Land of the Midnight Sun: Svalbard
The remote Svalbard Archipelago, a territory of Norway, is comprised of four primary islands and approximately 150 smaller isles. The most common island to visit is Spitsbergen, home to the official capital, Longyearbyen, from which most expeditions start.
Q&A with Arctic Specialist, Shelley Fry:
1. What inspired you to travel to Svalbard?
While I love exploring all kinds of off-the-beaten path places, traveling to areas where I can view wildlife in its natural habitat is always at the top of my list. I am fascinated by polar bears, so the chance of observing them from a ship in such a pristine environment was a strong draw for me. Seeing the pack ice and the glaciers north of the Arctic Circle was exciting as well since I caught "polar fever" in Antarctica. And, I felt an urgency to see the Arctic due to the startling changes in the sea ice that threaten the wildlife there. Fortunately, the polar bear population around Svalbard seems to be stable right now, so it's an excellent place for one's chances of seeing this amazing animal.
2. What was your favorite landing in Svalbard and why?
Stepping into a hunter's cabin at Gnälodden in Hornsund was like stepping back in time. This important historical site has been used for centuries, and the current shelter at the base of the towering cliffs was built in the 1920s. It's still occasionally used by trappers and explorers, and one of our guides actually spent a couple nights of his honeymoon there! As another of our guides told us stories about exploration and survival, I realized how glad I was that all of the guides who were on shore with us were rifle trained. It was a bit surprising at first, but that's actually a requirement and I felt very safe because of the precautions they took. There are remnants of Svalbard's human history at many other landing sites, and I found it difficult to imagine living in this harsh and unforgiving place without a warm ship as a home base!
3. What were you most captivated by?
That's a difficult question to answer! Of course, I absolutely loved the polar bears and the ice, but I was also captivated by the quality of the light. I took photos with clear blue skies and sparkling water well after midnight, and the icebergs, walruses, and whales we saw north of 80-degrees were bathed in an ethereal light that was indescribable. Or, maybe it was breathlessly watching a majestic ice bear in Storfjorden as she lumbered across the sea ice, jumped to the next ice floe, and finally laid down to silently watch us. I'll never forget that.
4. For those who have already traveled to Antarctica, why do you think they would enjoy exploring the Arctic?
If you enjoy remote, pristine landscapes and searching for wildlife, it's hard to resist the Arctic. There's such a stark beauty in the geological features in the far north. I do think it's important to know that the wildlife isn't literally at your feet like it is in Antarctica, but in the land of the ice bear, that's to be expected! My clients who have been to the Arctic have come back with some stunning landscape photos as well as shots of polar bears, walruses, reindeer, arctic foxes, seals, lots of birds, and whales, and some have even had rare encounters with blue whales and belugas. Not all of these animals are seen on every trip, but it's all about the adventure and the surprise.
5. Can you speak a bit about the different expedition cruise options available? Luxury, Adventure, etc.
The small ships in the Arctic range from Russian research vessels to luxury expedition ships, and the vessel you choose will have a tremendous impact on your experience. Russian ships tend to be quite rugged, as you might imagine, and they often attract a somewhat more active clientele since many of them offer a kayaking option. Luxury expedition ships, although they are more comfortable and refined, are still casual and focused on exploration. Regardless of a ship's amenities, the timing of the trip and the experience of the shipping company in the Arctic is very important when it comes to finding the wildlife. Once I know a bit about what my clients are hoping to see on their Arctic trip and what their priorities are, I help guide them toward the ship that will give them the experience they are hoping for and best fit their style of travel.