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Estonian wildlife and winter landscape - by Ann Dahlberg

March 25th, 2013 Posted in Eastern Europe | 2 Comments » |

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The fourth day in Estonia we spend with Estonian photographer Remo Savisaar. It is a beautiful morning as we set off at 7am with mist over the fields and a pink blue sky as the sun is just rising. -15 degrees. Remo has had news there is an albino roe deer around so our first search is for that. With no luck we continue to look for possible photos and wildlife. After a few stops for some landscape shots of misty fields we get the rubber boots on and start walking along a partly frozen river.

There are beautiful formations in the ice and we see lynx tracks next to it. We also spot a squirrel munching high up a spruce and a dipper, which unfortunately leaves quickly. By this time it is a beautifully sunny day and hot as we are walking, sometimes climbing and with all the layers and packing on. A few hours later we find ourselves back at the car and make a detour looking for beavers before heading into Tartu city for lunch. The Estonians do know their pizzas, this one is just as nice as the one in the airport I had on the first day. We spend the afternoon driving through forest roads looking for owls, moose and any other forest inhabitants. A little walk over a frozen snow covered bog and then to a river where beavers are to be found.

We can hear one munching away on a tree and see the dams and tree stomps it has left so we decide to wait it out and sit down on the river bank, which is soon drenched with the warm light from the setting sun. Just as we are leaving I see the tip of a beaver head and a tree branch disappearing into its nest. On the way driving back on the forest road we finally spot a ural owl perched on top of a tree. It was getting dark now but enough light still to see it as a silhouette against the sky and with the new moon next to it. It was a nice ending to our day out.

My last day in Estonia, I wake up to a beautiful pink blue sky over the lake outside my window as the sun is rising. I will spend the last few hours before leaving for the airport in Tallinn in the wild boar hide. The wild boars are not likely to be there any longer, they mostly appear in the evening but roe deers are likely to visit. Jan takes me there on the snowmobile and I have just about set up my camera when the first one shows.

I have seen many roe deers in Sweden before but always from a distance, in a field or just seeing a white rump patch disappearing into the forest. To see them this close up, they look like some creatures out of a fairy tale. After a while the sun finds its way in through the thin birch trees and make the scene even more magical.

I say farewell to the roe deers, birds and all the other animals hiding in the forest. It is time for me to leave Estonia. Many thanks to Estonian Nature Tours and everyone involved in this trip. It was a wonderful week and I hope to return soon.

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Eagles in Estonia - by Ann Dahlberg

March 21st, 2013 Posted in Eastern Europe | 7 Comments » |

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Winter is still holding a tight grip on Estonia and I am prepared for -25 degrees with many layers on. I have been invited by Estonian Nature Tours to South Eastern Estonia to experience and photograph White-tailed Eagles together with English Photographer Luke Massey. We are picked up on a snowmobile at Ilmatsalu motel at 5.30 am by local guide and owner of the hide Jan. The first morning light is not far and the ravens are already waiting for us at the hide. All settled inside, the heating is welcome and the long wait begins, peering out the small window. Waiting, looking, waiting. No sign of any life, not even ravens. Had we scared them off by coming too late and letting them see us entering the hide? Then this would be a long day. Finally some ravens arrive, but only a few and they don’t stay for long.

At around noon a well welcomed fox arrives, its red fur stands out beautifully in the white snow. It feeds a bit but unfortunately doesn’t stay for long. The wait continues but now with higher spirits after the fox has given us hope for more excitement. We were almost dozed off when I just checked my viewfinder and there it was - a white tailed eagle! I am instantly wide awake and ready by the camera. Just carefully watching it at first while it is feeding.

Soon after it is joined by a juvenile and then a third one, an adult, however the later two keep their distance, observing the snow covered bog and its action from a tree top. The juvenile makes a quick landing but not near enough to get a piece of the meat and then flies off, joined by the other two. Hoping they would come back soon but there is another wait, another fox passes by but have somewhere else in mind and continues its walk. Just as the sun is setting a couple of eagles come, they make a few attempts of landing and feeding but are mostly watching from the safety of a tree top, where they sit in the pleasantly warm light from the last bit of sun that day. It’s cold as we were packing up, I can’t find my gloves and my hands get stiff and achy just from a few minutes of packing up. We return to the motel and are served a tasty three course dinner. You are well fed in Estonia that’s for sure!

