Whales and a Wrap Up — Franz Josef Land

Our last day in Franz Josef Land….as we headed back to Alexander Land to clear customs and immigration….three humpback whales cruised along with us.

As is typical, we got mainly tails, fins and some blow holes.

We also spotted a ringed seal in the water from a zodiac.  If you look closely on the back you can see the ringed spots.

On one of our zodiac cruises we landed on a ice floe and used the opportunity to get some pictures of us.  Here’s mine.

The M/V Sea Spirit is luxurious for what’s considered expedition cruising.  I shared a cabin with two others.  It consisted of two twins and a queen sofa bed.  We had three hang-up closets, two dressers and a small but comfortable bathroom.

I went to Franz Josef Land to photograph polar bears as my primary target.  Would I have liked to seen and photographed more, you bet.  Despite that, I got what I went for.


Here’s a group shot taken on Deck 5.

I mentioned in the first blog post that I got a three-year Russian visa because I would be returning to Russia.  Actually, I’m starting a three-month, around-the-world solo trip on Sept. 12.

I will fly to Moscow on that date and after a few days there, I’ll board the Trans Siberian Railway for a trip across Russia with multiple stops over about 30 days.  From there I continue into Mongolia where I’m joining a small group of three or four others to fly to western Mongolia for a week long eagle hunters tour.  Then back to the Mongolian capital.

I’ll then fly to Hanoi, Vietnam and spend about 2 1/2 weeks traveling down the coast to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and then on to New Zealand.  There I’ll me up with a former roommate and my traveling companion to Hokkaido, Japan in 2018.  We’ll do a couple of weeks together in New Zealand.

After New Zealand, my plan is to go to Australia for another couple of weeks.  I hope to meet up with another former roommate from my Iceland trip last November.  He currently lives in Melbourne.  Then it’s home early to mid-December.  Firm dates haven’t been determined yet.  All I know is that Jean says if I’m not home by Christmas I may not have a home to come back to!

All in all it’s about three months of largely solo travel.  I’ve been working on learning the Russian alphabet so that I can read railroad signs and others while there.

Thanks for following my blog.  If you know of someone that you think might be interested in reading them, please ask them to contact me either on Facebook or via email, rgates002@gmail.com.




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Polar Bears and Walrus

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A Visit from a Russian Icebreaker — Franz Josef Land

Toward the end of our cruise, this 75,000 horsepower, Russian nuclear icebreaker on lease to the company that ran our trip met up with us.  The I/B 50 Years of Victory is making three trips this year to the North Pole.  It offers 124 people the chance to actually go to the North Pole and then fly over it on the ship-based helicopter.

We came bow to bow with the ship as their passengers and staff greeted our passengers and staff.  Many of the crew on our ship knew many of the crew on the icebreaker as they have worked on both our ship and the icebreaker.

Our captain went out in front of the bridge to greet the “50 Years of Victory”.

(Photo courtesy of ship’s photographer.)

Cabins on this 13-day trip start at $29,950 per person.  I won’t be doing this one!

The only settlement that existed in Franz Josef Land is at Cape Norvegia on Hooker Island.  It was a former Russian research station.  It existed from 1913-1960.  Now the only people in Franz Josef Land is the military base on Alexander Land Island and a few people who are on Hooker Island during the short summer renovating the old research station.

I mailed my grandson a post card from here.  Something I started when he was in kindergarten and have continued.  He is going to be in the 8th grade this year.  He’s organized all of them into a loose leaf binder.  The rangers also had hot tea brewing for us here, as well.

One of the highlights of the trip was the polar plunge.  Water temperature was 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Twenty-one intrepid folks got a rope around the waist before diving or jumping into the Arctic Ocean and then quickly, very quickly, returning to the zodiac and up the ladder to the ship.

No….I wasn’t one of them!

One more blog post and I’ll wrap up this trip.  Thanks for reading.




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Russian Arctic #2 – Polar Bears and More!

As I said in the first blog post, I signed on for this trip for several reasons.  First, Franz Josef Land is a group of islands of which I’d never heard.  I was intrigued by the thought of going that far north and the opportunity to see and photograph polar bears, walrus, Arctic fox and a variety of seals.  I’m not a “birder” but there are a number of different birds in the archipelago, too.  Following flying birds and focusing on them is always a challenge.

I was a little disappointed with this trip because I was expecting to see ­­lots of polar bears.  I did not and that was simply because they are pretty elusive and difficult to approach.  They are dangerous predators and human beings are on their diet.

