Catching Up: Norway and the High Arctic

Polar bear surveys its icy domain, Arctic Ocean. ©Rikki Swenson

In late May we flew east to Bergen, Norway, where we joined the National Geographic Explorer for three voyages over 28 days. This was Rikki’s first voyage on the “North Cape” itinerary along the coastal fjords of Norway, to Bear Island, and on to arctic Svalbard. It was a great voyage, visiting many stunning and unusual locations. Jack had done this voyage several times, many years ago, and was delighted by the various new places that the ship now visits, including some wild and little-known fjords. Svalbard also holds a special place in our hearts, as its where we exchanged marriage vows 14 years ago this summer.

Winter's fast ice breaking up in Hornsund, Svalbard. ©Jack Swenson

Once we were up north “in the ice,” we had excellent luck finding polar bears, thanks to the diligent eyes on the bridge constantly scanning the ice. The “old eyes” prevailed, with Jack spotting the first bear every voyage, and many thereafter. [Rikki had been cautioning him about all the staff with younger, expert eyes, so he was very cool when she asked him about the first bear, “Who spotted it?” His reply, “The old eyes.”]

The "old eyes" Jack at 80º North. ©Rikki Swenson

It was early season, and there was still a lot of shore fast ice in the bays and fjords of Svalbard, which meant there was plenty of prime polar bear habitat to scan endlessly with binoculars and spotting scopes. As a result, we found lots of bears. Each of these three voyages had their share of superb bear sightings. We had close up views of a sow with two adorable cubs, and bears with freshly killed seals on the ice. One of the most amazing sightings was our final bear which we found north of the remote Nordaustlandet in the pack ice. We spent several hours watching this lone bear stalking seals. It would wander across broad expanses of drifting ice, searching for seals lying on the ice beside their breathing holes (which also serve as their escape route back into the water). On several occasions the bear found open places in a large floe,

Notches on the ship's bridge for each polar bear sighting. (Some were eating dinner...)

and then proceeded to sneak closer to its prey by submerging and swimming underneath the ice floe. It’s head would then reappear closer to the seal, coming up through soft spots in the ice like the periscope of a submarine, looking around and getting bearings on its prey, then swimming farther under the ice. We all marveled at the bear’s ingenuity, fortitude, and patience as seal after seal kept managing to evade these incredibly stealthy approaches.

Fin whale rising in still waters off west Spitsbergen. ©Rikki Swenson

Sagging Soviet era buildings in Barentsburg. ©Jack Swenson

Our departing charter flight was scheduled late in the day allowing us an extra morning for an unusual outing; a visit to the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg. This is a place that few westerners ever get to see, and it felt like a time warp transporting us back to the era of the Soviet Union. An occasional coal-laden truck rumbled past us on the streets as we marveled at the strange sights.

Many of the scenic views on this itinerary were too enormous to capture with a wide angle lens, which also has the effect of shrinking dramatic mountains as it fits more of them into the frame. So at times I turned to “stitching” multiple images together to create broader panoramic views. Two important tips for shooting a series of photos for stitching via computer. 1) Turn the camera and shoot the images as verticals. This allows more telephoto perspective and can give additional space for cropping at the top and bottom if the images don’t line up perfectly. 2) Shoot all images to be stitched using Manual exposure mode so that all of them are exposed exactly the same. Using automatic exposures (i.e. Auto or Scene modes, Aperture or Shutter Priority mode), the camera will likely change the exposure as the brightness of the scene changes while panning, resulting in the stitched images ultimately not matching in tone. It may be useful to take an initial exposure reading using one of the automatic exposure modes for reference in setting an accurate manual exposure for the series of shots, gauging the brightest and darkest areas of the scene in advance.

Panoramic "stitched" image of mountains in Hornsund, Svalbard. ©Jack Swenson

A few more images from these three northern voyages.

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One Response to Catching Up: Norway and the High Arctic

  1. hedgeend says:

    Rikki and Jack – Thank you for all the wonderful memories that your blog and photographs brought back to me. I’m hooked on expedition travel after travelling with you to Svalbard. Hope to see you again soon! ~Mark Wilson

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