The next morning, we leave for the hide even earlier, just as the first streaks of light show in the horizon, to make sure we arrive before the ravens not to make them suspicious of our hide. It is -15 degrees and the heater is a saviour. The ravens have just started scanning the place and with yesterdays long wait in mind and in the comfort of the heater I doze off for a bit in my sleeping bag and wake up just in time for an eagle landing. It stays in the tree top for about an hour, not hungry enough or not feeling safe enough to hit the food. There is less of the food today and we suspect wolves have been there during the night to feast.

A juvenile shows up and offers a spectacular show as it interacts with the adult. However it soon becomes clear that the adult is looking out for the juvenile when a second adult arrives, the first one fends it off to secure the juvenile gets to finish feeding. To our joy there is more eagle action today compared to yesterday, both more eagles and more action.

It surely is impressive to watch them, the intense eyes and sharp beak being quite frightening while their squeaky sound and a bit clumsy walk is rather amusing. Just as we are packing up for the day a fox makes a quick appearance but then runs off. Jan comes to pick us up on the snowmobile and to put new batteries in his movement camera and to download the images. We can see that foxes visit frequently at night together with wolves and raccoon dogs. And daytime, apart from what we have seen, golden eagle has been showing up but unfortunately that was the day before we came. Back at the hotel, lovely three course dinner again and then ready for bed. The next day Estonian Photographer Remo Savisaar is taking us out for the day to show us around the best spots for landscape photography and if lucky some wildlife.

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Grand Prize Trip to Svalbard - José Luis Rodriguez III

October 8th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

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Svalbard seabirds

In Svalbard, polar bears compete with seabirds in prominence. Their colonies are truly spectacular. Many different species of seabirds were close to the ship during the voyage.

I checked it around Longyearbyen sail with fulmars, which began flying beside the panoramic window of the boat while the Polar Quest expedition leader, Henrik Lovendahl, along with the rest of his teammates, Sue, Annette, Axel and Ronald, welcomed us in the panoramic lounge.

When I listened to him I couldn´t avoid the wishes of taking my camera with autofocus and try these wonderful seabirds which are never tired of flying. But I had to be calm and suppress my whishes at that moment. Then I didn´t know that at the end of the trip I would have taken no less than 1,500 photos of fulmars in flight, with all the lights and all imaginable positions with various telephoto lenses and up to 17-40 a day when the wind made them fly glued to the deck of the ship.

The fulmars always flew by the window of my cabin and they were guilty for several days that I photographed them at 5 am long before the beloved Henrik awaked us by the ship’s public megaphone with his memorable greeting of “good morning good people ” of everyday. Also he announced us everything interesting that we expected for the day after having breakfast.

Of all the colonies of seabirds in Svalbard, the most famous and best known is undoubtedly the colony of Alkefjellet, in which take place the reproduction of several hundred thousand Brunnich’s guillemot. At this time, the sea didn´t allow us to get landed or approach the zodiac, but we could see them very close thanks to the skill of the captain, who approached the ship to an incredible distance. At this time, in late August, many couples of seabirds had already finished their reproduction and vertical rock walls of Alkefjellet were less populated of birds than it would have been desirable.

Breathtaking Svalbard
Svalbard landscapes are really awesome. And as a photographer, at first I wasn´t able to get it into my camera what my eyes were watching. It seemed to me that the photos taken didn´t do justice to that spectacular wild scenery. I decided to opt for the panoramic treatment of those places where the mountain peaks are mixed with glaciers and sea water. And also to include some element of comparison to give an idea of the real proportions and the magnitude of the forms. The zodiac boats helped me to fix it and that´s why they appear in many of my photographs. Even the ship M/S Quest was useful for that purpose. The panoramic treatment is hard work later in the study, but compensates by getting a wider, not as one-sided as those of single frame.

