Last month I visited Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located about half way between Norway and the Arctic Pole. Until 1925 it was called Spitsbergen and that is what the main island is now named. In winter the temperature is about minus twenty degrees celsius but over the summer months it rises above zero and the pack ice begins to melt; there is twenty four hour daylight. It is wild and beautiful remote and desolate.
About two thousand people live in the town of Longyearbyen and elsewhere on Spitsbergen there is a small mining community at Barentsburg as well as a research station at Ny-Alesund. These are the most northerly human communities on earth.
I spent two weeks on board a Norwegian vessel called the Havsel. It is thirty three metres long with a steel hull and was built for the arctic pack ice. It accommodates twelve passengers and four crew. It carries two steel-hulled ice buster skiffs which can be lowered into the sea to enable access to the pack ice and to land on the islands. The boat was used by the BBC to film the programmes Frozen Planet and The Hunt.
We sailed from Longyearbyen and headed north to find polar bears. A picture of the Havsel is shown below with one of the passengers in the crow's nest on the lookout for bears.
The map of Svalbard below shows the route taken by the Havsel along with the locations where various wildlife species were photographed. The draft of the boat is three metres which ensures that it was able to pass through the Forlandsundet waterway, which separates Prins Karl Forland from Spitsbergen, before heading east. The pack ice soon appeared and along with it the polar bears.
We had over fifty encounter with polar bears, many of which were in the fjord off the island of Nordaustlandet. They are very curious animals and showed absolutely no fear often coming to the side of the boat to see what was going on. The same bear might then be seen later in the day swimming in the ice flow.
They are very strong swimmers and are able to swim for many hours. They are also very agile as indicated in the photo below.
In addition to the bears, there were many encounters with bearded seals and walruses hauled out on the ice; and on the mountain foothills numerous arctic foxes and Svalbard reindeer.
There are many bird species in Svalbard such as kittiwakes, brunnichs guillemots, arctic terns, glaucous gulls and beautiful ivory gulls. It was wonderful to photograph them against backgrounds of glaciers and blue ice.
Some of my photographs are displayed on the Animals/Arctic page of the website and I hope you enjoy looking at them.
I hope to be back in Svalbard before too long!