Brought to you by: Doug O’Neill, Quark Expeditions

Ship: Ocean Adventurer
Sailing: 7 x nights, 9 June 2019
Destination: Spitsbergen,  Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard
Itinerary: Intro to Spitsbergen –  Fjords, Glaciers and Wildlife of Svalbard


  • Polar Bears. King of the Arctic. Nanuk. The Rider of Icebergs. White Sea Deer. The Sailor of the Floe. Seeing the majestic polar bear, also known by its latin name Ursus maritimus, was one of the highlights of my trip to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Spitsbergen is known as the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic. Standing on the deck of Ocean Adventurer, gazing at a polar bear sauntering along the ice edge in search of a meal (most likely a seal), provided me with one of the most stunning images of my voyage in Spitsbergen. Adult male polar bears typically weigh 350 to more than 600 kilograms (775 to more than 1,300 pounds), while females are “smaller”—but can still weigh 150 to 290 kilograms (330 to 650 pounds). Polar bears spend most of their lives swimming between ice floes and across Arctic bays.
  • Whale-watching. Standing on the deck of the ship one night after dinner, snug in my Quark parka, admiring the Arctic view with my fellow passengers, we were suddenly alerted by an announcement from our Expedition Leader (Woody) that there was a humpback whale on the starboard side of the ship. Seeing a whale breach the cold ocean waters can take your breath away. In addition to humpbacks (recognisable by the humps on their head and the distinctive jaw), visitors to the Norwegian Arctic can also see the blue whale, which is the largest animal known to exist (it reaches up to 30 meters in length and can weigh as much as 150 tons). Plus, there’s also a chance you’ll see finback whales, white whales and minke whales.
  • Glaciers. Those expansive thickened ice masses, made up of accumulations of snow, actually flow imperceptibly like slow rivers. Glacier viewing is unrivalled in the Norwegian Arctic. There’s such an abundance of glaciers. There’s Monaco Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in Spitsbergen, which is about 7 kilometers wide and 60 meters high. And then there’s the 14th of July Glacier, a 16 kilometer-long glacier that covers an area of 127 square kilometers. Viewing glaciers in the Arctic humbled me in the face of their immensity.
  • Daily onboard presentations. Each afternoon, and sometimes during the evening, Quark Expeditions’ guests can enjoy expert presentations by a variety of polar experts. I looked forward to each and every expert presentation throughout my voyage, with topics ranging from glaciology and polar bears to ornithology and geology. Not only are they fascinating learning opportunities, but attending these presentations adds another layer to the expedition experience. Each time I joined a Zodiac excursion to go ashore, I was able to draw on the information I’d learned earlier. Thanks to the onboard presentation by an ornithologist, I knew that the mass of birds dominating the cliffs at Alkefejjet were a mix of guillemots, kittiwakes and gulls. And I could appreciate the way they circled above the towering cliffs in the quest for food—while also protecting their nests.
  • Polar history: I hadn’t banked on being so intrigued with the historical sites (my original focus was on the wildlife). Having polar historians onboard the ship enabled me to understand and better appreciate the historical sites we visited during shore landings. For instance, consider my visit to Smeerenburg, the former whaling station from the 1600s located in northwestern Svalbard. One can still see remnants of rock-hard blubber from the ovens where the whale carcasses were boiled. There’s even a memorial at Smeerenburg that honors whalers who lost their lives in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those moments that steeped me in polar history also connected me with those early polar explorers who made my own journey possible centuries later.

Top Tips

 1. Attend the onboard presentations: As mentioned above, when will you next have the opportunity to listen to (and learn from), glaciologists, wildlife biologists, marine mammal experts, ornithologists, polar historians, botanists and other polar experts. These presentations are delivered in a relaxed, informed manner by seasoned expedition members who, in addition to being experts in their field, likely know how to load a Zodiac and guide you on shore landings.

