Svalbard expedition on MS Freya (4-10 May 2018)

At the beginning of May 2018, I participated to my first Svalbard expedition on board the MS Freya. This was a long time dream for me so you can imagine how excited I was to step on the ship in Longyearbyen on 4 May 2018 for our departure.

This first article about the Svalbard expedition is a daily diary. After this, I will write several blog posts to focus on certain events or sites that we visited. I will also tell you about my experience as a photographer, and share my recommendations on gear and technique in different articles.

Itinerary of our Svalbard expedition

We left Longyearbyen on 4 May 2018 and returned on 10 May. I created this map with the approximate track that we followed.

Map of the Svalbard expedition
Map of our Svalbard expedition (OpenStreetMap)

Day 1: Isfjorden and Nordfjorden

We gathered at the harbour of Longyearbyen around 5 PM and met our guides for the first time: Fred & Melissa, who organised the trip, Jens and Daniel. We also met our Captain and the rest of the crew. Safety first: they gave us a tour of the ship, showed us the emergency equipment and gave us a demonstration on how to wear the life saving suit.

We sailed across Isfjorden in a northerly direction, to reach Nordfjorden. Not even 2 hours after our departure from Longyearbyen, we saw our first polar bear around 7 PM! He was very far away on the fast ice and showed absolutely no interest to us. To the contrary, he even started walking away. I had a very clear view of him in my binoculars, and was overwhelmed with excitement: this was the first polar bear I ever saw in my life!

Polar bear and mountains in Nordfjorden in Spitsbergen
My very first polar bear! Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm/4 – TC1.4 – 700mm – f/5.6 – 1/2000s – ISO 320

Of course, the bear appeared just when the crew was ready to serve us diner. Well, I can tell you that eating was very low on our priority list there. We watched him for a short while before deciding to move on. On our way out of Nordfjorden, we spotted a walrus in beautiful ice patterns, so we slowed down to take pictures.

Walrus on the sea ice in Svalbard
This is how midnight looks like in May in Svalbard! Canon 5D MkIV – 24-70/2.8 II – 24mm – f/9 – 1/125s – ISO 200

Our guides informed us that we would exit Isfjorden and sail towards the sea ice in the north. Time to turn in for the night for a well deserved rest.

Day 2: Smeerenburgfjorden and Raudfjorden

Around noon, we entered the Smeerenburgfjorden, in the north-eastern corner of the Spitsbergen island. We were treated to insane views of sharp mountain peaks, snowy slopes and glaciers with an intense blue colour. In every direction, around every corner, my eyes were amazed by what I was seeing.

Sharp mountain peaks and blue glacier in Smeerenburgfjorden in Spitsbergen
Typical Svalbard expedition views: blue ice, and sharp mountain peaks. Canon 1DX MkII – 100-400 II – 241mm – f/8 – 1/1000s – ISO 200

We did our first zodiac excursion in this fjord, but we did not encounter any polar bears. We went back to the Freya and sailed on to the next large fjord along the Spitsbergen coast: Raudfjorden. The wind had suddenly picked up quite a bit when Jens spotted the second polar bear of our trip! Again, it was on the fast ice at the end of a bay where the water is shallower. Despite the choppy sea, the crew put the zodiacs down in the water and off we go try to approach the bear. The sea ice prevented us to approach the glacier, so it took a while to search for the bear. We finally found it lying down under the glacier front. From such a distance, and with the bear turning its back to us, impossible to see if it was a male or female.

Sleeping polar bear in front of a glacier in Raudfjorden
Sleeping polar bear in front of a glacier in Raudfjorden. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm – f/5.6 – 1/2500s – ISO 1250

Doesn’t it look just like a pile of (yellow) snow?

The bear kept sleeping, and we could not approach any closer, so after observing it for a little while, we took the zodiacs back to the Freya. We sailed to the end of Raudfjorden, searching for more bears, but we did not see any. So we turned back and set our next destination to a bird cliff in Hinlopen Strait, which we would reach after breakfast the next morning. Bed time!

