Flavour of Svalbard

My trip to Svalbard in summer 2010 provided the opportunity to get really close to some of the polar bears there - I've put together a series of short blog posts about some of pictures I took.

1. Bear One

2. Bear Two

3. Bath Time

4. Being Watched

5. Planning a Picture

And if you want more words there is a blog post from 2010, or more pictures there is a set of images on Flickr.

Planning a picture

Just occasionally I manage to visualise a picture long before I get the chance to take it and then actually get to go and do it.   This picture falls into that category. 

I had a mental picture of a group of birds in silhouette flying across a glacier.  The opportunity was on the west coast of Svalbard where we had gone to watch a colony of little auks. 

Little auks build their nests underground, and every now and again a group would race out from under rocks and fly off round the bay, before coming back into the rocks to wait for the next swarm. 

Eventually I found a suitable perch, close to the colony, where the usual flight around the bay would lead the birds across a suitably icey backdrop.  After that it was just a matter of sitting wait for the sunlight to strike the glacier as the birds was coming back into the colony, and then pressing the shutter.

Being Watched

It's nice to be the centre of attention.  We thought we were here to watch the bears. We'd clearly got this bit wrong. The young bears get brought to watch us as a bedtime treat.

We had ventured out in the zodiacs for an evening watch, to see what was going on in the bay.  A mother with a couple of yearling cubs was out at the top of the bay.  The cubs were big enough to be curious about everything around them, but young enough to still need the reassurance that mum was going to be there to keep an eye on them.

As we drifted slowly to the head of the bay the three bears headed in our direction. They headed confidently across the floating ice getting as close as they could to us. Then the cubs just sat down and watched us watching them with mum in the background.  These guys were clearly very happy that this was their turf and we were interesting but temporary attractions.

Eventually mum decided that enough was enough and the cubs were reeled back in to get some sleep.

Bath Time

The zodiac crawls slowly round the headland and into the bay.  We've had a tip off.  There are bears here.  

We creep slowly in, eventually the bears come into view tucked away on the right hand side of the little bay.  They are right on the waters edge - mother and cub looking down onto an old bare whale skeleton.  They see us, we see them. Everyone stops. They try and figure if we are either a threat or a meal. Eventually they decide we are neither and everyone in the boat starts breathing again.

Then the show starts.  The stage is a old whale carcass, blown in on a storm many months ago.  From where we sit it's a bare skeleton, although we can see that the vertebrae are still connected.  From where the bear stands there is still lots of meat on the carcass - although it is underwater.  No problem for a polar bear - its not called ursus maritimus for nothing. 

Mum drops down onto the skeleton then dives under the water before coming up with a mouthful of meat - and soaks junior in the process. He has ventured along the spine too, picking his way tentatively along the vertebrae so he can stay as close to mum as possible. The inevitable happens - he get a little bit too ambitious in his scrambling, and finds out just how warm the arctic water is.

Bear Two

The first bear was seen on day one. The trip's going to be good.  We're ready for more. "We'll cruise the edge of the sea ice for a while, and see if anything turns up."  Sure enough - within a few minutes one of the old hands glances up from her book in the observation lounge, leans forward just to be sure, and cries "Bear, 9 o'clock". She's spotted an adult bear swimming strongly in the water just off the port side of the ship.  The message goes up to the bridge, and the boat heaves to. The next move is up to the bear.  

We're easy for the bear to spot - a 6000 tonne converted Russian spy ship is pretty obvious even when running quietly.  The bear comes in for a look, but decides that we're of limited interest -and certainly not edible - so soon swims away resuming his track towards the edge of the ice.  Lots of years of experience amongst the crew mean that we opt to sit still, in gathering mist, just to see what happens next.  We wait. The bear waits. Time passes.  Eventually the bear moves off inland away from the waters edge to explore a bit further.  We move in a little closer to the ice edge, and stop fast against the ice.  More time passes. The bear eventually decides that we deserve a closer inspection. So he picks himself up from his snooze and wanders towards us.  There's a  sudden cacophony of noise, every camera shutter fires. 

