What’s the difference between a cruise to Antarctica and one in the Arctic Circle? In the Arctic, you’re not at the top of the food chain, our expedition leader explained as we set out from Svalbard, Norway, for a two-week adventure this past July.
That top slot, of course, goes to the polar bear. And the opportunity to see one in the wild is exactly why joining the small ship sailing with Australian adventure cruise line Aurora Expeditions was ranked above a trip to the Seventh Continent on my travel wish list.
Still, I had no idea just how much those great white marine mammals would control virtually everything we would do aboard Aurora Expeditions’ new 132-passenger ultra-modern and carbon neutral-certified Sylvia Earle expedition vessel.
Morning plans call for a wildlife-spotting Zodiac or kayak cruise? Not if it’s too foggy, because polar bears get very curious about Zodiacs, expedition leader Howard Whelan explained. That afternoon hike? Scrapped at the last minute if the scout team spots a bear on the island, because they are extremely fast on land and in the water, so you never want to be too close.
But with the right expedition team and the right ship, that uncertainty and the constantly changing plans can, in my opinion, actually translate into what makes this style and region of travel so thrilling. After all, that’s what true expedition travel is all about: exploring the unknown. And on our Aurora sailing, every disappointment was followed by an unexpected surprise—including polar bear sightings—thanks to the experience and never-give-up attitude of the captain and Whelan and his team.
Refreshingly, however, the crew’s willingness to push the boundaries to bring us to rarely seen islands and coastlines was always tempered by a just-because-you-can-doesn’t-mean-you-should hyperfocus on sustainability, even if it meant sacrificing the guest experience. In other words, if we were to potentially put animals or landscapes in jeopardy, we weren’t going to do it.
Our Arctic sailing route
Our trip began in Svalbard, a remote unincorporated archipelago within the Arctic Circle that lies halfway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole; it is home to the world’s largest concentration of polar bears.
We spent the first day exploring Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement with a population of more than 1,000. There, we mingled with sled dogs at Camp Barnetsz, a wilderness lodge with wood cabins, including one that is a copy of the cabin where the man who discovered Svalbard, Willem Barentz, spent a winter in 1596. We also hit the eclectic Svalbard Museum, which is filled with historical artifacts and exhibits of plants and animals, including polar bears, of course. Before boarding the ship, we also stopped to see the exterior of the Global Seed Vault, a Noah’s Ark for plant life, housing a backup collection of seeds—more than 1.2 million from plants around the world.
From there, the (very loose) itinerary called for us to spend four days exploring the islands of Svalbard before heading to the eastern coast of Greenland. But in a part of the world where weather is predictably unpredictable, Mother Nature had different plans. Unusually thick ice along the eastern Greenland coast prevented all but ice-breaking class ships from getting to shore. (The Syvia Earle has a polar class 6 rating, meaning it can push through up to almost four feet of ice but is not a true ice-breaker.) And while that logjam of ice sent some passenger ships retreating to more accessible ports, Whelan and the captain were intent on pushing forward and delivering adventure all the way to our final stop in Reykjavík, Iceland.
They did not disappoint. We spent the next 12 days blissfully off the grid, in search of those ever-elusive polar bears and other treasures hidden in places rarely visited by humans. In fact, our only encounter with anything close to civilization was a stop at the remote, volcanic island of Jan Mayen in Norway, home to a small military outpost that occasionally lets smaller ships stop so passengers can hike among its rocky coastline and majestic cliffs.
It turned out to be a very fortuitous stop, because we never did make it to Ittoqqortoormiiut, one of Greenland’s more remote settlements. Besides wanting to see the small town, that’s where we were supposed to clear Schengen Zone customs in order to be able to make any landings elsewhere on the Greenland coast. But because Jan Mayen is part of the Schengen Zone, we were able to land on remote and uninhabited beaches and islands in eastern Greenland that weren’t blocked by ice.
Navigating the unknown
Finding places to explore wasn’t easy, Whelan admitted. In fact, at one point the captain spent two days eating all his meals on the bridge, carefully navigating the ice while Whelan studied maps for possible landing spots.