Day 3: Alkefjellet & Hinlopen Strait

Indeed after breakfast, we started sailing by the Alkefjellet bird cliff. I knew already a little bit what to expect after spending so much time the previous summer at the Hornøya bird cliff just offshore from mainland Norway. While the predominant bird in Hornøya is the common guillemot, here in Alkefjellet, it was tens of thousands of the smaller Brünnich’s guillemots that we found.

Brünnich's guillemots at Alkefjjellet, Svalbard
A very small portion of the bird cliff. Canon 1DX MkII – 100-400 II – 100mm – f/5.6 – 1/1000s – ISO 1250

We continued sailing south in the Hinlopen Strait, still in search of the Arctic king the polar bear. The weather offered very poor visibility with fog and snow so it made it impossible to spot anything. We “parked” the ship in the ice where our guides had spotted a mother bear with a cub in the far distance, hoping that they would approach during our sleep. To no avail.

Day 4: Wahlenbergfjorden

What a difference a few hours can make in the weather! From spending all night in snow and wind to waking up in a cloudless, totally sunny sky. This is one of the reasons why I love the Arctic so much. So we woke up in Wahlenbergfjorden, on the east side of Hinlopen Strait. The fjord was full of thick ice, so we sailed along the ice edge for a while, until we spotted another polar bear kilometres away. There were also several seals sunbathing on the ice, so I was anxiously waiting for a kill by the bear, and hoping it would happen at “photo distance” from the ship. Unfortunately, here again, the bear was moving in the opposite direction from the ship, and we eventually totally lost sight of it. It was then safe to enter in the fast ice with the Freya and moor the ship there.

After making sure that the ice was thick enough and of good quality, we were allowed to disembark the ship and go for a stroll on the frozen Arctic Ocean!

The MS Freya expedition ship in the fast ice in Svalbard
The MS Freya, our home for the week. Canon 5D MkIV – 16-35/2.8 II – 16mm – f/13 – 1/125s – ISO 100

Our lovely crew brought us coffee on the ice! Dare I say it was one of the best coffees ever?

Even though the seals were very far away, I was determined to catch a shot of at least one of them. I obviously chose the nearest one and I could see through my viewfinder that it was a ringed seal. Again, this was my first of such species! At that moment I was wishing I had one of those Inuit camouflages to approach the seal, but I had to do with just slowly moving, which is not the easiest when you carry a heavy tripod and a 500mm lens. With the 2x extender, I managed to get this shot, which miraculously did not show too much atmospheric turbulence (all the other shots are blurry because of this!).

Ringed seal on the sea ice in Wahlenbergfjorden in Svalbard
Ringed seal on the sea ice in Wahlenbergfjorden in Svalbard. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm/4 – TC2 – 1000mm – f/10 – 1/2000s – ISO 250

We had lunch with the ship still in the ice, and in the afternoon, it was time to continue sailing. We continued north to exit Hinlopen Strait. The weather was still incredible, the water was exceptionally still, reflecting so clearly the mountains and glaciers in the background. A moment to remember as you can see on the video below (watch in HD!)

We received the latest chart showing the ice conditions, and our guides and crew decided to aim for the ice edge, several hundreds of kilometers to the East. The next night would be a sailing night then.

Day 5: Karl XII Island and East Svalbard

After breakfast, we were in sight of Karl XII Island. Before breakfast, a polar bear was spotted. The crew hurried to get the zodiacs ready in the water, and we all got dressed and packed our gear to photograph the bear. No time for breakfast! I did manage though to get a toast with a slice of cheese so I was probably a little less hungry than my travel companions.

The sea was quite choppy there because we were in totally open water, with no body of land shielding us from the swell and waves. It made it extremely difficult to take pictures, especially with the very long focal lengths that we use. I started with 500mm and then added the 2x extender, giving me a focal length of 1000mm. My camera can shoot 12 images per second, so I was trying to get the bear in the frame, and pressing the shutter as long as I could. A wave would reach us, making me suddenly move my lens up to the sky and down to the sea. On a burst of 30 images, there would be only 2 or 3 in which the bear would actually appear!