If a bear is spotted on land then the park rangers will not permit you to land.   If a polar bear is spotted in the water, then you must keep a safe distance in a zodiac.   A polar bear can run up to 40 mph for about 100 yards then they collapse from exhaustion.  I can’t run 100 yards. Period. Let alone at 40 mph.  I collapse from exhaustion much sooner.

So are best chance of seeing them is from the rail of the ship and from the zodiacs.  Most of the time, the ship was too far from land to get a decent look from the ship so that left our zodiacs.

A couple of days into the trip, a polar bear was spotted on land and we loaded up the zodiacs and went to look for him/her.  We were successful.

In fact, this polar bear put on a pretty good show for a half hour or more.

Later we saw two more bears.  One saw us and proceeded to walk and run away from us.  We didn’t get a very good look.

The next one was asleep on an ice floe and we could just barely make out it’s head.  It’s what we referred to as a “pixel” bear.  That means it was pretty darn small in our viewfinders.

We had much better luck with walrus.  These behemoths are usually seen relaxing on floating ice.

We still had to keep our distance so as not to disturb their natural behavior.  There were lots of different birds: Glaucous Gulls, Kittiwakes, Brents Geese, Common Eider, Little Auks, three kinds of Skuas,  etc., that nested in the cliffs.  You could hear them from some distance but the closer you got the louder they got and the more you could smell them.  Breeding birds sat on their nests with their backs to the water, non-breeding birds did the opposite.

One Arctic fox was spotted but not by me so no picture.  The Arctic fox primarily eats birds eggs so the best chance of seeing them is around nesting birds high up on the cliffs.

Just about everyone on board was interested in seeing the big wildlife:  polar bears, walrus, Arctic fox, whales, etc.  Many had more interest in birds and/or flora than I did.

In essence, this was a mixed group and that made it more difficult for the cruise company to satisfy everyone.

One night, we had a special guest show up.  More on that in my next post!




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The Russian Arctic…Franz Josef Land

Franz Josef Land is located at about 80 degrees north latitude close to straight north of St. Petersburg, Russia.   At the northern most island in the archipelago, Rudolf, we were approximately 600 miles from the North Pole at 81 degrees 47 minutes N.  Do give you some perspective, Iceland is at 66 degrees N.  There are 192 islands in the archipeligo but some of them are very small.

This map shows our route for our days traveling through the islands.

I flew from Kansas City to Newark and then to Oslo, Norway where I had to spend one night.  There is only a couple of flights a day to Svalbard, Norway, an island north of mainland Norway and are starting point for our trip to Franz Josef Land.  We could not make the connection so it meant a night in Oslo.

The preparation for the trip involved getting a Russian visa that took two months and involved five pages of questions about most of my life’s history.  Where I’ve lived including addresses, where I’ve worked including phone numbers and supervisors and professional and social/fraternal organizations of which I’ve been a member.  It was extensive.  It took two months from the time I mailed my application, passport and passport photos until I got it back.  I got a three-year visa because I plan to be back in Russia in September.  More about that later

I went on this trip for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s a place that most people have never heard of including me.  Second, I wanted to photograph polar bear, walrus, Arctic fox, ringed seals and maybe whales.

Svalbard is a fairly large island but the main town on the island, Longyearbyen, has a population of about 2200.  They get about 45,000 tourists a year.

There is a safety boundary around the city.  Once you leave that area you are required to have a guide….or a gun…and usually both.  The hills around town has a number of polar bear and they are extremely dangerous.  Most tourists who come here cruise the perimeter of the island or take a guided snowmobile tour into the hills looking for the bears.  Many of the snowmobiles are equipped with a side-mounted rifle holder.

One of Svalbard’s claim to fame other than it’s wildlife is the Global Seed Vault situated deep inside a mountain.  It opened in 2008 and contains more than 5000 different plant species.  There are more than 40,000 varieties of beans, 156,000 varieties of wheat and almost as many varieties of rice.  It has the capability to hold 4.5 million seed samples.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a tour of it so…no pictures!

We spent one night in Longyearbyen before boarding our home for the duration of the trip, the M/S Sea Spirit.  Breakfast at the hotel even included caviar in a squeeze tube.

The M/S Sea Spirit had 92 guests on board: 47 from the United States, the rest from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, China, Britain, Canada, Namibia and Belgium.  The biggest celebrity onboard was a National Geographic photographer from Russia. He has been working on a piece on Franz Josef Land for two years and has another year to go.

After an overnight in Svalbard, we headed northeast for Franz Josef Land. Our two and a half days at sea were filled with lectures from the specialists onboard.  We learned about the plants we might see, the birds we might encounter and the wildlife we could expect to see.  The ship’s photographer talked about photography. And we learned how well we’d eat.  Breakfast was always a great buffet plus you could always order special items…eggs, waffles, omelettes, etc.  Lunch was also a buffet.  Then there was afternoon tea in lounge followed by a sit down dinner with four choices of salads, main courses and desserts.  Plus there was always jars of cookies in the bar, as well.

