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Arctic Svalbard

Jess Brown

Expedition Ship

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Arctic Svalbard

Jess Brown

My first sight of Svalbard came into view at 1:00 a.m. After watching the sunset over the Oslo airport, I watched it rise again as we flew beyond the Arctic circle and into the territory of the summer’s midnight sun. Cotton candy skies gave way to a white glow. As we approached, the glow took shape into snowcapped mountains as the plane descended into Longyearbyen—the northernmost airport in the world. As the wheels touched down, I was already in awe of my first taste of the polar regions.

Longyearbyen's icy landscape from the plane

The next morning, I explored Longyearbyen’s quaint museums and learned about its Arctic history, embarking my first expedition ship in the afternoon. Winds up to 40+ knots turned us to the south to seek refuge in Hornsund. At the capable hands of Captain Zekan—and with help from his lookouts—we skirted the storm and woke to water so calm I wasn’t sure where the sea ended and the sky began.

A view of the ship's bow

Jess on the bridge

My first expedition day was full of exciting ‘firsts.’ It started with spotting our first polar bear. The bear kept its distance and eventually headed into the water and away from the ship. Rather than landing on shore, the expedition team quickly made a new game plan. Lunch was pushed back and we hightailed it to the Zodiacs, hoping to observe the bear as it wandered the shore. However, because the bear was in the water, we headed the other way to explore Gnålodden, which was full of birdlife, glaciers, and perfect weather. 

A Zodiac plies icy waters on a sunny day

Our second day began with a long hike on the Arctic Tundra. Kapp Lee was everything I wanted out of an expedition excursion including hiking, incredible summits with sweeping landscapes, and plenty of wildlife. We found reindeer horns that had been shed, reindeer horns still attached to live reindeer, and a few walruses that brought to mind giant potatoes lazing on the shore.  

An shed antler lying on the shore

A reindeer looks back at the camera

A herd of walruses laze on the shore

Due to the trained eyes of the Expedition’s incredible guides, day three of our ‘Realm of the Polar Bear’ expedition delivered on its name. To call this day life changing truly does not do it justice. In the morning we cruised Mohnbukta, slowly sailing past ‘fast ice’ in hopes of spotting the King of the Arctic.

What started as a moving speck on the horizon—whose curiosity and strong nose led him in our direction—finally transformed into a bear you could see with the naked eye. I shed a tear as the captain navigated the ship straight into the ice and the bear approached for a close encounter, staring directly at us for a long while. It is a moment of my life that I will never forget.

A single polar bear far in the distance

A closer but still distant glimpse of the polar bear

One day, after an afternoon of wet and windy Zodiac cruising, we were greeted by staff with a shot of whiskey and headed straight for the sauna to warm our bones. After dinner and the nightly recap, one of the most epic moments of my life unfolded.

Off the bow of the ship we spotted a mother polar bear and her two adolescent cubs. We observed them in silence and awe, then heard a whisper over the intercom that off the starboard side there was another mom with two cubs. I could not believe our luck! We watched as six polar bears explored in front of us.

Polar bears from a distance

The next morning started with an easy hike in Agardbukta where we saw polar bear tracks, waterfalls, and tundra. We then headed to Russebukta for a bird spotting hike with the crew’s ornithologist. We wandered around the squishy tundra and lagoon observing long-tailed ducks, king eiders, red phalaropes, a walrus in the water, and a polar bear skull! Never a dull day in the Arctic!

Polar bear skull

Another memorable visit was an exploration of Bamsebu and the hut where the first all-female team will overwinter to conduct research from 2019 to 2020. Along the shore are remnants of an old whaling site complete with whaling boats and piles of whale bones.

Whale bones strewn along the shore

We wandered the shore and took in the sunny weather, then headed out for a Zodiac cruise to a nearby beach to relax and scout for wildlife. Along the way we saw seals, an Arctic fox, and, of course, plenty of birdlife. As we were cruising, I photographed a guide on shore, marveling at the scale of the mountains in the background.

A lone guide walks along a sweep of Arctic landscape just off shore

That afternoon, we headed to Ingeborgfjellet’s Auk colony, home to hundreds of nesting birds. It was there that we spotted a few elusive Arctic foxes. The weather was warm and perfect, so the crew decided this would be the spot for our polar plunge. We lined up on the beach and waited for the countdown before finally running and diving (well, I dove) into the 32-degree water.

A group of passengers takes the polar plunge

Waking up on the final expedition day was bittersweet, even though we had a full day ahead. A Zodiac cruise took us to Eckmanfjord where we spotted a polar bear hunting seals on the fast ice. We cruised slowly and took it all in before heading back for lunch.

Our final outing was to Templefjorden, where we walked along the water, took photos with friends both new and old, hiked the ridgeline, spotted puffins, and soaked up our last excursion. We took in the midnight sun one last time before packing our bags and heading home.

A group in a Zodiac headed for shore in Svalbard

A group of friends take in the view in Svalbard

Svalbard will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was where I saw a polar bear in the wild for the first time. It was the first time I felt the midnight sun on my skin. It was my first Arctic expedition and my first taste of the polar regions. My first expedition trip was life changing, and I can say with certainty that it won’t be my last.

Jess in Svalbard