Mountains and icebergs reflected in Monaco Bay in Svalbard

Arctic Adventure In The Svalbard Islands

I would like to welcome Lauri Novak as a guest blogger on the site. In this article, Lauri will tell us about her expedition to the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. This is just a great story accompanied by some fabulous images and I hope Lauri will write more for us in the future.

A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

What do you do when your mentor is telling you about this amazing, once in a lifetime adventure he’s going on when he says, “you should go!”?  If you’re me, you immediately start looking at the dates, air fare and if it’s at all possible to make it happen. Then you make it happen.

That’s how it all started, me going to the Arctic on a scientific explorer ship for a photography symposium. Up until then I had never heard of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Situated north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.  I highly recommend it!

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov unloading tourist for an expedition in Svalbard

Akademik Sergey Vavilov on an expedition with One Ocean Expeditions

About the Expedition

The Spitsbergen Encounter is a 10 day tour of Svalbard through One Ocean Expeditions on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a ship built specifically for scientific research and exploration but outfitted to accommodate 96 passengers on tours of the polar regions.  This is only one of the adventures they offer. The staff and crew were highly trained and informative, with safety being their number one priority. There were 4 professional photographers on board, along with an artist, a biologist, a geologist, naturalists, an ornithologist, historian, and guides to answer pretty much any question you had about anything!

Right off the bat the Expedition leader, along with input from the Captain decided to change our course. They really did everything in their power to take us to areas where we might see polar bears. By watching the ice charts they could gauge where the best places for fast ice (ice still attached to land) might be. This is where the polar bears tend to hang out. There are, of course, no guarantees to see anything.  It’s wildlife, it’s nature and in the end you are at their mercy. You can see our route map and all of our stops here.  

One Ocean Expeditions Spitsbergen Svalbard Encounter Route Map

All but two of the days we were able to go out on excursions using zodiacs. The photographer guests on the trip were able to be in a zodiac with one of the professional photographers on every outing. What an amazing opportunity to shoot next to some of the world’s top wildlife photographers. The ability to ask questions, listen to them explain the best ways to shoot, and watching them do what they do for a living was an invaluable experience.

Lessons Learned

One very important thing I learned that I did not do nearly enough of?  Ask questions! Any and all questions, ask. I may have come back with a few more top notch images had I asked. Shooting from zodiacs is not easy.  You are moving, the boat is moving, the water is moving, the people around you are moving and more than likely your wildlife subject is moving. Unless this is something you do all the time, find out how to handle it by asking the experts because those are all excuses! The pros get the shots and there aren’t any reasons why any of us shooting next to them shouldn’t have gotten the shots as well. I came back slightly disappointed in some of my not so sharp images because I did not ask questions!

A group of photographers enjoying the scale of the glaciers in Svalbard

At the end of each day was a photographic briefing. The passengers had the opportunity to submit images from the trip for critiques and also to be included in the final trip summary video that was put together. Besides going over a few images we were also given an overview of where we were heading the next day, what we would see and tips on how to shoot at each location. The opportunities to learn did not stop at the professional photographers. Being on a ship with roughly 50 other photographers, you can’t help but to pick up all kinds of information, tips, tricks and of course opinions! (You know, you can’t ride in our zodiac because you shoot Canon, Nikon, etc…all in good fun!)

Photographers in a zodiac taking photos of an iceberg in Monaco Bay, Svalbard

Amazing views!

Photography aside, this was an amazing place to be. Another thing to remember when traveling to places you are not likely to ever go again, be in the moment, put the camera down once in awhile. Several times out on the zodiacs the drivers would cut the engine and we would just sit, listen, watch, and just be where we were, take in the moment and take in the place. To me, that was priceless and while it’s great to have amazing photos it’s also important to have that moment. I said many times on this expedition that even if I hadn’t had my camera with me, it would still have been an amazing experience. Putting down the camera and putting the photography aside on board as well allows for the development of friendships, meeting others from all over the world and sharing the experiences you’ve all had at the end of the day.

The Wildlife

So, what wildlife did we see? Arctic foxes, polar bears, walruses, several types of seals, a few types of whales and reindeer. Oh, and birds! 27 different types of birds!  I had no idea we saw that many types until I pulled up the wildlife list they had given us at the end of the trip!  Do I have images of everything? No. It’s hard to be everywhere at all times!

A polar bear resting on the island of Andoyane Svalbard

Polar Bear at Andoyane Svalbard

Bearded seal in Monaco Bay in Svalbard relaxing on a small iceberg

Bearded Seal

An arctic puffin prepares to take off from the waters of Svalbard.

Arctic Puffin

A snow bunting in the town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

Snow Buntin

Polar bear yawning on the island of Andoyane Svalbard in the Arctic

Just trying to take a nap.

A walrus submerges off the coast of one of the Svalbard islands.

Submerging walrus

Arctic reindeer in Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen Local Reindeer

Plenty of images to still go through, plenty of reading to learn the history and stories of the places we visited, plenty of memories from a once in a lifetime experience – although I am quite ready to go back and do it all again! Even if you’re not a photographer. I heard a few of the non-photogs say that they felt like the crew/staff worked harder to make sure we saw the wildlife and they got more out of the trip than they would have otherwise, all because it was a photography symposium. They even picked up some photography tips! Bonus!

Waves in the arctic seas of Svalbard

Arctic Waves

A flock of kittiwakes in front of an arctic glacier in Svalbard.

A flock of kittiwakes in front of an arctic glacier in Svalbard.

Cruising through the ice in Svalbard, view from the Akademik Sergey Vavilov

Cruising through the ice in Svalbard.

A day at sea in Svalbard.

A day at sea with 24 hour sunlight.

Iceberg at Monaco Svalbad

Iceberg at Monaco Svalbard

Svalbard Camp Mansfield Arctic London

Camp Mansfield at Ny London old mining camp in Svalbard

Camp Mansfield at Ny London

The best summary of this experience is provided in the video we received. Click here to watch it.


I would also like to acknowledge and thank the photographers who shared so much of themselves, their time and talents with each of us. They were always available and more than willing to help each of us.  Daisy Gilardini, Gerhard (Guts) Swanepoel, Ron Clifford (who happens to be my mentor!) and Susanne Weissenburger.

This quote was on the Daily Ocean Notes which were posted on each deck every day.  I thought it quite appropriate! “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover” ~Mark Twain

About the Author

Lauri Novak photographing in Svalbard

Lauri Novak is a fine art photographer with a passion for travel who inspires and challenges photographers and art lovers to see the world around them in a new and unique way.  You can find her work at Lauri Novak Photography.

Comments 7

  1. Pingback: Arctic Adventure Story! – Lauri Novak Photography

  2. Thanks for sharing your adventure Lauri! The photos are amazing !
    This is my favorite part of the blog:

    *You are moving, the boat is moving, the water is moving, the people around you are moving and more than likely your wildlife subject is moving.*

    Had a good laugh :D.

    Note to myself: Ask more questions!

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