This is the close up chance of the trip. We might never see a bear this close again. He wanders closer and closer.  He follows the leads in the ice around the ship. Are there any of those nice Goretex-wrapped snacks around, so tempting in their bright yellow packaging.   He stands up to get a close look at the folks leaning over the edge - again the barrage of camera shutters. We get a really good look at him, he gets a really good look at us.  If there had been a gangway he'd probably have come aboard. That would probably have resulted in some great photographs, but would have been a problem to resolve.

In the absence of a gangway the bear eventually decided that it was time to stride majestically off over the ice.  He clambers over a nearby pressure ridge in the ice, and suddenly loses his footing, and slumps clumsily down though the ice. He then does exactly what you or I would do in the circumstance, he's looks round to see if anyone has noticed. Or course we had.  There were 100 Nikons or Canons pointed directly at him.  His majestic exit has been rumbled. 

Bear One

"There - just in from the back of the ice." "Where?" "I can't see anything." "I think you're imagining it." "No, really." "The slight creamy blob just to the right of the dark smudge on the ice face." "I think you might be right, good spot!"

The bear spotters dialog. Probably heard on every polar bear spotting trip to Svalbard.  Particularly around Bear One. The first bear of the trip.

Bear One on any Svalbard trip is always a big deal. It sets the tone of the trip. Is this going to be a good trip, or a great one. Did the first bear come early? If it did the trip was going to be a lucky one.

For first timers on the trip, it's always challenging to pick out the first ivory smudge in the far distance. For the old hands, its pretty easy. They've seen bears before. They know what empty ice looks like, and they know if there's a bear around.  Having spotted the bear, the next challenge is to take photographs.  Yes, it's just going to be a faint blob a few pixels across, but it is Bear One.  How many pictures of Bear One do you need? A few more will always be good.

Round the World in 20 days.

Having established that east is best (see previous post), how long would it really take to get round the world mostly by train?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that I'm going to set off eastwards tomorrow - at midday on Monday, 10th September 2012.

I'll catch the 12:01 from Oxford to London Paddington, then cross London to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar at 15:04, I'll be in Brussels just after 18:00, and in Cologne in time for dinner before catching the 22:28 heading eastward towards Moscow.

After a couple of nights and the intervening day, I'll get into Moscow's Byelorruski station at 09:37 on Wednesday morning.  The best direct train to Vladivostok, the Rossiya, runs every other day, so I've given myself the luxury of a static bed and time to have a look around Moscow before heading to Yaroslavski station on Thursday evening for the 23:45 departure and the long haul to Vladivostok, via Perm, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Ulan Ude and finally, after 9258 km, into Vladivostok in time for breakfast on Thursday 20th September. 

I'm going to forego the delights of Vladivostok, and head to the airport to catch the Korean Air flight to Seoul, where I’m going to reward myself with a static night before the overnight "time travel special" from Seoul to Vancouver (AC064) where by the quirks of the International Date Line I'll both depart and arrive on Friday 21st September.  Vancouver is one of my favourite North America cities so I’m going to make the longest stop of the trip and have a two night stop-over, before heading to Pacific Central station in Vancouver in time for the Sunday (23rd) departure of 'The Canadian' at 20:30.

I'm expecting to haul into Toronto station at about 09:30 on the 27th, before catching Train 60 to Montreal, then changing again for Train 14 to Halifax in Nova Scotia. That's another overnight train ride, which gets me into Halifax just after 17:10 on the 28th.  This time there’s not really enough time for sightseeing before I head to airport for the Air Canada (AC860) flight to London which gets me back into London at 09:35 on the 29th September, and I would expect to be back in Oxford by mid-day, about 456 hours after I left.

