Polar Bears, Walruses and More in Svalbard

After photographing landscapes and super-cute(!!!) puffins in Iceland, Jon and I made our way over to Svalbard, since we were—relatively speaking—in the neighborhood.

There we met up with mutual friends Colin, Nana and Jenny (listed in order of babysitting-required quotient, from least to lots), where we were fortunate enough to have encounters like this face-to-face with a female polar bear and her adorable cub:

female polar bear and cub, Svalbard
Baby polar bear staring at camera from beneath mommy bear (License image)

This was a particularly unexpected and treasured encounter for a number of reasons.

First, mothers of any species tend to be wary, conservative in their approach to anything that could be deemed a threat to young ones, especially with a juvenile only a few months old, as this cub was.

Second, my understanding is that polar bears tend to have two cubs. It’s quite possible that this female had already lost one cub, so it would be natural to think that she might’ve been extra cautious. She wasn’t.

Next, I wasn’t expecting to see many polar bears. I knew they were around, but my primary mission was to find walruses. I thought to myself: “Self, seeing a polar bear would be nice, but you need to stay focused, and just be happy if you happen to get lucky and meet a friendly Ursus maritimus.”

And finally, this was my first-ever close-up meeting with polar bears. I saw one from a distance when I was in the Canadian Arctic a couple of years ago, but this pair came to fisheye-lens distance.

The cub was playful and surprisingly vocal. It was needy, crying out often, forcing mommy to run back to placate little bear every few minutes. As a result of this experience, I can now do a convincing imitation of an immature polar bear, which augments my existing (and already extensive) repertoire for demanding attention.

What can I say? I’m a quick study.

baby polar bear, Svalbard
Baby bear, standing up to have a look around (License image)
baby polar bear, Svalbard
Side view: Look at the size of that paw! (License image)
baby polar bear on ice, Svalbard
Baby polar bear striking a pose on ice. Irresistibly cute. (License image)

We saw more bears as well. On one occasion, I spotted one in the perfect spot on beautiful ice, with gorgeous light, at just the right distance for our telephoto lenses. Jon and I were about a 10-minute ride away. By the time we got there though, the bear had turned and was sauntering away, giving us an unparalleled view of its big butt.

I'm sure the bear heard our engine and voices, but it never even turned to take a look. How rude. Seriously.

Many of the bears we saw had big, bulky radio collars around their necks. Ones that looked terribly uncomfortable. Ones that made me not want to take photos, except for the scene below. The bear pictured was feeding upon the carcass of a beluga whale, and I managed to take a single photo with the tracking equipment obscured by the angle of the bear’s head.

Polar bear eating beluga whale carcass, Svalbard
Polar bear feasting on beluga whale carcass in Svalbard (License image)

As I mentioned above, my main objective in visiting Svalbard was to photograph walruses, like this one:

Walrus underwater, Svalbard
Young Atlantic walrus in the blue, Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus (License image)

I didn’t get many underwater photos of these pinnipeds. The one above is the best. Jon got more (which I hope he posts soon). I concentrated more on trying to take above-water photos.

This image, for example, reminds me of four old men soaking in a hotspring (温泉に入っているオジさんたち):

four walruses in Svalbard
Title: Four Grizzled Geezers  (License image)

And the next photo is probably my favourite, in aesthetic terms. It’s not all that easy to make walruses look beautiful:

walruses on ice, Svalbard
Walruses on ice, beautiful golden light (License image)

Given the amount of time we spent staring at walruses, we witnessed interesting behaviour as well. Here, for instance, is a walrus demonstrating tusk etiquette…namely, poke first, ask later:

walrus using tusks to poke walrus
Walrus poking another one with his tusks. Ouch. (License image)

And in case you've ever found yourself unable to sleep because you were wondering about this, here is proof positive that walruses get runny noses:

walrus with runny nose, Svalbard
Get a Kleenex! (License image)

…sometimes perhaps, even feeling self-conscious about having been caught mid-drip:

walrus with runny nose, Svalbard
Seriously. Just get a Kleenex. (License image)

To wrap up the walrus shots, here is a gaggle of the tusked pinnipeds, doing what they seem to do best on land…sleep, roll around, argue, fart (usually silently, letting loose a pungent, pervasive, persistent smell I wouldn’t wish on anyone!), pee (like a fountain into the air) and snore (their entire faces flutter, whiskers and all…super funny...though I had to dodge airborne spittle a couple of times).

many walruses on beach, Svalbard
A lot of walruses on the beach, Svalbard (License image)

We saw other stuff as well, like arctic terns (amazing birds that travel from north to south and back every year to spend summer in each hemisphere):

Arctic tern, Sterna paradisaea, Svalbard
Arctic tern overhead, Sterna paradisaea (License image)

Lots of ice:

iceberg, Svalbard
A particularly picturesque block of ice, Svalbard (License image)

Lovable pudgy bearded seals (which, incidentally, are prime prey for polar bears):

Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), Svalbard
Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), aka polar bear snack (License image)

Puffins too!

Puffin, Fratercula arctica, Svalbard
Puffins do excellent impressions of rubber duckies (License image)

And spectacular scenery:

Beautiful Arctic summer evening panorama, Svalbard
Panorama: Gorgeous Arctic summer evening, Svalbard (click image to see bigger version) (License image)

There was a lot more of course. My editing time (and tolerance) is limited though. I’m out the door again in a matter of hours.

I did manage to edit a few more photos. If you want to see them, click over to my Photoshelter gallery.

Finally…a big thanks to Jon, Colin, Nana, and Jenny for a wonderful two weeks, even during the frequent stretches when we were just sitting around waiting for something to happen.

We had such a good time that Jon and I are planning another adventure in Svalbard. Let me know if you’re interested.

In terms of what’s required…You need to be OK being away from civilisation for a couple of weeks: no Internet, no phone, no TV, no radio, no long showers, no laundry, no food delivery, no maid service, no nothing. Patience and endurance are necessary (for dealing with me at the very least), and most of all, you need to be able to play well at close quarters with others, and have fun no matter what curve balls Mother Nature throws.

silhouette group photo, Svalbard
Group photo in golden light of Arctic summer: Jon, Nana, Colin, me, Jenny (left to right) (License image)