Beautiful girls are like polar bears: they’re hard to find, and you try to get as close as you possibly can before they turn their backs and walk away. We saw 13 bears on my trip to Spitsbergen, but there was only one girl for me. Sadly, she was already taken, so I’d better talk about the bears…
I’ve always had high expectations in life, and it’s cost me a fair amount of contentment. However, there is much pleasure to be gained from the unexpected. I went to Kenya to shoot the Big Five and didn’t get a single decent picture of any of them. I went to India to see the tigers and didn’t get a single decent picture of any of them. I went to Spitsbergen and – well, you know the rest, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a great trip. The highlights for me were seeing my very first polar bear (even though he had an ID number painted on him), watching two young reindeer walk up to within two feet of our tour guide and creeping up on a wild ptarmigan with my shipmate and now good friend Eric.
Eric is the first man I’ve ever met in bed – and certainly the first Frenchman. We were given a room to share in our Oslo hotel on the way to Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen, and the first time I saw him was when I went to bed and he was already half asleep. After a groggy exchange of greetings, we both fell asleep and carried on separately with the rest of our schedule. Once we were on board ship, however, we realised that we’d been asked to share a room again. That was handy for Eric, as I was one of the very few French speakers on board, but it was also a huge stroke of luck for me, as he is one of the funniest, most good humoured, entertaining and well travelled guys I’ve ever met. We got on very well from the off, and I translated whatever PA announcements he needed to hear but couldn’t understand. I also did my best to introduce him to other people, just as my friend Craig had done for me in the French Alps a few years ago. The French are generally very good at introducing themselves to the companions of the people they wish to speak to, and I tried to follow the rule myself. That usually just meant turning Eric loose with his smartphone and giving him the chance to play his joker, which was to show everyone all the pictures of himself stroking tiger sharks, cage diving with great whites and taking selfies on his heli-skiing trips with Luc Alphand. “Who is Luc Alphand?” I hear you ask. Good question. I said the same thing the first time I heard his name, and Eric wasn’t very impressed. Apparently, he’s a double world skiing champion and a winner of the Paris-Dakkar rally, but he’s obviously much better known in France than elsewhere, so it soon became a running joke…
There was a fair bit to learn about the ship when we first arrived, which involved various safety briefings, crew introductions and even a lifeboat drill.
We also learned an interesting historical tidbit. The ship was apparently named after the Russian physicist Akademik Sergey Vavilov, but we were told that the hydrophones on the vessel meant that it was almost certainly a spy ship used for submarine detection during the Cold War. It was certainly a comfortable ride, and we barely had the feeling we were moving most of the time. Eric and I stuck together through all the briefings. Over the course of the trip, in fact, we were so often seen together that one of the guides called us Knoll and Tott – two brothers in a Swedish cartoon who perform all kinds of mischief and will do anything to escape a spanking! We didn’t do too much wrong, apart from leaving the approved trail a few times to try and get a better shot, but I feel much more comfortable in the company of one close friend than many acquaintances, so he was definitely one of the unexpected bonuses.
The reason we were both there was to see the polar bears. Eric’s decision was completely spontaneous – someone told him there were white bears up north somewhere and he said, “Where do I sign?” – but I was inspired by a talk given by Paul Goldstein last year in London. Paul is a wildlife photographer, and he was such a great speaker that I decided I had to try and find the money to book my place on the cruise. It wasn’t cheap, but, thankfully, a six-week tutoring job in Hong Kong came up at just the right time! What particularly appealed to me was the laser-like focus on the photographic opportunities. As Paul told us, “This is not a cruise ship. We are not bound by the unholy trinity of shuffleboard, bingo and shopping.” Sadly, there were far too many rules and regulations in practice about getting close to the bears, and we were made to feel like naughty schoolboys when we dared to get a bit closer to the wildlife, but we did get a couple of announcements in the early hours after the spotters on the bridge had seen something worthwhile. One day, we were woken up at 0649 by news of a pod of whales up ahead. By 0700, I’d missed them all!