I played with a few variants of this trip, and found that the real trick to doing the trip quickly is getting the long train journeys to connect.  The Rossiya runs every other day, and the Canadian appears to run twice a week at this time of year.  A variant of this trip starting from Oxford on Sunday 9th got me back into London on Monday 24th – only 16 days.

If you're trying to track me down over the next few days email is probably the best bet, I’ll probably be in the office, but you never know. It'll all just depends how I feel tomorrow morning. 

The information in this post came from lots of websites – including TrainlineMan in Seat 61, Real RussiaExpedia, AirCanada and ViaRail.

My ‘final’ itinerary was

Monday 10 Sept
12:01 from Oxford, arrive Cologne 20:15, 
train to Moscow dep 23:45
Tuesday 11 Sept
En route
Wednesday 12 Sept
Arrive Moscow 09:37
Thursday 13 Sept
Depart Moscow 23:45
Friday 14 Sept
Perm (at 20:08),
Saturday 15 Sept
Omsk (14:03),
Sunday 16 Sept
Krasnoyarsk (09:36),
Monday 17 Sept
Ulan Ude (09:50)
Tuesday 18 Sept
Still on the train
Wednesday 19 Sept
And still on the train
Thursday 20 Sept
Arrive Vladivostok 06:17, to Seoul (KE982)
Friday 21 Sept
Dep Seoul & Arrive Vancouver (AC064)
Saturday 22 Sept
Static in Vancouver
Sunday 23 Sept
Depart Vancouver 20:30
Monday 24 Sept
Jasper (16:00), Edmonton (23:00)
Tuesday 25 Sept
Saskatoon (09:10), Winnipeg (20:30)
Wednesday 26 Sept
On the rails
Thursday 27 Sept
Arrive Toronto 09:30, dep 11:35
Arrive Montreal 17:07 dep 18:30
Friday 28 Sept
Arrive Halifax 17:10, Depart 23:45 (AC860)
Saturday 29 Sept
Arrive LHR 09:35, back to Oxford by 12:00

Travellers Torment

I usually really enjoy travel planning, but last night I lay awake trying to get my head round a travel conundrum. Should I do a round-the-world trip eastward or westward?

Image of diesel train about the leave Narvik station
Narvik to Boden - not quite
the Trans-Siberian
Yesterday I found myself thinking again about the Trans-Siberian railway.  The guide book has been on the shelf for a few years, and every now and again it comes to hand, usually when I'm looking for something else.  I started browsing it again, and the contemplation developed into the idea of how much of a round the world trip can be done by train.  Across Europe and Asia - Oxford to Vladivostok - no problem. Eurostar to Brussels, overnight to Moscow, then TS to Vladivostok.  Across North America - Vancouver to Halifax- easy. The Canadian to Toronto, then on to Montreal and Halifax.  And I don't have a problem with accepting that the Pacific and the Atlantic need to be crossed by plane or ship rather than by train. 

What I do have a problem with is the International Date Line.

Image of Vancouver waterfront
Vancouver - Coal Harbour
In addition to travelling I also take a lot of pictures, particularly I have a serious picture-a-day habit.  This means I need to take at least one photograph every day.  For the last couple of years I've been posting these on Blipfoto, but my uninterrupted picture a day sequence runs from 24th December 2004. As of 8th September 2012, that was 2816 days and I'm not keen on breaking the sequence. That was what was keeping me awake last night.  What's going to happen when I cross the International Date Line?  In the wee small hours I just couldn't figure out what was going to happen to my days as I crossed the line, and what difference the direction makes.

In cool light of morning, and with a little assistance from the other half, I think I've convinced myself that provided I keep travelling east, the worst that can happen is that I get the same day twice (at least that's what happened to both Phineas Fogg and Michael Palin). If I travel west I might, depending on when during the day the clocks actually get changed, wind up skipping a day completely and wreck my photo sequence.

Or I could just leave my camera clock permanently set to UK time, and just make sure I take at a picture every few hours, just in case.