Visiting the Arctic on an expedition ship can be done from Norway, the Russian Arctic and Greenland, as well as Canada. The ease of access to these destinations varies considerably. The Russian Arctic is remote and, therefore, fewer voyage dates are available. Greenland is also harder to get to, while the Norwegian Arctic, due to the flow of the Gulf Stream (a warm current flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico), is the most accessible. The Norwegian Arctic is accessible through regular scheduled flights.
If you are after seeing polar bears this is a good thing; i.e. more sea ice = happier polar bears.
At 50 Degrees North we offer a range of Arctic voyages exploring the archipelago of Svalbard, an island group north the Norwegian mainland. The largest of these islands is Spitsbergen, and the expedition voyages often bear the name ‘Svalbard’ or ‘Spitsbergen’.
The main town of Spitsbergen is Longyearbyen, which can be reached by a 4-5 hour flight from Oslo, Norway’s capital, often with a fuel stop in Tromsø. Flights are domestic flights operated by both Scandinavian Airlines and Norwegian Air Shuttle.
Longyearbyen is a friendly small town (population approx. 3000) relying on tourism, mining and research. The main street is lined with pubs, shops and hotels. Quirky things to note as you wander Longyearbyen are the amount of snowmobiles, the ‘no guns’ policy in the supermarket and the many ‘polar bear alert’ signs. There is an interesting Arctic museum and church. If you have the time, we can recommend a night or two in Longyearbyen before you depart by expedition vessel, but just a good few hours is also adequate to explore the settlement.
Expedition voyages in June and early July will most often visit the northwest and north coats of Spitsbergen only. In early summer the sea ice is still hugging the coast and it is not possible to voyage all around the island through the Hinlopen Strait.
When the sea ice breaks free from the north Spitsbergen coast in early July voyages will be able to go through the strait and make a voyage all around Spitsbergen. There will still be polar bears around, but the voyage itineraries may have to take you further north to reach the ice. Later in the season, August and early September, polar bears are more often spotted on land feeding off whale carcasses.
The expedition crew spends considerable time and effort adapting the voyage itineraries to maximize the chances of seeing a wide range of Arctic animals and birds.
If the captain spots something as they sail along, it is common for them to halt the engines so the boat can silently glide through the water and up to a polar bear on the ice. These moments are particularly special with the silence of the engines, the muted sounds of the pack ice and the animals up close in real time. Polar bears are known to come right up and lean on the boat!
Besides your 3 meals each day, the daily schedule on board an Arctic expedition ship includes a daily expedition briefing and depending on weather and conditions 2-3 excursions off the ship by zodiac, either to shore or boating among the icebergs and islands.
Excursions are adapted to the various fitness levels of passengers; one group may head off on a substantial hike, while another may explore the flora and fauna of the surrounding area. This often results in completely different experiences and sightings, which are shared around the dinner tables in the evening. Most amusingly, many of the smaller Arctic animals will not run away when encountered, as they think their coats camouflage them.
Guides and expedition leaders are trained in gun handling, and will always carry this with them on shore excursions in the event of polar bear encounters. For safety, as well as conservation reasons, you are not allowed to venture too close to polar bears.
The crew each tend to have their area of expertise or qualification, and you will most often have historians, birding experts and/or photographers on board. These experts in their field will often do presentations and lectures during the voyages.
An advantage of doing an expedition on a smaller vessel is that there will be enough zodiacs, so that every single person can be off the boat at the same time. On larger vessels with more passengers this would happen on rotation, and you may miss highlights. A smaller ship also means more time on land and out exploring, as the zodiacs won't have to keep shuttling people back and forth. The expedition crew work hard to promptly get the zodiacs and the guests off the boat with minimum fuss.
Experiencing the beauty and tranquillity of the Arctic is one of the highlights of a visit to the top of the world. You will find that the expedition teams are very conscious and passionate of preserving the beautiful Arctic surroundings.
The voyages offered by 50 Degrees North are all run by responsible expedition operators, who are all members of AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators). This international organization is 'dedicated to managing responsible, environmentally friendly and safe tourism in the Arctic and strive to set the highest possible operating standards’ (ref: http://www.aeco.no/).
Through their efforts, Svalbard has become a best practice example of linking tourism and conservation; i.e. it is a sanctuary where the totally protected polar bear can be observed under well regulated and carefully managed environment.
It is worth having a look at the AECO website before you embark on your 50 Degrees North Arctic voyage as it is a treasure trove of information about the Arctic and the conservation efforts undertaken.