The first three days of our two-week cruise were a little dull, as we had to go round the island of Spitsbergen to reach the sea ice, which was all on the eastern side due to the presence of the jet stream on the west coast. That was our best chance of sighting a polar bear, because they don’t actually hunt in the water – even though they can swim up to 800km using a kind of ursine doggy-paddle. In fact, they use their highly developed sense of smell to track down the breathing holes of seals and then wait for an average of 45 minutes until one pops up for air. Given all this waiting around, you can imagine that they get very frustrated when the prey gets away, and one cameraman famously discovered that for himself when he locked himself inside a cage and teased a rather hungry one. Don’t poke the bear…
However, as we sauntered along at our standard cruising speed of less than five knots, one of the eagle-eyed spotters struck gold. There on the icy shore was a male polar bear, sauntering along in time with the ship. The captain immediately backed us in as close as he dared – which was obviously just outside the range of my 500mm lens! – and we took approximately 100,000 pictures between us. It was a fantastic moment to see my very first polar bear – I’d never even seen one in a zoo – but it was somewhat ruined when we saw that he had the number 55 stencilled on his backside. I understand the need for scientific research, but there’s surely a better way of monitoring the animals than reminding everyone of man’s influence in such an ugly and unnatural fashion.
If that polar bear sighting was the most exciting, it wasn’t the best. For most people, that came when we spotted a mother and two baby cubs, who proceeded to put on a tremendously anthropomorphic show for the audience rammed like sardines in the bows of the ship. At one point, one of the cubs even stood up and waved a paw at us! Sadly, all the action was again just a bit too far away for me to get at with my equipment, and I didn’t even realise the cubs were there until I heard a burst of motor drives that was a dead giveaway that I was looking in the wrong direction! Happily, the polar bears settled into an almost predictable routine of one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so everyone had a chance to hone their camerawork and capture the shots of a lifetime.
My pictures were no better than average, but I’ve learned not to put all my eggs in one basket with these trips, and I was soon richly rewarded by a couple of close encounters. The first came when we made one of our regular excursions by Zodiac. The Zodiac is a kind of inflatable or rib designed specifically by Jacques Cousteau for his own exploration and research. It seats 10 passengers comfortably (plus the driver), and the only problem with them comes with a choppy sea, when the people near the bow have to take all the inevitable gouts of spume and spray in their faces. (When Paul said, “Any photograph is elevated by the Holy Trinity: dust, air and spume,” I’m sure that’s not what he had in mind!)
We did a few seaborne excursions, but this one involved a landing. I quickly gained a reputation for lying down on the beach to get the perfect shot of the anchors in the sand – Eric thought I might be dead! – but there were plenty of things to see once we walked inland. The highlight was the pair of reindeer calves that we spotted on the hillside in the distance. Reindeer don’t really have any predators – apart from a few hungry polar bears that they can easily outrun – so they have ended up being very curious animals. When Paul lay down with his camera and tripod to capture a few shots, I immediately circled around behind him to try and foreshorten the distance between him and his targets. From a spot about ten yards behind him, I watched as the reindeer got closer and closer and closer – so close, in fact, that Paul had to swap to a shorter lens. They ended up only a couple of feet away from him, and the rest of us were busy frantically trying to capture the moment.
We went on a few more Zodiac cruises to see ice cliffs, sea ice, a walrus haul-out and more kittiwakes and guillemots than you could shake a stick at, and I particularly enjoyed capturing the relationship between humans and animals, the watchers and the watched. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Me, that’s who.
