Surreal. It was 3am and I’d been up all night scanning the sun-kissed horizon for bears. Alongside me, Jean, one of our hardy group, with binoculars glued to his eyes. The sea was calm, the sun playing with the ocean’s surface and all was well with the world. “I think I have a bear,” said Jean and he pointed far across the ice. Although tiny at this distance, the familiar cream-on-white combination revealed it was indeed a polar bear. With the rest of the group sleeping we delayed an announcement until we were sure we could get close enough for picture-taking. An hour later all hell broke loose. “Bear on a seal kill” I yelled through every cabin door. In 15 minutes the sound of motordrives echoed around the arctic. Like I said, surreal.
‘Surreal’ is certainly one word to describe this arctic wilderness. Another is ‘fickle’. Moody, broody, mean and cruel; bright and giving, humbling, cool. Svalbard is an emotional and physical roller coaster and the Northshots tour group of 2012 rode it to its full extent.
I know from previous experience and from that of other operators in the area that even 260 hours of daylight during any one trip is no guarantee of photographic success. The weather, the light, the vastness of this place and the relative scarcity of wildlife – these all conspire to make Svalbard what it is: a demanding place that rewards infrequently but rewards well. Our rewards included 23 polar bear sightings, around the same number of humpback whales – some just metres from the ship, close encounters with walrus, calving glaciers, dramatic icescapes, little auks, fulmars, ivory gulls, blue, fin and minke whales and a delightful arctic fox family. Not a bad haul from a tour that had its fair share of less-than-ideal weather.
What makes this trip unique amongst its competitors is our good ship M/S Origo with its ever-obliging crew. It might not look like a luxury liner but its homely and more importantly, accommodates just 12 passengers giving everyone their own cabin and lots of room for on-deck photography. Zodiacs can be launched in the blink of an eye allowing complete flexibility. In my view, along with its sister ship M/S Stockholm, there is no better way to photograph Svalbard than from Origo.
And so our arctic adventure for 2012 comes to an end. 80gb of images is the obvious produce from 10 days at sea but perhaps more than the digital images, it is the mental images that will leave the strongest legacy. The arctic is perhaps not for everyone but if you like the unpredictable, the surreal, the silence, the noise, the peace and the pandemonium, get yourself to Svalbard – it will get in your blood.
Thanks as ever to our guests on this tour, thanks to Chris Srigley for his invaluable help and thanks to the crew of Origo – top job!
Our 2013 Svalbard tour is now open for bookings – looking forward to more arctic adventures!