Among the treasures they found was the small island of Norder Aputiteq, where we hiked around an abandoned 1940s-era weather station and happened upon ruins of an Inuit dwelling. We also rode on Zodiacs through ice fields to get close to massive glaciers and ice formations the size of stadiums.
Other notable excursions during our two-week adventure included a short hike to the canyon of Diskobukta on the island of Edgeoya, which is notoriously hard to reach unless the tides are in your favor. There we tracked polar prints and watched Arctic foxes hunting the thousands of kittiwakes that nest in the canyon’s cliffs. That afternoon we got a double bonus, cruising slowly in our Zodiacs along curious huddles of walruses just offshore from a small island where we watched a polar bear wandering and watching us before it finally settled down for a nap.
We also cruised along the massive face of Austfonna, the world’s third largest ice cap. Oh, and did I mention the whales? Or the puffins, guillemots, and all the other Arctic birds?
Still, every encounter was made with extreme caution and respect for our surroundings. Before we even set sail, the team gave us detailed instructions about how to respond should we encounter a polar bear, emphasizing that while the crew were armed, the precautions were as much—or more—about protecting the bear. “Because we never want to use our guns,” the team told us.
Likewise, the crew was hyperconscious about not stressing out the animals. While sailing one day, the captain turned the ship slowly toward a polar bear spotted in the distance on a chunk of ice. But once it became apparent the bear was actively swimming away from us rather than just hunting, we backed off and resumed our sailing route.
As for those plans to find a place where we could get out of our Zodiacs to walk on sea ice? Abandoned after the team decided sailing into and breaking through the ice would destroy too much polar bear habitat.
What to know about Aurora Expeditions’ new Sylvia Earle ship
The Sylvia Earle, named after the noted oceanographer and climate activist, is a new generation of polar ship that emphasizes sustainability and expedition know-how rather than ultra-luxury, like some of the high-end ships that have entered the market in recent years.
No, we didn’t have butlers serving caviar, nor did we have any of the newer, trendier toys like helicopters or submersibles that might frighten the wildlife. And we never had to worry about getting dressed up for dinner.
What we did have was an intimate and relaxed setting with ample luxury perks, including fine dining, excellent wine, and spacious cabins (most with king-size beds, balconies, seating areas, and even heated floors in the bathroom). There are also plenty of public spaces onboard, such as a library with a faux fireplace, glass-walled lounges for wildlife and landscape viewing, two dining venues, a top-deck indoor/outdoor observation lounge, a science center, a lecture hall for what were at times sobering lessons on climate change, an ocean-view sauna, and two hot tubs on the sundeck.
The ship is designed to be as green as possible with low emission, fuel-efficient Tier-3 engines. It has an X-Bow inverted design to cut through waves with ease, creating a smoother ride and reducing fuel consumption. The Sylvia Earle also uses GPS-controlled stabilizers to float in place without anchors that can damage the sea floor. And it has onboard desalination plants that convert seawater to freshwater that’s safe to drink, meaning it can carry less freshwater, further reducing fuel consumption.
On land, the crew is well aware of environmental threats, carrying bags on the Zodiacs so that they can pick up any wayward sea trash. And before our first trip on shore, they went through our packs, gloves, hats, and exterior layers, vacuuming them when necessary to ensure there was no dirt or debris that could impact Indigenous plants and animals.
Arctic expeditions with a smaller environmental footprint
Traveling with Aurora Expeditions proved to be the perfect balance of adventure and sustainability. It assuaged my concerns about joining the fast-growing number of tourists jumping onboard the equally fast-growing number of new luxury expedition ships sailing into environmentally sensitive polar regions as ice caps and glaciers are melting and important wildlife habitats are being threatened.
In fact, the Australian company is leading the charge when it comes to transparency and accountability when traveling to remote environments, having released its first-ever impact report last month, titled “Protecting the World’s Wild Places,” and outlining its responsibility to protect the very ecosystems it brings travelers to and through.
In addition to supporting the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and educating passengers via citizen science projects, Aurora supports global efforts to provide young people greater access to climate change education. And given the company’s sustainability efforts, Aurora Expeditions is on track to obtain B Corp Certification in 2024.
While one could argue that any expansion in cruising comes at an environmental cost, I came away comfortable in the knowledge that with the right operator, you can explore some of Earth’s most remote regions while creating less impact.