Picture the scene. We’re bobbing gently on a mirror-calm fjord surrounded by the most exquisite of ice sculptures, some reflecting myriad turquoise tones, others graphic in their design and transparency. Beyond, a series of jagged-toothed mountain tops are periodically caressed by delicate wisps of snow-white cloud as their bases are gnawed by glacial teeth, unrelenting for millennia. Periodically the constant pushing and heaving of ice delivers a thunderous crack and a slab of history the size of a tenement block, crashes into the aquamarine waters, stirring a wave that takes several minutes to reach us, by which time all is silent once more. “All we need now is a glass of red wine,” quips John C, one of our merry ‘class of Svalbard 2011’. And he’s right. The silence, solitude and sheer majesty of this primeval, evolving landscape is hard to improve upon, but yes John, a glass of vino would certainly round it off.
As ever our good ship Origo provided a warm and cosy bolt hole from the worst of the arctic weather and thanks to an excellent crew (great grub throughout), we never felt deprived of creature comforts even in this, one of the remotest places on earth. Despite one couple (sorry Bob & Anne) forgetting that an open cabin porthole in choppy seas, has inevitable consequences for the moisture content of bed linen and carpets, our group remained dry and warm throughout (well, not quite but more of that later).
Given the abundance of classic polar bear images from this part of the world, it’s easy to imagine that the largest land predator on earth is easy to find. Not so. We’re talking about a solitary animal that roams huge distances in search of food, spends much of its time holed up behind icebergs and can swim almost as inconspicuously as any otter. They are also white. And so is ice. You need to put yourself in the right habitat, spend some serious time on deck with a good pair of binoculars, but above all, you need some luck and the arctic can be a fickle friend.
We notched up 10 polar bear sightings and photographed 4. Disappointingly the ice pack was unusually far north and was hellbent on travelling even further north, depriving us of some time in prime polar bear habitat and we prematurely headed south following Plan B.
One of the other real characters of the arctic is the previously-persecuted walrus. Now bouncing back, these leviathans present the photographer with several challenges: they are uniformly brown, rarely awake and are found in places where the sun don’t shine. Apart from that they’re easy and we had two great sessions with a worthy support act of squabbling arctic terns in superb light.
The north can be cruel – light is hard to come by, weather is fickle and there are no migrating herds of wildebeest – the Masai Mara this ain’t. But when it’s good, it’s fantastic and if you accept the 90/10 rule (90% of the time there are no pictures to be taken), the 10% gets under your skin and lures you back time and time again.
Other highlights included particularly obliging bearded and ringed seals from the zodiacs and mirrored ice sculptures in perfect light. But for me, it’s not polar bears or seals or landscapes or mirror-calm reflections, it’s all of it rolled into one big spectacular life experience. It’s 12 months before I’ll be there again but I’m already counting the days. If you want to join us, you’d be welcome as there’s only one thing that tops Svalbard itself and that’s being there in good company. We were, so thanks to this year’s group – you were the glass of red wine that topped it off.
I mentioned staying dry. Of course this assumes that you avoid inadvertently taking a dip in the frigid arctic waters. I failed in that particular objective but more of that in a future post…