The ship, the M/S Quest, was the ideal boat all the way to a trip to the Arctic with these characteristics. It is convenient and comfortable, very welcoming especially after going out with cold wind and snow. And the food on board … more than enough to get your strength (and even win a kilo), varied and rich, so it was very pleasant to go on time for appointments that Herman announced with great sense of humor over the intercom.

I was struck by the professionalism of all the guides, who knew all the time what a professional photographer needs to take their best shots.

Like I said before, this trip to the Arctic with Polar Quest and Wild Wonders will be indelible in my memory until the end of my days.

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Grand Prize Trip to Svalbard II - José Luis Rodriguez

October 8th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

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Encounters with other wildlife

Walruses are very clumsy on land but in the water they operate with great agility. This way they demonstrated us in 2 of the 4 colonies we saw, in both cases they came to the zodiac and swam for a while proximally to us, appearing and disappearing from the surface of the sea as they wanted.

Not easy to photograph, partly for their unpredictable and constant movements and partly by the incessant fluctuations of the zodiac in a sea that wasn´t calm. We saw many walruses on the island of Moffen, in Phippsoya and in Barentsoya, but the most numerous colony of walruses was in Storoya, installed on the rocks of the shore. There was no way of putting it entirely in the viewfinder of my camera, so I decided to take a panoramic image of various frames. It was definitely a good choice, because once mounted the image in my studio, the result was very close to what I saw with my own eyes.

The seals
With a gentle aspect and sympathetic expression, seals were absent for most of the trip. Probably, August is not the best month to see seals in Svalbard, mainly because the ice sheet is very distant and seals tend to move with it. However, we had a very memorable encounter with a group of common seal at the coast of Amsterdamoya after visiting the remains of Smeerenburg. Adults and young seals resting on the rocks near the shore and both allowed us to take lots of photographs from the zodiac.

In Raudfjorden, approaching the zodiac to a glacier had a fleeting encounter with one bearded seal resting on a detached block of glacier ice.

Very small reindeer
Absent from the meadows of moss around Longyearbyen (where we were assured that they were daily), the Svalbard reindeer didn´t appeared till the seventh day, although we had a fleeting encounter with a very big male during the landing we made in Krossfjorden. And it was in Rindedalen where we photographed a group of three reindeers with some comfort and an acceptable distance for 600 mm telephoto. The landscape of Arctic tundra where they were was so spectacular that I quickly opted for a smaller optical that allowed me to include these animals in their natural habitat.

That same day, in the afternoon, in the tundra of Sundneset we approached others Svalbard reindeer grazing peacefully on a hillside, just as a light snow began to fall down.

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Grand Prize Trip to Svalbard I - José Luis Rodriguez

October 8th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

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Polar bear encounters

Polar bears are totemic animals for me and I never thought I could have a polar bear face to face, just 20 meters away, and also showing himself for my camera. The journey started on the M/S Quest on August 15 in the afternoon, leaving Longyearbyen to take northwestward through the spectacular fjord Forlandsundet. Bears took three days to appear, but when they did filled all expectations displaying very curious and confident (but who knows what were their intentions really).

The first contact with the bears took place on the island of Phippsoya (Sjuoyane), the northernmost of Svalbard. They were four polar bears which were lying on steep slopes, separated one from each other several hundred meters near a colony of about 100 walruses lying on the beach. We took a lot of photographs of walruses with our feet on the ground, with the guides very careful to the movements of the bears, which stood out for its white colour among the dark rocks of the mountains. Surely, guides thought that bears were sleeping peacefully and allowed us the landing to take photographs.

And just when we were returning to the zodiac, one of the bears stood up and began to walk down, coming close to us. Guides lead us to meet them from the water, and finally we were face to face, just 20 meters away. It was a memorable moment, in which the bear showed his softer side eating algae that waves had deposited in the bank.

The second group of bears we located that day, in the afternoon, when we reached the ice sheet at 81º 10 ‘. Just landed, we were able to shoot from the zodiac a small group of Ivory gulls on a block of ice. The bears were close, a few hundred meters away. They were three, one female and two grwon up cubs. They rested on a large block of ice. That was a magical moment, with a hazy atmosphere and a special light, with the environment I had dreamed of for a meeting with polar bears for months.

