Snowy mountain scenery in Svalbard, north of Norway in Arctic Circle
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Svalbard (Walruses, polar bears and glaciers, oh my!): Part 1 (Choosing an expedition)

I remember perfectly when I first fell in love with icy landscapes.  It was in Antarctica.  I went for the wildlife (who doesn’t love penguins?!), but it was the austere and luminous landscape and light that made me want to return.  This was years ago, in 2003.  My fellow passengers, on a Lindblad vessel, were a well-traveled bunch.  The name Svalbard came up often there in conversation, as in “If you like this, you should also go to Svalbard.”

Our floating base for exploration of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle north of Norway, the sailing vessel Antigua

It took some years, but we finally made it to the Arctic a few months ago, in September 2017, on a trip billed as a “Golden Light Scenic Special”.  It was offered on a 30-passenger sailing ship, the Antigua, by NozoMojo (Morten Jorgenson and Nozomi Takeyabu).  Morten was the expedition leader on our 2cd trip to Antarctica, in 2015.

On the beach to the left, a pile of male walruses; our floating home in Svalbard, Antigua, awaits off-shore.

Over the years, I had been pricing Svalbard trips, which like trips to Antarctica, are not inexpensive, waiting for one to compel me to sign on.  Trips on Lindblad start at over $10,000, with 148 guests.  Joseph Van Os Photo Safari trips run $10-14 thousand, depending on the number of passengers the boat can hold (20 vs. 12 passengers).  Wildphoto, based in Norway, runs small group photography trips on a 12-passenger boat, and start at $10 thousand.  Luminous Landscape, with whom we traveled to Antarctica in 2015, has a trip next summer for 24 guests.  Pricing ranges from $7500 (in a triple) up to more than $15 thousand for a single room, with most accommodations running $9-10 thousand or so per person in shared rooms.

So, when an offer appeared in my email box from NozoMojo (people I know) on a smallish (30 passenger) boat for an unusually good price ($4000-4500), I jumped on it.  The timing during September was fortuitous as well, as we had a biggish birthday of Steve’s (my husband, Photo Focus author Steve Eilenberg) to celebrate as well.

My decision seemed further validated when months after making our deposits and having recruited 8 other friends to fill 1/3 of the boat, we received another email offer, this time for a very similar sounding trip, one year later, with Peter Cox, a congenial landscape photography professional from Ireland, who we met as one of the photo experts on our second, Luminous Landscape trip to Antarctica.  The closer I looked, the more similar it seemed…same boat, same time of year, same length of cruise, the same expedition leader.  The big difference?  They were limiting the number of passengers to 21, with a corresponding increase in price, $8 or 11  thousand, depending on the type of room.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

  1. Polar travel is expensive.
  2. The size of boat will determine the number of potential passengers and influence the price of your expedition.

 

One of the denizens of the Arctic which can be seen and photographed in Svalbard: the walrus.

The time of year and what you want to see will influence your decision-making as well.  Most voyages to Svalbard take place during boreal summer (June-August) and offer maximal opportunities for polar bear sightings. (Wildphoto seems to be an exception, offering spring cruises as well.)  Traveling in September offers golden light for landscapes, with polar bear sightings still likely, but probably less numerous. The big variable here is the amount and location of pack ice, which will determine where and how far afield your ship can roam.  In our case, we saw polar bears, but on land and not on the ice.  That said, a friend traveling at nearly the same time on Wildphoto’s expedition came away with several incredible polar bear on ice images.  We all know there are no guarantees with nature.  As with all expeditions of this type, there is an element of luck and timing, combined with the experience of your captain and expedition leader, which will determine what animals you see, as well as the type of shooting situations.  We’ll cover these topics in upcoming posts.

Polar bear on Arctic tundra in Svalbard, Arctic Circle, north of Norway
Polar bears adapt to land when their preferred habitat, polar ice, is scarce.

Another consideration to incorporate into your decision making is how much luxury you require.  Although I haven’t been to Svalbard with Lindblad, having traveled with them to Antarctica, I am confident the food is superb and the accommodations as luxurious as possible.  A number of the trips I have cited are on comfortable, but much more basic, ice-worthy vessels.  The Antigua was attractive and comfortable enough, but not luxurious.  It had my most important essential (hot water) and the cabins were comfortably warm.  There are en-suite bathrooms, while some of the other boats which regularly ply these waters have some cabins with shared baths.

An Arctic moonrise in Svalbard, north of Norway

In Part 2, we’ll look at thermal gear for Svalbard, which will be an important part of your photographic preparation, even in summer!

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