectives I know trying to describe this trip from the beginning, and at this point, I don't even know what else to say. 

         Words don't seem to be enough. I'm not even sure the photos will do it justice.

I'm sitting on the plane from Longyearbyen to Oslo writing this and I'm surprised how sad I am to leave. Having travelled a lot in my life, it's not often that a place gets under my skin the way Svalbard did. The landscapes, the wildlife and even the fog, left a lasting impact on me, and I'm sure on my fellow travellers. It truly is a beautiful wilderness, filled with the some of the most wonderful wildlife I have ever seen. Exploring by small ship, allowed us to get closer to the polar bears than I ever dreamed possible and the Captain and crew, along with the incredible expedition duo - Mats and Oskar, made this trip the absolute definition of 'once in a lifetime'.  

All I can say to those of you reading this, is GO! Book the trip. Don't wait for next year, or a 'one day' that might never come - go now. Before its too late. Before the ice is gone and the bears with it. Walk on the pack ice, marvel at the wildlife and learn all you can about this amazing destination at the top of the world. I promise it will be the best decision you ever make!

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