2. Spend lots of time out on deck of your ship. On my expedition to Spitsbergen, I enjoyed standing alone on the deck of Ocean Adventurer after midnight—or at the crack of dawn before most of the guests had woken up. Just being able to soak in my Arctic surroundings, listening to the water, the sounds of the ship forging through ice ladened fjords, watching for possible wildlife sightings off the deck of the ship, and quietly watching as snow-capped mountain peaks and mammoth glaciers unfolded in the distance—such moments are almost impossible to fathom in advance.

3. Spend time with the expedition team members: Connecting with staff and expedition guides doesn’t happen solely during excursions and scheduled activities. Chances are that you’ll share stories at the table during breakfast, lunch or dinner with expedition team members, Zodiac drivers, kayak guides and other crew you spent time with off the ship. They’ll eagerly answer questions, ask about your best moments of the day and share with you stories from their careers in the Polar Regions.

4. Take a hike: Make sure you set foot on the Arctic terrain. I can’t say enough about that moment when you actually plant your feet on a patch of ground (or snow) where so few humans have walked before. Expedition team members lead a variety of on-shore hikes geared to hikers of all levels and interests. You can do a slow ramble to take lots of photos, an intermediate range hike or a faster hike. Such hikes have the power to connect you to nature and root you in the Arctic environment itself.

5. Take advantage of Zodiac excursions. Zodiacs, those sturdy inflatable crafts that ferry guests from ship to shore and back again, were the lifeblood of my off-ship experiences in Spitsbergen. You can go zipping through fjords, Arctic bays, be transported across the Arctic waters to get a closer view at wildlife or a breath-taking land or ice formation, or simply be transported ashore to explore. It’s quite likely that you’ll have a Zodiac excursion (automatically included in your trip package) in the morning and possibly again in the afternoon.

6. Consider an off-ship adventure option: Sitting on a kayak, paddling quietly past a walrus snoozing on a chunk of floating ice under the afternoon sun, was one of my favorite Arctic moments. You don’t have to be a seasoned kayaker, either. Quark Expeditions offers more off-ship activities than any other polar operator, ranging (depending on the ship you’re on) from heli-hiking to alpine kayaking. For me, joining the paddling excursion was a truly immersive experience. I was suddenly at water level, dipping my paddle into the venerable Arctic Ocean, feeling the polar wind on my face.

7. Get to know your fellow passengers: Polar travellers are a breed unto themselves. Quark Expeditions’ guests represent all nationalities and identities. Sharing stories at the end of each day is an important element of any polar voyage with Quark Expeditions. You may find yourself viewing an experience through the lens of someone whose background differs from yours, someone who has travelled widely. Chances are you’ll make lifelong friends on your polar voyage!

8. Pay attention to the seabirds. Prior to my trip to Spitsbergen, I’d never considered myself a birdwatcher. Spitsbergen changed all that. Ornithologists estimate that about 30 or so bird species breed in the region, including Little auks, Arctic terns, Brunich’s Guillemot, gulls such as Kittywakes, Northern fulmar, Common eider, Barnacle and Pink-footed geese, and Skuas among others.  Wait until you visit Alkefjellet, known as “Bird Mountain. How can the sight of 60,000 Brünnich’s guillemots not fuel a fascination with birds!

9. Dress appropriately. Your Polar Travel Advisor will brief you in great detail (before your trip) about what clothes and gear you’ll need, what to pack, and how to best prepare yourself for your polar voyage. The tip that helped me immensely: dress in layers, and don’t worry about the cold. Upon boarding your polar vessel, you’ll be given a Quark Parka (with removable liner) that is yours to keep. It will keep you warm and dry throughout your entire polar expedition.

10. Travel with an open mind: Whatever you do, embrace whatever opportunities arise. The Polar Regions—whether the Arctic or Antarctic—will cast a spell on you. Remember, when in doubt, simply say ‘yes.’ Yes to an excursion. Yes to a new opportunity. Yes to any opportunity that will immerse you in the beauty of the Polar Regions!