Realm of the polar bear

Antarctica is a big attraction as the last great wilderness and one of the ultimate destinations to explore by small cruise ship, with zodiacs to get ashore to explore this stunning landscape, or to cruise amongst the icebergs. Others get to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and the city of Ushuaia 'At the End of the World' with the urge to take that extra step, and head onto Antarctica. However, for some reason, until recently, the high Arctic did not have the same fame or ‘attraction’, which is rather odd.

After all, if you get to Iceland, the Shetlands, or Norway, it is not that far to the high Arctic, including one of the most stunning Arctic landscapes, Svalbard or Spitsbergen, which happens to be the largest wilderness by far in Europe. As for the names, the whole archipelago is known as Svalbard and it belongs to Norway, although Russia also has a presence here. And Spitsbergen is the name given to the largest island in the group, meaning pointed peaks, it aptly describes this spectacular arctic island.

BarentsburgThere are few human settlements in this vast wilderness and there is the most northerly permanent settlement at Alesund, famous a base for Arctic exploration and now focusing on polar and atmospheric research, and several mining towns including Barentsburg, a Russian mine that makes you feel you are in Siberia under still under communism, there is still a statue of Lenin in the town! In this vast wilderness ‘capital’ is a bit misleading for Longyearbyen, a Norwegian mining and fur trade outpost that is now focusing on tourism, with regular flight connections to Norway. With the connection it is the ideal base to explore the archipelago.

Even better, over the summer, with 24 hours of daylight (and the sun still quite high above the horizon at midnight) you can fly to Longyearbyen and circumnavigate the archipelago by ship, using zodiacs to get ashore and do zodiac cruises. In this way it matches anywhere in Antarctica and considering the  Gulf Stream pushes the ice further north, it is pretty incredible that you can get around the islands by ship, considering the location of Svalbard is around 78 to 81 degrees north.

Hornsund 0 039Anywhere else this far north is locked up in the ice and exploring the archipelago by ship is an amazing experience, sailing through a landscape that is just as spectacular as the Antarctica Peninsula, but poles apart in more ways than one. The spectacular mountain scenery and fjords are enhanced by the diverse geology, with some really impressive rock formations in the more barren areas. There are impressive glaciers, icebergs (but no tabular bergs) plus the largest ice cap in Europe. Due to the impact of the Gulf Stream, there is a lot of vegetation and tundra, with a diverse range of plants (only two species in Antarctica) that are grazed by reindeer ( there are no native land mammals in Antarctica).

A diverse range of birds can be seen including two terrestrial species – the Ptarmigan and the Snow Bunting – the latter having an incredible knack feeding on small insects (you try to find them!). A range of wildfowl and waders migrate to the islands to breed in large numbers, including Barnacle Geese that overwinter on the Scottish Solway coast, and Purple Sandpipers. In contrast, on the Antarctic continent, there are no terrestrial birds and no migratory wildfowl. It is not so much the distance since some species that migrate to the Arctic can cover  some staggering distances at sea (and a few stragglers do manage to reach the fringes of Antarctica)  but the lack of food in Antarctica, from plants to insects.

Seabirds do occur around Antarctica in great numbers, including those infamous penguins, and seabirds are also abundant around Svalbard, including Glaucous Gulls, Arctic Terns, Arctic Skuas, and huge colonies of Kittiwakes, Fulmars and auks. Auks are the Arctic equivalent of penguins and the flightless Giant Auk, now extinct, was the original 'penguin'. Early explorers then saw what looked like similar birds in the southern hemisphere and called them penguins as well. Actually they are unrelated but share the same niche. Penguins (like the Great Auk) went one step further to become flightless with the lack of predators, the wings evolving into swimming paddles. Auks (apart from the Great Auk) did not go this far and still have to fly to get away from predators. However, they are still adapted to be amazing underwater swimmers and cruising or walking around the colonies can be as impressive as a penguin rookery. Species include the Brunnich’s Guillemot or Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemots, a few Puffins (and one of the largest of the subspecies) and vast numbers of Little Auks or Dovekies (which might be the most common seabird in the World). In turn these attract the attention of the Arctic Fox, another land mammal that manage to reach these remote islands across the ice in the past.

Bearded SealThe seas are very productive and attract a range of whales including the Fin Whale, the inquisitive Humpback Whale, the Minke Whale , even Orcas, and, if you are very lucky, Blue Whales or the elusive Bowhead. This far north you can still see White-beaked Dolphins, with a good chance of seeing the ‘white whale’, the Beluga.  Numbers of Walrus are starting to increase, hauling out at favoured remote locations, and a real highlight of any trip. At sea there is the chance to see groups of Harp Seals (easily mistaken in the distance) for dolphins or belugas as they move through the water in large groups, and, amongst the sea ice, the chance to see a range of seal species including the small Ringed Seal and the robust Bearded Seal.

And then there is the predator that feeds on the seals and ‘icing on the cake’ for any trip to Svalbard - the Polar Bear - and with the lack of hunting over the last 20 years they are increasing (with around 3000 in and around Svalbard and nearby Jan Mayen). It means you have to be careful going ashore, the guides carrying guns, and on a circumnavigation there is a good chance to see them on several occasions, either ashore, from a zodiac, or from the ship. Churchill may be the place for reliable Polar Bear encounters. But it is looking like Polar Bear sightings in Svalbard are becoming reliable and it is viewed as being the best place to see the Polar Bear in more ‘natural’ settings than Churchill. The ultimate is to see a Polar Bear with cubs, or around a kill, the carcass also attracts the attention of Arctic Foxes, Glaucous Gulls, and a true Arctic bird, the all white Ivory Gull.

K Nordvestfjord N 110Therefore, if you ever get the chance, to consider an expedition cruise around Svalbard, you will never forget it! As well as the 'circumnavigation' cruises you can also consider a cruise that explores the spectacualr fjords of Norway and the chance to see birds like the sea-eagle, and then end exploring Svalbard after passing Bear Island on route across the Barent's Sea.

Or how about a cruise that combines Svalbard with a trip to eastern Greenland that has some of the most stunning and unique landscapes in the World. Along the coast there can be lots of pack ice pushed south in the cold current coming from the Arctic. And there are the fjords including the largest in the World - Scorbsy Sund. By the end of the summer the snow has melted on the tundra and the lower slopes and the geological formations in the mountains provide a dramatic and colourful backdrop to huge glacial bergs in the fjords that is unique to Greenland (in Antarctica the bergs tend to have a snowy backdrop all year) - bergs that break off from the glaciers coming come down from Greenland's ice sheet. And there is the chance of seeing animals like the Muskox.

Andreeneset Kvitsoya N 108For Arctic cruises, and other expedtion cruises with  G adventures, check out: www.gadventures.co.uk/travel-styles/cruising/expedition-cruises.