The proximity of bears, and especially their features and expressions, induced me to stop looking through the camera to view the scene with my own eyes and be able to record it in my mind in a more real way. It was really a little moment to me, that photo shoot with polar bears in their pure environment and I would have liked to stay with them a few hours, even the next day waiting for some action with them, but a storm was coming and we had to go to the south with no delay.

Next day, in Storoya Island, we saw polar bears again. They were three members which were going around a group of walruses near the bank. Some of the walruses came near to our zodiac, so we took some beautiful photographs. Polar bears were far away, but two of them came to the bank, near to us. We could take many photographs.

Three days after, in Barentsoya, we could see the last three polar bears of this trip, one of them lying on the ground on a high zone in the Rindedalen valley and the other two bears, mother and son, were in a wall of rocks just in the bank of the sea. She wore on her neck a satellite tracking collar with which scientists can track her movements.

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Svalbard with Wild Wonders & Polar Quest XV

September 14th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | 1 Comment » |

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The M/S Stockholm, late afternoon of July 5

The M/S Stockholm, morning of July 6

July 6 & 7 - Sörkapp & Ekmanfjorden
Into the eye of the storm

“A whale!”, with eyes wide open Martin pulls the rudder and tries to move the Stockholm to port. We miss the huge darkgrey head that breaks the crashing waves by only a few meters. For a split second it seems the whale’s eye looks up to the two of us on the bridge - then the mighty creature merges with the dark waters.

Another big wave hits the Stockholm, now form starboard, the whale is no more than an illusion and I have to cling to the rails with all my strength as the ship leans to port again. I glance over to the instruments: 28° - we were at 42° - a new record for the ship and an equally mind-boobling experience as the encounter with that leviathan of a Finn whale.  Since more than 10 hours the Stockholm is fighting gale winds and cross-waves rising up to 5 m in the open waters around Svalbard’s Sörkapp. Hardly anyone is on their feet, most lie down in their cabins, each of us trying to find the best way to fight sea-sickness in these rough conditions.

Miraculously, even at 9bft, Erika and Hanna, our fabulous chefs, manage to set up breakfast in the tiny kitchen! Some sclices of their wonderful ship-made bread helps a lot to fight the waves of sickness rising every now and then.

As there is no chance to follow our plans, Per, Martin & Andreas decided to look for a less stormy place, a fjord or a bay along the southwest coast. But the weather is against us and we venture further north. Waves are constantly crashing at the windows on both sides of the ship and the only beings having a great time soaring the storm at ease are the fulmars. After a few hours of sleep we wake up in Ekmanfjorden, one of the northernmost smaller fjords of Isfjord, just north of Longyearbyen.

The steep mountain slopes and hilly islands are covered in red soil. Pink-footed geese breed here in the Arctic tundra and fulmars higher up in the cliffs of a massive mountain wall called “colosseum”. We have a farewell picknick on its slope and climb back into the Zodiac for one last time.

Mats Mallmin photographing at the feet of the “Collosseum”.

Since day one, Maria and Andreas had been talking about the obligatory “polar dip” and as this is the last chance to convince ourselves that we deserved ths Arctic adventure to the full, half of us jumps into the mirky waters for a quick swim, a VERY quick swim at 2°C water temperature that is. But a lot of fun and rewarded with some yellowish rather alcoholic water back on deck. Another slide show of images and another fabulous dinner in the beautiful mess of the Stockholm and we go to bed as Per turns the ship back towards Longyearbyen.

This was nothing less but an experience of a lifetime with encounters of wildlife and an awesome scenery that nobody had expected to such extent. My sincere thanks to the team at Polar Quest for spotless planning and organisation, to Andreas Bergström for top-notch guiding and to my fellow passengers for making this trip so enjoyable!

Tusend tack to captain Per Engwall and his beauty, the M/S Stockholm, as well as to an exceptionally nice, helpful and skilled crew and hats off to the gourmet food of our magicians in the kitchen: Erika & Hanna!

