Evies polar bear with tongue out

DAY 2 – To the land of the Ice Bears

“Breakfast whales!

We’re not even out of bed after our first night aboard  Lindblad Expedition’s  National Geographic Explorer when the PA system announces. “Whales!”

We were told the night before to be prepared for middle-of-the-night sightings here in the Arctic north of Longyearbyen, Norway.  “You can sleep any time,” exploration leader Lisa Trotter  had told us the night before. We’ve been instructed to have binoculars, cameras, mittens and hats always at the ready (It’s cold here—just 40 degrees today!)

“Your binoculars should be part of getting dressed,” said CT Ticknor, a photo instructor who lives and teaches in Maui when she is not teaching and guiding on board the Explorer.  “Get up, get dressed and get present,” she says.

Here in the Land of the Ice Bears in the Arctic Svalbard, of course, it never gets dark this time of year—not even twilight—all of the cabins are fitted with black out shades (or course it’s just the opposite in the winter when there’s three months of total darkness).

We are on the largest of Lindblad’s five ships with some 145 passengers, 97 crew and another team of 14 naturalists, photo experts, a videographer who chronicles our trip and even a “wellness expert.”

Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic have partnered to help people experience nature at its best, whether here, in the Galapagos, Alaska, Antarctica, among other places, and improve their photography at the same time.

There is an entire program for children too, including about photography, though this week there are just four kids and teens on board.

There are many serious photographers here — I’ve never seen so many long lenses among non-professionals. But Mike Nolan, one of the National Geographic photo instructors, notes that invariably one of the best shots of the week will be taken with a point-and-shoot camera simply because someone saw something that others missed.

“Your camera,” CT Ticknor says, makes you more mindful of the moment—it helps you see things you might miss. But it is just a tool. Take a few breaths.  Your images are going to be helping you tell that story of your own journey.”

I think how helpful that would be whether you are trying to corral your kids to pose for the family vacation shot or you are standing with a long lens trying to spot a polar bear.

Yes, Just as we sit down for lunch, comes the PA announcement ( I see why they say we should always have jackets, cameras, hats with us).  Everyone rushes up on deck where the staff already has scopes trained on the bear.

“Is it that blob out there?” Debbie Williamson asks her 18-year-old niece Katie. The two are traveling together from New Hampshire to celebrate Kate’s high school graduation.

“Looks like a brown piece of dirt in the ice,” adds Sherry Van Camp, a legal secretary from Tucson AZ.

We see huge footprints in the ice below us and seals lolling in front of the bear who must be pretty well fed because he doesn’t move. We stand, freezing, cameras  and binoculars  trained  on the huge creature but we’re still a few hundred yards away—too far to get a good look without an very long camera lens or binoculars.

No one is complaining about the cold, though. They’ve spent many thousands of dollars and traveled many thousands of miles to be here on this “expedition.”

I’ve never met such a well-traveled crowd who range in age from 9-year-old Evie Plunkett, traveling with her grandparents from Texas to those in their mid eighties. They’ve come from across the country and abroad—Cyprus, Australia, Germany, Israel, for the privilege of seeing Polar Bears and other arctic wildlife and many have traveled on Lindblad National Geographic expeditions before.

That includes families like Lisa and Phil Douglas, who are on their fourth expedition with their son Henry, now 12. Lisa Douglas wishes she’d been more proactive about choosing a trip with more kids on board—as was the case on their other trips—but Henry doesn’t seem to mind.

It’s exciting, he tells me, to spot the wildlife. The itinerary changes depending on the ice and the wildlife.

The ship is Very well appointed—roomy cabins, gracious accommodating staff, big picture windows and plentiful food but it certainly isn’t fancy. That’s not what people are here for.

William and Sarah Plunkett have brought their granddaughter Evie to share their passion for nature; they took her older brother to Africa last year. She chose this trip because polar bears are her favorite animal. “We want to teach her to love travel and appreciate nature—to experience a world so much more than East Texas,” explains Sarah Plunkett.

Bill adds seeing the polar bears and understanding their plight—the melting arctic ice means fewer places for hunting seals they need to eat—will also help Evie to appreciate the dangers of global warning.

Debbie Williamson has done at least four Lindblad Expeditions and this isn’t her 18 year old niece Katie’s first either. When Katie was younger, Williamson found the ship ideal because “you don’t have to worry about chaperoning, the staff is looking out for the kids too and that is very comforting as a chaperone.

Another plus:   “When you spend your life organizing for yourself and your business, it is great that someone has already scoped it out…you don’t feel as if you are going to miss anything. They anticipate everything.”

Katie added you don’t even need to read a guidebook as you go along and can focus on what you are seeing because of all the experts on board—whether you are interested in the wildlife, the geology, the glaciers, and the human history of the archipelago.

“You get used to being told what to do and being appreciated of not having to make any decisions, except what activity to do,” said Debbie.

And that’s what we have to decide now.  We’ve been traveling south  in this astounding Arctic  Archipelago all night along the Western Coast of Spitsbergen Island  and now are making our first landing  in zodiacs to hike on the beach. (Three levels of hikes are offered but they aren’t terribly strenuous—the most difficult is two miles round trip with only 50 feet rise in elevation.

We’re now in Hornsund, the large fjord network that not only is scenic but boasts massive glaciers cascading down to sea level.

We dress as for a day skiing—with one exception—the key piece of equipment is knee-high muck boots that are waterproof on the bottom and neoprene on the top because we will be making “wet” landings and hiking in wet areas. (I rented mine from LEX Gear , a company Lindblad has a partnership with—and they prove the best piece of equipment I’ve brought.

We are just 650 miles from the North Pole. We stop at an old polar bear hunter’s cabin. Today of course polar bear are protected. They are found in just five countries—the USA, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark and haven’t been hunted legally since 1973. There are only 25,000 in the world and they are especially in trouble because of the melting ice. If there isn’t ice, seals won’t be on the ice seeking food and the bears can’t hunt the seals.

We hike up a steep rocky slope. There’s a lot of family action going on, but not only with people. We see Puffins fly overhead, birds and their fuzzy babies and completely forget about the chill and the rocky uphill climb when we spy an Arctic Fox ferrying her kits in her mouth, one at a time from one den, we think, to another across the hillside.

That fox wants to keep her babies safe and happy. Just like us.

Next:  Photography lessons in the Arctic