Land of the Ice Bears - An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard
Luxury Expedition Ship
National Geographic Explorer
I'm inspired by images. Dramatic landscapes that dwarf the human element. Delicate details that flourish unexpectedly in a harsh environment. Perhaps most powerfully, wild creatures that are just that...truly wild. Svalbard, an archipelago far north of the Arctic Circle, is defined by these images. This is the Land of the Ice Bear.
Humans, from adventurers and whalers to hunters and miners, have explored the "cold coasts" for centuries. Their stories of survival and peril are riveting! Yet the quest for adventure continues each brief Arctic summer, carried on by a handful of travelers who seek to experience this rugged place. Today they travel by expedition ship, shooting thousands of frames on digital cameras, returning home with images of a starkly beautiful corner of the world.
As an amateur photographer myself, it was a thrill to explore the icy domain of the Ice Bear aboard the National Geographic Explorer. I embarked on a photo expedition in mid-July, surrounded by fellow travelers who were passionate about exploring and learning as well as taking the ultimate polar bear photo. Some were outfitted with impressive digital SLR cameras while others were armed with handy point-and-shoots, which were dubbed "aim and create" cameras by the National Geographic photo experts. Others simply captured the images in their minds.
Although we saw walruses, seals, reindeer, arctic fox, whales, and a multitude of sea birds--all amazing animals in their own right--the quest for the polar bear is undoubtedly one of the most compelling reasons that travelers are drawn to Svalbard. Rightly so. While the worldwide population of polar bears is alarmingly vulnerable, Arctic Norway remains a good place for the chance of sighting the massive predator along with other animals in their natural habitat. Nearly 65% of the land in Svalbard is protected. Polar bear hunting was banned here in 1973, while walrus and reindeer hunting have been banned since 1952 and 1925, respectively. While exploring the Arctic, though, it's important to remember that it's truly about "the hunt." The wildlife is fascinating, but not plentiful. To see even one of these Arctic kings in its natural habitat is truly a gift.
As you're considering your options for an Arctic adventure, keep in mind that late June through mid-July is generally considered as the best time to potentially see the mighty ice bear. Some itineraries specify that they attempt to circumnavigate Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, yet in reality expedition-style travel is always dependent upon weather and ice conditions. Additionally, consider the experience of the shipping company as well as the style of the ship. Captains, expedition leaders, and guides who have spent considerable time exploring Svalbard are adept at finding the wildlife. As ExpeditionTrips works with a number of small vessels, we can help you find just the trip that you're seeking.
For my adventure, my platform for exploration was the state-of-the-art National Geographic Explorer, a beautiful ship that roams the most remote corners of the planet in comfort. Fully stabilized and with a shallow draft, the ship is ideal for exploring Arctic waters. From an operational standpoint, the mudroom with dual loading bays in the well-designed Zodiac boarding area makes shore landings a breeze. They offer several options for each shore visit--long hikes, medium hikes, short walks, and photography groups--enabling travelers to have the experience they want. Kayaking is a highlight when it's offered, and it is manageable for even beginning paddlers since the 24 double kayaks are extremely stable and easy to board from the Zodiac platforms. Cabins are nicely decorated, spacious, and well designed with ample storage and individual climate controls. Public areas are equally comfortable, with a fabulous lounge that serves as a hub for presentations and mingling; unassigned seating in the informal dining areas; a library and a fitness center that are both glass-enclosed and have arguably the best views anywhere; a chart room that always has coffee and tea available; fantastic deck space; and a spacious open bridge where you can meet the Officers and Captain and learn about navigation. Since their team has been exploring Arctic Svalbard for 20 years, they are amazingly successful in finding wildlife. And finally, traveling with knowledgeable and engaging experts, an Undersea Specialist, accessible photographers, and a Video Chronicler give you the sense that you're watching a National Geographic special come together before your eyes.
I came away from my Arctic expedition inspired...by the magnificent ice bears that manage to survive in a harsh and changing environment, the profusion of miniature flowers that punctuate the frozen tundra, the boldness of the early explorers, and the majesty of the monochromatic frozen world that is Svalbard. Those images will be with me forever.
* Know your camera before you go, and take your manual if you're not completely at ease using your equipment.
* Take extra batteries. I like to have one battery in the camera, another in my pocket, and a third in the charger.
* Carry your camera and extra lenses ashore in a waterproof bag, because moisture is especially deadly to digital equipment.
* If your camera gives you some control over the exposure, learn how to use those features before you're in the field. To capture a creamy white bear on bright white snow, you'll need to overexpose your image a bit so that it doesn't look dingy.
* To see, share, and edit your images while you're on the ship, take a laptop with you. That's especially helpful if you'd like to get feedback from the experts onboard.
* Remembering to shoot a good mix of images will help you tell the story of your adventure. Make sure to capture wide-angle landscapes, wildlife in the context of the habitat, close-up shots of animals, macro photos of the tiny tundra vegetation, and your fellow travelers exploring.
* Stay up and experience the midnight sun, at least once. The quality of the light at such a high latitude is stunning.
* Keep your camera ready and at hand, but don't stress about getting the "perfect" shot. Soak up the experience while you can!
Svalbard is Europe's northernmost territory, located above the Arctic Circle, 350 miles north of Norway's North Cape and approximately 620 miles from the North Pole. Longyearbyen, the largest settlement, is located on the western coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago. There are regular flights to Longyearbyen from Tromsø and Oslo several days a week. On this expedition, travelers overnight in Oslo before flying to Longyearbyen the following day to embark the ship. The Oslo/Longyearbyen flight takes approximately three hours.