Polar bear on Karl XII island in Svalbard
First polar bear from a “photo distance”. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm – f/5.6 – 1/4000s – ISO 400

I also wrote a blog post dedicated to what we liked to call the “climate change bear“. He gave us a good show, and then went to sleep. We decided to go back to the Freya, where we could finally have breakfast. We were determined to reach the edge of the sea ice, so we continued towards the east.

The weather changed drastically again, from blue sky to low clouds and snow. I spotted an ivory gull in the sky, which made me extra happy because I had wanted to see one ever since we left Longyearbyen a few days earlier. And then a second one appeared. Ivory gulls can often be seen around a kill by a polar bear, so we all got really excited for a while. All we found however was a dead beluga whale and birds feasting on its body. With the overcast sky, the ice looked like the prettiest background for the pure white ivory gull.

Ivory gull on the sea ice in Svalbard
A pure white ivory gull on the sea ice in the far east of Svalbard. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm/4 – TC1.4 – 700mm – f/5.6 – 1/5000s – ISO 2000. I didn’t check my settings: it was quite dark and with such a high shutter speed, I ended with too high ISO.

We were almost 2 days sailing away from Longyearbyen, and our expedition would end in 2 days. That’s why it was time to turn around and begin the journey back. Bed time!

Day 6: Sailing day and Smeerenburgfjorden

We spent a lot of time at sea just cruising at the maximum speed of the Freya to cover as much ground as possible. We stopped again at Smeerenburgfjorden to have a little zodiac ride and stretch our legs. Our guides knew of a small colony of harbour seals in the area, so we went to visit them. There are about half a million of such animals spread all over the world (and not only the Arctic). The Svalbard population is about 1000 individuals only, making them quite special and very protected.

Harbour seal swimming in Svalbard
A curious harbour seal swam alongside our zodiac. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm – f/6.3 – 1/5000s – ISO 1600

After enjoying once more a blue glacier in the evening light, we continued our navigation back to Isfjorden. After dinner, I allowed myself a celebratory single malt whisky, and happily went to bed.

Day 7: Billefjorden and end of the Svalbard expedition

On this final day, we still had a few hours before returning to the harbour. Our guides decided to visit Billefjorden, as it was reported by the locals that a polar bear was living there. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the bear disappeared behind a small rock outcrop, and we never saw it again. So we stayed there for a while, and some of the expedition participants decided to take a polar plunge in the almost frozen Arctic Ocean.

We finally sailed back to Longyearbyen. We disembarked from the ship and went to restaurant Huset, one of the best in Norway, where we were invited by our tour operator Expeditionsresor. After dinner we returned to the ship where we would spend one last night before travelling home. The light was gorgeous with the midnight sun, and some pretty common eider ducks were swimming near the ship, so I used the opportunity for one final picture.

Common eider ducks in Longyearbyen harbour
Common eider ducks in Longyearbyen harbour. 1DX MkII – 500mm/4 – TC1.4 – 700mm – f/5.6 – 1/2500s – ISO 1600

Stay tuned!

This was an amazing expedition and it surpassed all my expectations. I will be writing a lot more about it, so why don’t you register on my mailing list?

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Thank you

I want to extend huge thanks to the following people:

  • Fredrik Granath (and his better half Melissa Schäfer) for organising this trip. I had been following him on social media ever since I travelled to Svalbard for the first time on 2015 to watch the total solar eclipse.
  • Jens Wikström for his amazing skills at finding polar bears (it’s harder than a needle in a haystack, believe me!).
  • Daniel Börjesson our guide from Expeditionsresor, also an amazing human!
  • Jon Langeland, with whom I shared a cabin on the Freya for this week. What a great person and amazing wildlife photographer. Check him out, he’s leftjohn on Instagram!

And last but not least: a big thanks to all the other participants without whom this expedition would definitely not have been as successful! What a fine group of people we had.

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