CoTravellers on the M/S Stockholm (f.l.t.r.): Candace Wilson (CAN), Maria Nordvall (S), Mark & Elena Sleboda (RUS), Lars & Sonja Härdelin (S), Monica Cole (in the back), Ralph & Marion Stadler (CH) , Mats Mallmin (S), Andreas Bergström (S), Kajsa Gustavsson & Leif Eriksson (S), Pär Edlund (S), Florian Möllers (D, in the back)

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Svalbard with Wild Wonders & Polar Quest XIV

September 14th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | 1 Comment » |

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July 7 & 8 -  Eidembukta, Barentsburg, Longyearbyen
Tundra flowers in the rain & time to go home!

So the Svalbard weather is suddenly making a statement this morning. A grey sky, a stiff wind and the rain blowing in sideways blasts my cheek in a rather impolite way. So the captain decides to hide the ship behind the island Prins Karls Forland. This is making it possible for us to visit a low barren island famous for its’ flowering tundra delights. Flowers in the high arctic are delicate, beautiful and very very small.

The rain annoys me but as soon as lay down on the ground I enjoy the miniature scenery through my macro lens looking at a set of purple saxifrage. I move on to other minute purple and yellow flowers and forget about time and space for a little while. Back on the Zodiac we visit a small bay where a flock of extravagant long-tailed ducks are hiding. Just like Ocean Nova the ducks are avoiding the turbulent weather. I believe it is wet and windy excursions like this that gave a cup of hot chocolate its great reputation. So already when I walk up the gangway from the Zodiac I can feel the cosy smell. Hmm, a cup of hot chocolate is really making the difference when you are soaked and cold.

When cruising into Isfjorden, heading back for Longyearbyen, the sea calms down. A stop at the old mining town Barentsburg, second biggest settlement in Svalbard, just 55 km from Longyearbyen becomes a reality. To my surprise my mobile phone connect to a Russian mobile network when we pull up at the quay. Almost all citizens in town are from Russia or Ukraine employed by Arktikugol. The mining had never been very profitable in Barentsburg but there just might be other more strategic reasons for the Russians to be established and stay put in Svalbard.

Our fun, knowledgeable and enthusiastic crew from Polar Quest, under the wings of Henrik Løvendal, sum up the whole trip through a slide show after our last dinner together. It is a strange paradox when time seems to be flying at the same time as the first day seems so distant and far away. Polar bears are an essential reason for people to visit Svalbard and we got our fair share. 28 polar bears, no more, no less. Even our captain Alexey seems excited and says it is a boat record.

I want to send my grateful thanks to all staff onboard Ocean Nova and special thanks to Henrik, Sue, Linnéa, David, Eagle-eye Henrik, Heiko and happy Elke. All Polar Quest’s guides really make a difference. It is sad to leave. But it is also great to come back. Hopefully I am diving in the waters of Svalbard next summer. So from one who has been there, surrounded by jagged peaks, smelling the breath of a male walrus, watching a polar bear nursing her young or walking on the vast pack ice. From one who enjoyed the minke whale’s blow in the high Arctic scenery and one that got knocked out of his socks by the dynamic bird colonies. Take my advice and visit this wild place and who knows maybe you will see a Swedish snorkeler in a red dry suit in one of the bays you visit.

See you there!
Best fishes from Magnus Lundgren/Wild Wonders of Europe

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Svalbard with Wild Wonders & Polar Quest XIII

September 12th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

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July 5 - Lamoteøya, Martinodden & Boltodden
What a a day…

“Get ready guys, he will leave the water and just after that he will shake! Get ready!” I keep hearing myself repeating that to Mats & Pär as the Zodiac glides a little closer. We are still some 70m away from the rocks. The bear glances over to us then climbs up the slippery boulders. I check the 5D’s camera settings one last time - Al Servo, f8 and 1/1600 s - and start shooting as the bear stands still. Two seconds later water flies in all directions.

I hear cameras firing left and right of me - good, another three seconds later the bear moves higher up in the rocks, seemingly little impressed by our paparazzi behaviour. I look around in the boat: thumbs up from Mats & Pär, big smiles everywhere - that was so cool!

And what a day this had been anyway, an Arctic galore. Incredibly calm waters again, just before midnight when the Stockholm steered through the “Snakehole”, a narrow passage between Barentsøya in the South and the Spitsbergen mainland in the Northwest, later opening into the majestic Storfjord.

