At the end of June 2019, I flew out to the town of Longyearbyen which is on Spitsbergen Island, in Norway's Svalbard archipelago – The Arctic. This was an expedition that had been nearly 2 years in the planning and something that had been top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. At the time in my mind the trip was going to be 50% adventure and taking in the awe of what I knew would be a very special place and 50% about the photography and trying to capture the rugged beauty of the place with the ultimate goal being to get ‘that perfect’ picture of a Polar Bear on ice. In reality the balance was probably more like 80% awe and adventure with just 20% being about the photography and I’m so pleased it worked out this way.
Travelling with a friend who I've done many trips with before; we looked long and hard to make sure we selected the right trip for us. Via ‘Travel with Jules’ a specialist in bespoke travel we chose to book with a company called Naturetrek Wildlife Holidays based on her personal recommendation. They charted the MS Quest from Polar Quest. Its one of the smallest Ice Strengthened ships covering the area which meant less passengers, more opportunities and that we were able to go places the bigger ships couldn’t. The ship had just 50 passengers and around 20 staff in total.
I can’t even begin to try to put into words and share everything we saw, did and experienced on this 10-day expedition however this post gives an insight into some of the highlights for me personally. At our first briefing from the expedition leader it was made very clear that we were on Expedition and this was not going to be a holiday; especially with the ‘challenging’ weather forecast that lay ahead of us for our voyage.
The first day we arrived in Longyearbyen the sun was shining and the birds were singing; we even saw some blue sky. Things were looking promising and as we departed the harbour (having started coming to terms with just how small the ship was) and were having or first introductory briefing from the staff a Minke Whale was spotted and she ship changed course so we could get a better view of it. This was however to be the last of the sun we would see until the last full day. Instead we had high winds (up to 70 knots), rain, fog, snow and all kinds of cloud throughout the week and when we made it into the pack ice despite 4+ thermal layers it was bone chillingly cold at times. This meant that our route and availability for zodiac landings was all at the fate of the weather and the crew did their best to ensure we got out as much as possible. We also all very quickly found our sea legs...!
This made for some fairly spirited zodiac trips to shore and even more challenging conditions getting back onto the boat - to me this just added to the adventure being the youngest passenger by quite some considerable margin so was even more impressive to see the oldest passenger at 83 take this in her stride as well. At one point we had to take shelter in a bay overnight where from one direction we had high winds and currents and another impassable ice leaving us with no choice but to wait it out. On another occasion the captain had to have the engines on and running overnight to try and counter the current to prevent the anchors being ripped off.
With a break in the weather we were able to get out through a narrow passage between 2 islands and into the pack ice in search of bears and other mammals. Here we spent 3 days at sea with only one short zodiac ride in the ice to break it up. Late one afternoon word quickly spread a bear had been spotted on the ice. The high winds and rough seas meant they would all be hunkered down so this was an incredibly lucky spot and just the break we had all been hoping for. With this news the ship cautiously started trying to navigate its way through the pack ice testing some of the huge sheets of ice that lay in front of us to see if her ice strengthened hull could manoeuvre them out the way. Every time we started to make progress he turned and walked away; but not before everyone had managed to get a wonderful view of him sliding down some ice which I was able to capture on video - a real treat.
After this and some worrying news on the weather front; we had to make a hasty retreat from the ice to avoid getting trapped. Thankfully overnight we awoke to find ourselves the right side of the channel we had passed through which had since closed up behind us. Word from the bridge was they had a long night trying to get us safely out and in fact on a couple of occasions the ship got trapped in the ice and was being pushed into the shore.
For the zodiac landings we visited many bird colonies and saw more reindeer and walrus than I could count. Svalbard has a real barren and rugged beauty to it and we got to experience walking on the tundra which at this time of year all the tiny little wild flowers start to emerge for their short growing season before the snow returns. Periodically we would come across small huts and abandoned boats and many large piles of bones – with the cold nothing really decomposes and the conservation rules mean it is not permitted to remove anything.
These were a very humbling and vivid reminder of a much darker past where hunting, trapping and whaling were a big part of everyday life with some species being nearly being wiped out in the area. Now these historical sights are persevered and the cabins maintained for research purposes and the occasional hikers who use them to overnight and shelter from the extreme weather and wildlife.
On the penultimate night the crew threw a BBQ up on deck with a disco which was such a surreal experience being moored up in a beautiful bay surrounded by mountains with music playing and dancing – we could have been in the Caribbean had we not been in our warm coats. The final day saw the sun again and a very small number of guests (myself included) and a couple of the expedition staff did the polar plunge. A great way to cap off what had been a truly inspiring and amazing trip.
At the end of the expedition the crew said that we were probably the unluckiest group of guests with the weather conditions we had over the duration of the trip but this never hampered anyone’s enthusiasm and the ship always had a happy buzz about it. It helped that the food on ship was brilliant and the staff couldn’t have done more to make us feel comfortable and at home. The Polar Quest guides all had their own area of specialism and we were incredibly lucky to have such knowledgeable and interesting people on board with us and they all gave some fascinating presentations about life in the arctic and the animals that inhabit it. Both the Polar Quest and Naturetrek teams were an unexpected bonus to me and really added to the success of the expedition.
In summary even as a write this now several weeks on from having returned home I’m still struggling to come to terms with being back ‘in normal life’ – the place and the experience has blown my mind and im still processing my many images and reliving the memories. The Arctic is a very special place and this was a trip that I will never forget. I didnt quite manage to get ‘that perfect shot’ of a Polar Bear I was after but my only remaining challenge is not if but when will I get back to try again and for more adventures.
My galleries from the trip can be found in my Portfolio section of the site and are also shown below.