How it all began…
I know exactly the moment when I added “The Arctic” to my mental travel bucket list. I was in Antarctica with a friend who I will call my polar buddy. After doing the polar plunge in the Southern Ocean, she turned to me and said “Was that your fourth ocean?” I pondered for a moment and said “Yes, I think so.” “Mine too,” she said. And it was done. So a year and half later, I sent an email asking if she was ready to do it the following year. She was.
The Arctic, Svalbard Archipelago. A short, steep guided hike provided a stunning view, including our boat
In all reality, this is a trip you do once in a lifetime. Even on the “less expensive” end of the scale, it is expensive. Ballpark, 10k per person. So it had better be good. For those of you who know you want to go, skip to the end for my tips. For those of you who want the virtual journey, read on. Perhaps you’ll be planning a trip of your own soon.
Polar Bears, please
The Svalbard archipelago is one of several places to see amazing arctic wildlife, including polar bears. There are roughly 3,000 polar bears in the area. To see them in their natural habitat, while sailing amidst glaciers glowing under the midnight sun, was a key draw for me. I did get my moments, but the polar bears had to teach me their own lesson first: patience.
The staff and the captain on the National Geographic Explorer expedition ship were all looking for bears. Up on the bridge, our wonderful captain came up and said, to no one in particular, with a thick german accent, “See anything white and furry?” Guess you had to be there. For the record, they aren’t easy to spot from several miles off, through a scope, on the white snow. They look like little yellow potato chips crumbs that move. I do mean little. “Pixel bears” is how one staff member described them. This is one reason why the skill and expertise of the expedition team are so important.
Also, it needs to be said that passengers aren’t patient, myself included. We’ve seen the one in a million photo of the polar bear with its paws on the boat parked in the ice. Savvy travelers note: don’t get hung up on the number of bears a boat sees. Quality polar bear sightings are what matter. Pixel bears are just pixel bears, even if they do make for a higher bear count.
Cuter than a puppy…Polar bear cubs!
We did get to see quite a few polar bears. Like all mammals, they have a sense of play and silliness. Watching a polar bear do a butt slide down a snow bank almost made me laugh out loud. I also watched a polar bear perfect what I would liken to the yoga pose “downward dog.” “Downward bear” was cleaning its face. These are the rewards of patience.
Polar Bears in the Arctic
Well, that and two polar bear cubs with their mother. And a kill. Cuteness overload (minus the seal carcass). After a slow approach on the boat, we got to watch them for about an hour. They ate, faces streaked with red. They snuggled with Mom. They traipsed about on the snow. Time stood still. That is why I’d come. National Geo/Lindblad does day-to-day write-ups and publishes them online. Looking at all of the expeditions after mine, it seems they each got some memorable moments. This was mine. But it wasn’t the only one.
Can I pet the whale?
Fin Whale in the Arctic surfacing next to the boat
And what to our wondering eyes should appear but a 60 foot fin whale surfacing very near. Unreal. Completely unreal. Thanks to skilled staff and a patient captain (and a little luck), a fin whale surfaced right next to the boat. As in, I had to point my camera down. This was completely unexpected, even to the staff, and almost no one had seen a fin whale this close up. When the marine biologist, a whale specialist, is on cloud 9, you know that you’ve had another once in a lifetime moment.
A few more of my favorite polar moments
- Sunbathing on the ice. Thanks to the creativity of the staff and an obliging piece of ice, a few of us got to play model. One of my favorite memories
"Sunbathing" in the Arctic...a "someday" moment
- Ocean 5: Brrrrr. The sun was shining and the water looked like the Bahamas, but… not so much. In a carefully orchestrated exercise to ensure safety, many of us jumped in, one at a time. And then out, as fast as I possibly could. Luckily the boat had a sauna. Aaaah.
- Gil: As in the former chairman of National Geographic who was our global luminary on the boat. He was charming and down to earth with stories of an amazing life. I had several conversations with him. He doesn’t know it, but he is part of the inspiration behind this blog.
Planning a trip to the Arctic
One year out. If you want your choice of operators, dates, and discounts, please follow that advice. To be clear, the discounts are meaningful (e.g. $1k), and the less expensive rooms go fast.
Polar buddy and I used Expedition Trips out of Seattle. They don’t charge you a fee, they know their trips because they’ve been on them, and they respond quickly to email. We used them to help us figure out Antarctica, and we were happy. Hence, the repeat business. There are multiple places to go in the Arctic, with Svalbard (above Norway) being one of the most common. Canada and Greenland are also options, but we didn’t look too much at that.
We chose to go with National Geographic/Lindblad (per the advice of Expedition Trips) on the first boat of the season (against their recommendation). Your individual needs will vary, but let me provide a few key points with commentary:
- More expertise=better polar bears: A higher end operator will likely provide a better experience because you need their expertise to find and spot the wildlife, esp. the polar bears (Great advice. Spotting bears is hard and a great captain will determine how close you can get.)
- Every trip is different=go when it suits your schedule: My work schedule dictated when we could go, so first trip of the season it was. After many conversations, my conclusion was that one trip could have x bears and the next could have 3x bears, regardless of timing. Or so I justified to myself and polar buddy.
- Bear season is short. Effectively, June-August is your window. I went in early June. And much to my dismay, it does not coincide with the aurora borealis. At all.
My Top 5 Tips for traveling to the Arctic
- Ski wear + lounge wear=all you need. It isn’t as cold as you think so standard ski wear works just fine. Jeans and a fleece work for the boat.
- Know your camera in advance. There is a lot of opportunity to learn about photography, but you want to be ready to jump when they spot Arctic wildlife
- Spend time on the bridge: Staff were always present bear spotting and the captain was often there himself. Ask questions. Listen. Watch.
- Midnight sun=wear a lot of sunscreen. It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t matter what time it is. You could easily be outside for a wildlife sighting at 11pm.
- Do it all, if you can. Kayaking, hiking, lectures, meals with staff. You won’t sleep much because of the midnight sun, so take advantage. Let’s be honest. This is all once in a lifetime.
- Bonus: Look at your pictures during the trip. I didn’t notice a dust spot (soon cleaned from the sensor) until the 2nd to last day. It was easily removed from the photos using editing software upon my return, but there were a lot of pictures to fix!
Header Photo: Polar Bear in Svalbard, Norway June 2011. All photos: Svalbard, Norway ©W2S Hilary