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Cruise Day 1 - whales, walruses and seals

I slept surprisingly well last night, the warmth, with the gentle swaying of the ship and the noise of the engine. I wake up at 05:30, and get up a little later, sitting out in the little lounge area just outside our cabin to get my journal up together.

Breakfast is a self-serve buffet, and we wander around the ship on various levels after that. It is considerably colder than yesterday, with a low mist hanging heavily over the distant mountains. There is also a very slight drizzle.



Someone shouts 'whale' and we all gather around outside to see. A few breaches later and he's gone – a young (maybe 5-6 years old) humpback whale. I am struggling to manoeuvre Big Bertha (my 600mm lens), even on a tripod, but I do manage to get a few photos before the whale disappears.




Someone has spotted a walrus mum and her sub-adult cub on an ice floe, but by the time we get close enough to take photos, they both jump in the ocean and out of sight.

Svein and Vide lower one of the Zodiacs to go out on a recce to see what is about. They come back with reports of a walrus carcass, and spoke to some people on another boat who spent several hours last night watching a polar bear eat from the walrus remains. They haven't seen the bear for around ten hours, however.

Vide and Svein checking out the surroundings

Svein makes a plan: lunch at 12:30, and Zodiac trip with landing at 13:15 to first go and see the large walrus colony, then pop by the dead walrus to see if the polar bear has returned.

Lunch is self-serve, which suits me fine, as I really don't want too much to eat. It's pasta with a lovely – and slightly spicy – creamy chicken sauce.

Zodiac trip no 1

This is what I have been concerned about: getting in and out of the small inflatable boat. There are several people helping, and I make it down the steep steps fairly easily. I am really scared to step onto the inflated part of the boat, but both Svein and a member of the crew are there to help and reassure me.


I'm in, without any incident. Many passengers have brought their long prime lenses (400mm, 500mm, and 600mm) on this excursion, but as I am not going to go ashore, I just take my 100-400mm lens with a 1.4x attached. Big Bertha would be too heavy and unwieldy to use while bobbing up and down in a small boat.

Walrus Colony at Amsterdamøya


I decide that I do not want to do the landing, for several reasons: the problem of getting in and out of the Zodiac, it is a wet landing and my walking boots, while being completely waterproof, do not have very high sides. The actual walking would not be a problem for me, but the standing around would, as well as the fact that I cannot kneel or lie on the ground to take photos.



After leaving the others on the beach, Svein very kindly does a drive-by on the inflatable for me while the rest slowly approach the colony on foot. I get a good view from the water too, plus the added benefit that I can get close to the walruses that are swimming in the sea.



What we see today is a colony of around 30-40 males. They have a total lack of need for personal space, lying on top of each other, urinating straight up, and rolling around in each other's faecal matter.



The main function of the enormous tusks is to help the walrus move about on land. In other words: they are giant ice axes!



The drizzle comes and goes, and for a while, I take photos straight into the rain, and after just a couple of shots, the front element of the lens is covered in lots of fine droplets. I spend almost as much time wiping the rain off the lens as I do taking photos.

It's time to leave the walruses behind and see what else nature has to offer us today. Svein and I go back to pick up the others. The tide has since gone down a little, and the landing area is now very shallow, making it difficult to cast off. Svein orders Jeanette to jump off and help push the dinghy out. She has no success. Svein himself gets out, and he too is unable to get the Zodiac off the beach. Jeanette, Jose, and Peter all jump out, and between them, they have some success. The two lads get back on board, and Svein joins Jeanette for a last push. The water is now quite deep, so when both Svein and Jeanette get back in, they end up ungracefully rolling into the small craft. Jeanette is soaked through, her boots filled with water.

Harbour Seals - Virgohamna


We head for the place where the half-eaten walrus is, and while the carcass is still there, there is no sign of the polar bear. The bay is known for its large colony of harbour seals, but Svein thinks the polar bears will have scared them off, as there are only two brave souls left. This is the most northerly colony of harbour seals in Europe. It is fun watching them bounce on the rocks, almost as if they are a rubber ball – with very little agility, this is what they do when they want to move.





Trying to get that low-level shot

Two hours after leaving the mothership, we return to base, cold and wet, but happy, with many images on the memory cards. The swell is slightly higher now than when we set out, and Svein warns that it could be difficult getting out. My heart sinks. I am last out, but after a couple of abandoned attempts and a little bit of a panic, I manage to make it from the zodiac floor, to the yellow box, onto the side, and then the platform. Climbing the steps is not too bad, and the crew is very kind, looking after me all the way. By the time I reach the top, I receive a warm round of applause.

After changing out of our wet clothes, we join most of the other passengers in the mess, writing up my blog and backing up my photos, while many of the others also edit their pictures. All this fresh air and excitement has made us all very sleepy. David goes back to the cabin for a siesta, but I would prefer to stay awake in order to be able to sleep better tonight.

I am a Walrus

At 17:00, Vide gives a fascinating slide presentation on walruses. He has a commanding voice and presence, an incredible English accent and vocabulary (he grew up between Norway and Sweden, has lived in Australia and USA, and his partner of 15 years is Australian), and imparts many interesting facts about these large animals, which I have to admit that I knew very little about beforehand.


The waves are bigger now that we are continuing further north along the east coast, and the swells are making it quite difficult to walk. Yet again David returns to catch up on zzzz, while I continue with the blog.


As per Swedish tradition, we have pea soup and pancakes today, accompanied by a small glass of a sweet, hot alcoholic drink known as punch. Apparently, at least 25% of Swedes will be eating this every Thursday. I love both pea soup and pancakes so that suits me fine. We are a bit thin on the ground this evening, David has not come back up from his sleep, so Ellen (one of the crew who works on kitchen/serving/cleaning duties) goes down to knock him up (so to speak). Neither Svein nor Jeanette is here, and Deepak is missing (I learn later that he suffered from seasickness).

The plan for the next 12 hours or so (crossing the 80° latitude on the way), is to continue until we get to the north of the archipelago, then turn east for a while, and then south again into a channel between two islands. Depending on the wind, we may or may not stop at a bird cliff with thousands of guillemots half way down the channel. As this would be around 04:30, we go straight to bed after dinner to make sure we can get some decent sleep.

Towards the end of the dinner, David starts feeling a little nauseous, which quickly gets worse and worse. While I sort out all the stuff in the cabin, he goes back up again to fetch my camera which I left behind on a table in the mess. He is sick on the way back (in the toilet, I hasten to add), and by the time he returns to our room, he is feeling much better.

We settle into the bunks, hoping the voyage won't be too rough. The gentle swaying sends me to sleep fairly quickly.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for making this dream a reality.


Posted by Grete Howard 11:11 Archived in Svalbard Tagged zodiac cruise norway photography whale svalbard seals seasickness harbour_seals walrus origo ms_origo spitzbergen big_birtha walrus_colony walrus_carcass amsterdamøya virgohamna ships_mess walrus_presentation

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Sorry to hear David was seasick - it does sound a little choppy! But those walrus shots are amazing 😮

by ToonSarah

yep seasickness is the one thing I am always scared of when going on a boat, but I must admit that I loved seeing your pictures of the walrus, they are AMAZING!!!!

by Ils1976

Thanks Sarah, David wasn't too bad and it didn't really spoil his enjoyment.

Thank you so much Ils, it was such an amazing experience.

by Grete Howard

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