Polar bear on the Arctic pack ice
Polar bears
Walruses
Reindeer
Harbour seal

Glaciers & fjords
Orca
With the Arctic ice melting earlier and freezing later each year, in 2008 I decided to go and look for polar bears before it was too late. In late July, I travelled to Norway's Svalbard - an archipelago of islands that lies between 74° and 81° north -  aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy. An aborted attempt to reach the path of totality of the 1 August solar eclipse left us trapped in the pack ice to the north of Kong Karls Land, where we were lucky enough to have amazing encounters with several polar bears that came to investigate our stranded ship!

An earlier trip in 2002 took me to Tysfjord, around
250km (155 miles) north of the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian mainland, in search of the famous herring-hunting orca. I've included some photos here.
Polar bears
Kong Karl's Land is one of the smallest islands in the Svalbard archipelago, but boasts the highest density of denning female polar bears. Although we didn't see any mothers with cubs here, we had close encounters with five bears (from the safety of the ship of course) and several more were seen a little further away. The polar bear sightings more than compensated for the fact that we didn't see a total solar eclipse - our closest bear was only about 5 metres (16 feet) away. After he had thoroughly inspected the ship and its cargo of humans, he suddenly decided he was exhausted and flopped down astride a pile of nice cool snow for a quick snooze (see below).
Polar bear Polar bear
Polar bear Polar bear
Polar bear on the Arctic pack ice Polar bear
Polar bear Polar bear
Polar bear Polar bear
Polar bear Polar bear
Polar bear reflection Young polar bear

Walruses
This all-male group of walruses was hauled-out at Kap Lee on Edge
Øya, the third largest island in Svalbard. Males and females remain separate except during the breeding season, so these bulls were quite peaceful with no potential mates to fight over. Wildlife protection laws state that you must not approach closer than 30 metres (100 feet) from the walruses but, as usual, there is nothing to stop them moving closer to you if they choose. There were several animals in the water that seemed quite entertained by us, and they curiously approached us as we stood on the beach. Again, my closest encounter was about 5 metres (16 feet) away, and that was close enough for me. Contrary to popular belief, polar bears are not the largest mammals to be found onshore in the Arctic - male walruses can reach 1900kg (almost 4,200 pounds) whilst the heaviest weight for a polar bear is around 800kg for a male and 'only' 350kg for a female.
Walruses Walruses
Walruses with the 'Akademik Shokalskiy' in the background Walruses
Walruses Walruses
Walruses Walruses
Walrus Walrus
 
Reindeer
The reindeer (or caribou) found on Svalbard have been isolated from other populations for so long that they are classified as a distinct sub-species - the Svalbard reindeer. Their legs are significantly shorter than those of other reindeer, and there is much speculation about why this should be. In other parts of the world where packs of wolves are their main predators, longer legs allow the reindeer to run through deep snow and escape. In Svalbard there are no wolves and little food, so perhaps reindeer that didn't 'waste' scarce nutrients on growing longer legs may have been at an advantage and shorter legs became the norm?
Reindeer mother & calf Reindeer mother & calf
Reindeer stag Reindeer stag
Harbour seal
With so many polar bears around, we saw few seals hauled out. On our last day in Svalbard, some of us decided to pass on another ankle-wrenching walk across a rocky glacier, and instead spent some extra time in one of the Zodiacs. We were joined by this curious young harbor seal, which seemed to have something wrong with one of its eyes. Eye infections are not uncommon amongst seals, but many survive even if the infection causes blindness.
Young harbour seal
Glaciers and fjords
Our search for Arctic mammals took us through beautiful fjords and past amazing glaciers. Without a wide-angle lens, my camera couldn't really do justice to the scenery, but here are a few pictures anyway.
Hornsund fjord, Spitsbergen
Alkefjellet, Spitsbergen Freemundsund, between Barentsoya and Edgeoya
Orca
On my short visit to Tysfjord in 2002, we were not treated to the same blue skies as in Svalbard, so I have resorted to monochrome for these orca photos (as everything was black, white and grey anyway!). The orca only started to visit Tysfjord after huge schools of herring began wintering there in 1987. In 2002, we were told by our scientist-guide that the herring/orca migration might only be a temporary phenomenon and it seems this may be the case. In the past couple of years, both herring and orca have become more scarce in Tysfjord and now the orca are only seen on about 50% of boat trips.

Orca Orca
Orca Orca
 Orca adult & calf  Orcas
Orca
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Last updated 19 October 2008