Our first stop was Alexandra Island where a Russian military base is located.  It is the westernmost island in the group.  We sent out a zodiac to pick up several Russian Customs and Immigration officers who came aboard to clear us.  We were not allowed to take photographs on or from the ship while the immigration process took place.  It started about 8pm and lasted well over 4 hours.

Franz Josef Land is a Russian Arctic National Park and therefore we also picked up seven, national park rangers armed with rifles.  They traveled with us on the ship and went everywhere we went both on land and on our zodiac cruises.

They lived with us and dined with us although only a few spoke much English.  They controlled how close we could approach wildlife often telling our zodiac drivers we needed to move back.  Never did they tell us we could get closer.

M/S Sea Spirit with zodiac approaching.

The temperature most days was usually about freezing.  The coldest morning it was 29 degrees with a wind chill of 14 degrees.  One thing you will not see in this or any follow up blogs are beautiful sunrise or sunset pictures because there were none.  It was as bright at midnight as it was at noon.  It’s 24 hours of daylight.  My room was darkened by black out curtains.  There was many days of fog and overcast skies.  There was the occasional sunny day.

Each day a plan was laid out.  Here’s where we’re going and why we’re going there.  All were subject to adjustment depending on weather conditions.  Frequently, there was a split event.  Part of our group would do a landing while the other group did a zodiac cruise.  Halfway through the morning we would switch.  If it was foggy or a polar bear was sighted on land, we would all zodiac cruise.

Often our ship would reposition during lunch.  I learned that ships never seem to “move” instead, they “reposition”.

There was a lot of fog as we moved from island to island.  If there was fog at a proposed landing then we weren’t allowed to go ashore.  The reasoning was that we wouldn’t be able to spot a polar bear and they are extremely dangerous predators.  When we did land, the rangers went ashore and established a perimeter that we weren’t allowed to go out of.

They were constantly scanning the area looking for polar bears.  On one occasion, a group of hikers were traveling along a ridge and spotted a polar bear quite a long distance ahead and were forced to alter their course to avoid it.

We were told that our best chance of seeing and photographing a polar bear was either from the ship or on a zodiac cruise.  In fact, the first polar bear I saw was on top of a glacier about 500 yards away.

The rangers controlled how close we were able to get.  We had to stay back a considerable distance from glaciers for fear of caving.  If a large chunk of ice broke free it could cause a large wave which could upset a zodiac.  While we were quite a distance away, I was still able, with a long lens, to get some pretty good images.

Two days later, on another zodiac cruise, we spotted a polar bear on land and were able to get much closer.  In fact, the bear came to us and made his way down to the shoreline and gave us a lot of great poses!

We’ll see those on my next post!


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Ice Cave and Auroras


This is the entrance to what our guide referred to as “the most beautiful ice cave in Iceland.”  We didn’t see any other so we don’t have a comparison but it was pretty spectacular.  To get to it, we had a 2+ mile hike on a glacier.


This was about the only time I was in front on the hike.  We had steel spike crampons over our boots to make walking on the glacier possible.  It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to make the trip.  It was worth it!

This image of some hikers going back to the top of the glacier from the cave entrance will give you an idea of how thick the ice was.


If you look closely you can see the guide rope we used to hang on to.  This walk up and down was on an ice carved staircase.  As you can see, there wasn’t any snow yet on the glacier so the inside of the cave was lit by sunlight through the ice.


The inside of the ice cave was fairly large as you can see in this image with our cave guide posing for me.


This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  The other was seeing the northern lights.  They are present nearly every night but you need a clear sky and cold temperatures to see them.  They are typically visible between September and March and are the result of solar activity.  Our guide had an app on his phone that predicted the chances of seeing them each night.  We were lucky to see them twice in one night and then again for a very brief time on a second night.

The first time was at Godafoss waterfall.  They weren’t very strong but we were excited to see them.  We were the only people here at the time.  We also had a moonbow from the nearly full moon that night and lots of stars in the sky.


We felt lucky that we had seen these and after they disappeared we headed back to our hotel for dinner.  As we were finishing dinner we looked out the window and saw them reappear over the lake across the road.  We got our gear and ran across the road and up a small hill to photograph these brighter auroras with their reflection on the lake.




Here are a couple of pictures I just received from one of Ingrid, one of my Argentine tour mates.   First is one she shot from the top of the hill when I was down by the water shooting the glacier and icebergs.  This will also give you an idea how large some of these icebergs were.