Walruses and Bearded seals decorated our passage through drifting ice floes that looked as if someone cut geometrical forms out of a big ice sheet. Just before we reach our anchoring place for the night, a mother Polar bear with two cubs was sighted on a rocky island. Soon after that a big male - on the same piece of land. Those who woke up entered the Zodiac and we tried to get a little closer. The she-bear was raiding nests of Arctic terns and guillemots that bred on a slope, whilst her cubs had problems manouevering through the rocks. All in a sudden the male got too close for comfort and in one moment there was nothing but a slope of large rounded rocks separating the two parties. The mother took a quick decision and ordered the cubs to run for safety with her.

We turned back to the Stockholm, paid a visit to a sleepy Bearded seal on the way and woke up a few hours later in bright sunshine. Back into the Zodiacs again: next stop - an island with “lush” vegetation by Arctic measures.

On our way we encounter a huge male walrus that didn’t give a thing about our presence - again, from a photographer’s point of view: we should have stayed for hours with this guy! But then we would have missed Pink-footed geese that had been breeding here, Barnacle geese that still sat on their eggs in the cliffs, and our first King eiders that decorated a pond together with a Grey phalarope and a pair of beautiful Long-tailed ducks…a little paradise. After this wonderful stroll, Per, our captain, directs us to the Polar bear that later shook off the water from his fur.

And now it’s only noon and to celebrate the return of the sun, Erika and Hanna, our exceptional chef and sous-chef, have prepared lunch on deck: warm Swedish “punsch” with pea soup, ejejej!!!, pancakes with thick cream and raspberry confiture, ship-baked bread, oh Lord…The crew joins us, everyone is sitting in the sun, endulged in the great food, chatting, pondering, laughing. Hard to believe that this is almost 80° North. Had there been palm trees and sandy beaches the passage through Storfjord could have easily been in the Carribean: blue water, blue sky, a pdo of three belugas, Northern fulmars, some Harp seals in the distance…simply amazing.

Some clouds cover the sun as we reach Boltodden with its strange shaped stone formations that remind me of “The Giant Causeway” in Northern Ireland. From atop Kvalhovden we spot yet another Polar bear. However, this seems to have committed suicide, lying at the bottom of the cliff, obviously dead. Maybe the spectacular view across Edgeøya and to Spitsbergen mainland was just too much for his sensible predator soul to take in? We hardly believe our eyes when it suddenly rolls around into an even more awkward position and snoozes on. The 2nd thing hard to believe is the campfire that is lit up a few hundred meters down the shore: “Our little Thursday barbecue”, Andreas announces. No way! And “little” is really not what awaits us upon our return: the whole crew and those of us who stayed behind have lined up a fully fledged M/S Stockholm catering service on the beach!
What a day, what a bloody good day with the wild wonders of Europe and exceptional people alike.

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Svalbard with Wild Wonders & Polar Quest XII

September 10th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

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July 06- Hamiltonbukta, Danskøya and Amsterdamøya
Top notch in Hamiltonbukta

I had good mornings and I had great mornings in Svalbard and then I had the Hamiltonbukta morning which played in it’s own league. So even with the flying start spotting at a big male polar bear slugging its way on a snowy hillside. A bear on a mission, going somewhere leaving us behind as it walked over a ridge and disappeared abruptly. Or even if the panoramic view of the glacier from a small viewpoint during a spontaneous landing was as stunning as it can possibly get.

And even if the whole morning continued with surprises among the blue ice in the glacier basin like black guillemots letting us approach within a few meters, Arctic terns posing on glasslike ice sculptures, gulls and kittiwakes flying along the mighty blue ice walls and an alert bearded seal taking off for from it’s favourite ice floe.

And even everything else I forgot about from this morning… it is when that polar bear shows up from nowhere on the island in front of our zodiac that was most special. As curious as a young polar bear can be it walks straight down to the waterfront where our rubber boat was drifting slowly in the wind close to shore. All of a sudden a polar bear is very very close.