The best moment of these excursions came when Paul spotted a pair of ptarmigan as we walked across the snowy hillside. We saw the male walking along, we saw him flying away and then we finally saw him perched on a boulder, conveniently positioned just on the ridgeline. There were about eight of us in our group, and we slowly edged closer. The bird was facing left, so I moved out that way to try to get a better shot of his face turned towards me, but Eric went the other way – you never know what to expect from the French, as every rugby fan will tell you – and was soon rewarded. Eric sometimes made a virtue of necessity when it came to his stumbling English by saying, “I don’t understand” when it was most convenient. This was such a moment, when he ignored Paul’s warnings and closed to a spot only a couple of feet behind the ptarmigan. This was extraordinary! I was one side, he was the other, and we were taking photographs of each other with the bird in the foreground! Glorious!
I should perhaps round this story out by talking about what went on when we weren’t out in the boats or stalking a bear. There were lots of these moments, as you might imagine, and they could so easily have led to a huge drop in morale – there are only so many all-you-can-eat buffets you can sit through without any animals to talk about – but we had the advantage of being in the presence of two or three key members of staff. Paul was obviously the dominant figure. He was once described as being like Marmite – “You either love him or you hate him” – but he was endlessly reliable in lifting the mood with a joke or anecdote. He has the most incredible memory for names, faces and stories, and most of his tales involved people on the boat who had been with him on safari in Africa or hunting for jaguar with him in South America. He was the reason I went on the trip in the first place, and I guess about half of the passengers had been on one of his tours before. The other ‘experts’ included JoAnne Simerson (the only Heather Locklear lookalike polar bear researcher and zookeeper I know), Dr Ian Stirling (a world expert on polar bear behaviour) and Mark Carwardine (a zoologist and wildlife photographer best known for going round the world first with Douglas Adams and then Stephen Fry to make the TV series Last Chance to See. They were all very approachable, and Mark was particularly impressive when he gave a hilarious presentation on his experiences with Stephen Fry.
Mark and Paul are old friends, but that didn’t stop them having a go at each other at every opportunity. They have very different styles of picture-taking, and the ‘slow pan’ was a regular bone of contention. Paul introduced this technique to us as a way of broadening our horizons and giving us a way to get great pictures of birds, but it’s a very tricky one to master. You have to select a slow shutter speed of 1/30 or 1/60 of a second and then follow a bird in the viewfinder, taking pictures as it flies past. The benefit of the slow shutter speed is that the wings blur to give a sense of motion, while the background blurs in interesting and attractive ways (allegedly). The problem is the hit rate. I took 1,504 photos one afternoon in a Zodiac using the slow pan, and I only kept two! As Paul admitted, “A slow pan doesn’t demand anything from your camera, but it demands an awful lot from you.”
Mark was the chairman of the judges for the BBC World Wildlife Photographer of the Year for seven years, and he and Paul did a few sessions on photographic technique, lens and sensor-cleaning, using Lightroom and one even praising (or taking the mickey out of) each other’s photographs, but he came into his own when he and Paul judged the photo contest among the passengers. There were two categories: one a straight ‘best photo’ category, limited to five or six shots per person, and one a ‘humorous’ category with no limit on numbers. There were quite a few funny photos, most of which benefited from an even funnier introduction or commentary from Paul, and I was amused (and pleased) to see that one of Eric’s shots made the ‘funny’ shortlist. It was a photo taken of me lying down in the bow trying to get a photo through the hawse-hole while everyone else was standing up. He also had one in the main listing, which happened to be very similar to one discussed in Mark and Paul’s session, showing three birds with red feet and red mouths squabbling on the cliffs. I returned the favour by having my shot of Eric with the ptarmigan selected for the main shortlist. At that point, I largely gave up hope, as there were too many good photographers with high-quality kit on board for me to finish any higher, but I was wrong! In fourth place was my shot of a glaucous gull catching sight of the ears of an Arctic fox peeping over a snow bank.
Paul praised this shot to the skies, and I had tears in my eyes by the end of his commentary. Nobody’s ever praised anything I’ve done like that before!
It was a nice way to finish. Yes, I was there to see the animals, but my main goal was photography. I wanted to be proud of my images, and it seems I ended up impressing one person at least – even if it wasn’t the right one!
Northern minke whale
Common ringed plover
Little auk (dovekie)