And another when I was shooting a low angle shot in the same area.


And lastly, as I was staring out the van window at the passing, amazing landscape and realizing how fortunate I am to be able to travel like I do.



Iceland is a great place to visit.  Most people go during the summer months.  A friend and her daughter went the end of May and had a great time.  Another friend was there in late June and also had a terrific visit.  There are no ice caves or auroras at that time of year but the weather is usually good.  Winter means less tourists with the possibility of seeing an ice cave if you’re up to the hike to get there and also seeing the northern lights.  I was expecting more snow and that would have added to the photographs but this had been a mild winter so far.  The temperatures during our visit during the daytime was between 28 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit with most days in the mid-30’s.  We only saw one of our hotels because we usually arrived after sunset and left before sunrise.  It was a little strange to see the sunrise around 10am and set about 4pm depending on where we were in the country.  There was lots of rain but we were able to avoid most of it by adjusting our itinerary.  On more than one occasion we’d finish shooting and being heading back to the van and moving on just as the rain started.

Icelandic Airways has lots of flights from various locations in the United States.  They also allow you to stop over for up to a week, I believe, on your way to or from Europe at no additional cost.

I hope you enjoyed the images and that you’ll add Iceland to your bucket list.







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The Ice Beach and Lagoon


On the east coast of Iceland is Jokulsarlon Glacier lagoon and beach.  We spent three nights near this place and made multiple trips there at sunrise, sunset and one night to try and capture the northern lights.

The ocean washes these large junks of ice onto the beach and pushes others up the channel to the lagoon.  You have to be careful that the waves don’t pick up one of these icebergs and hit you from the back.  I shot a few images in the lagoon but I had a vision of the kinds of images I wanted to capture and they were on the beach.

The tour buses could park closer to the beach on the opposite side of the channel from where our group went to shoot.  That meant very few people to deal with.


Some of these ice cubes were the size of cars and others were much smaller.  They reminded me of cut crystal.  Finely polished and often totally clear.


While others had a greenish/blue color to them.  As the waves rushed in I would frequently have to pick up my tripod to avoid having it sink into the black sand beach.  As the waves rushed out, it would leave a beautiful pattern on the beach.




Here are some patterns I captured in the ice.



I’ll have more on the northern lights in my next post but here’s one image I shot at the Jokulsarlon Lagoon.  It was a faint light and only lasted a few minutes.


It looks like it’s late afternoon but it was actually fairly dark when I shot this.  Often these shots were anywhere between 4 seconds to 30 seconds long.  Thus the look of daylight.

At another glacier lagoon we got low to the water to show the broken surface ice near the edge of the beach with the larger icebergs in the background.


Iceland lived up to its name at these locations.

Iceland is not an inexpensive place to visit or live.  Gas was about $7 a gallon and eating out wasn’t cheap either.  Typically I’d spend $15-$20 for lunch of soup and a piece of bread.  Maybe a sandwich or a slice of pizza for $10.  Granted it was a large bowl of soup:  shellfish, mushroom, lamb and tomato/bacon soups, for example.  A soft drink was around $3 for a 20 oz. Coke.  Dinner typically cost $30-$40 without splurging.

The first Saturday night, at one of our hotels, the receptionist ask if we wanted to do the buffet that evening.  We answered yes and were told that seating would be at 6:30.   We came down dressed as normal: waterproof boots, multiple layers and maybe waterproof pants.  The lobby was full of the locals in suits and ties, long dresses and pant suits.  We learned it was the annual Christmas buffet.  We had no idea what this was going to cost.

Our host always came to our table first and told us that we could go now for the soup course.  It was shellfish soup with a variety of shellfish including mussels.  About 45 minutes later he came again and told us to help ourselves to the starter course.  The buffet table had nothing but appetizers.  Again, about 45 minutes later, it was the main course and salad followed by a long wait and then the desserts.  I think we finished dinner about 10pm.  Still, we had no idea what this lavish meal was going to cost.  It was added to our room charge.  The next morning I ask at the desk how much the buffet was and was told it was 7900 krona or about $65.  Frankly, for what we got, it really wasn’t bad.

Iceland is about 40,000 sq. miles or just about the size of the state of Kentucky.  It’s about half the size of my home state, Kansas.

As I drove around the southern part of Iceland I saw a lot of small churches like these.



They’re all designed very similar accept for the Black Church of Budir.  The predominate religion is Evangelical-Lutheran.  It comprises about 90% with Catholic a distant 3.5% approximately, for example.

That’s it for this post.  I’ll wrap up this blog with my next post.  We’ve visit what some call the most beautiful ice cave in Iceland and experience the northern lights.



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