The bear walks back and forth along the water edge looking around for anything edible in the sea. The wind take us even a bit closer and the bear freeze and stare bluntly at me in a way only wild furry carnivorous animals can stare. A glance that is both curious and bored and at the same time it says “if you give me an opportunity…”.

This is those 60 seconds of wild gaze that is my most fascinating souvenir to bring with me home from Svalbard. The polar bear’s dominant role in the Arctic, their rough and challenging life in constant search for food was all of a sudden crystal clear in my mind.

The morning turned into a gloomy, windy and rainy afternoon with a general theme of human polar exploring history. First we visit Virgohamna, where the Swedish engineer Andrée started his epic ballooning trip to the North Pole 1897. Or “attempt” is maybe a better word. Our guide David told us the ill-fated story of Andrée’s attempt while we were standing just where the hydrogen balloon “the eagle” was anchored to the ground before take off It all seemed like an endeavour doomed to fail from the start, and it was just like Andrée knew it himself, but he was not man enough to back out for different reasons. Next historical stop, not far away from Virgohamna, is Smeerenburg situated on Amsterdamøya. Smeerenburg was a Dutch and Danish whaling hub in the early 17th century. The size and significance of Smeerenburg have always been wildly exaggerated in modern history including stories of shops, churches, gambling dens and even brothels. In reality fifteen ships and 400 men was working in Smeerenburg in its heyday in the 1630s. There were no churches or shops, and pretty soon there were no whales either but there seems to have been a single fort with two guns. It made me happy to see four living walruses on the beach reclaiming the place as a haul out site.

That evening the weather changed unbelievably quick into a surreal bright sunny late night at the same time as Ocean Nova entered into the most photographed place of all in Svalbard: Magdalenefjorden is an eight kilometers long fjord surrounded by jagged mountains and the fjord big is big enough to let real cruise ships come into the fjord. I was knackered and left the sweet postcard scenery behind to dream about white fluffy things.

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Svalbard with Wild Wonders & Polar Quest XI.5

September 9th, 2012 Posted in Northern Europe, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

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July 05 - Sjuøyane & the pack ice
The pack ice

The sea is rough this morning but as our ship sneaks into the bay of Phippsøya, one of the Sjuøyane in the far north, we find the needed shelter to make another landing cruise possible. We head for the beach where a small group of walruses are waiting for us surrounded by spectacular snowy peaks.

A nervous flock of common eiders move away as we run ashore. It is a wild place and to my great surprise we find a small metal hut looking like a “can of sardines” behind the beach.

Scanning the hillsides in my binoculars I clearly make out tracks in the snow from a polar bear leading towards the beach. Returning to the ship I stare down into the sea from the Zodiac and as an underwater photographer in my heart I can’t avoid scouting, accessing, weighing pros and cons just like an opportunistic predator for images. I see the bottom very well (hmm clear water - check), actually it is a white sandy bottom down there (good reflector - check), many kelp patches and numerous bivalves are clearly visible (marine life and food - check) and a group of walruses show up swimming at the surface (fantastic and approachable subjects – double check). This bay must be a good place to dive with walruses, and I hope I will find myself in a dry suit, diving in this bay next summer.

Our big mission for the day was to find and explore the mighty pack ice further north. So we leave Sjuøyane and it is afternoonish when we reach the famous crystal ice edge. Up in the warm and cosy panorama lounge sipping on a good cup of coffee I enjoy our slow approach of one of the earth’s most harsh environments. I get a emotional by the fact of being at the edge of the frozen ice cap of the Arctic Sea, which is stretching all the way to the North Pole and beyond from here. Ocean Nova cruises slowly along the ice edge and we spot two stocky polar bears, maybe it is the mother and her grown up teenager kid, out on the ice floe in front of us. A dazzling sighting and for an hour we watch two large polar bears interact with each other surrounded by a vast world of ice. It was just like it is supposed to be.

That afternoon and evening we continue to explore the ice edge enjoying a wild ice platform, spotting several other bears, seals and birds like northern fulmars, black guillemots and ivory gulls. The pack ice was a big day for me making me feel very fortunate, though I couldn’t ignore the sad fact that this habitat, the realm of the polar bear, is decreasing every day.

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