Expedition cruises

To me the nicest parts of Spitsbergen are the desolate and icy worlds in the northern and eastern parts of the archipelago. Here you find the polar desert and the pack ice. And with it the animals that are typical for the high Arctic, like Walrus, Ivory Gull and of course the Polar Bear. These animals can also be seen in the more accessible western parts, but the chances are higher in the north or east and it is a lot nicer to see them on the ice.
The only problem is that it is nearly impossible to get to these areas on your own or with a small group. There is no infrastructure and hiking there asks a lot of preparation and skills. The best option is to join one of the expedition cruises that sail around the islands. These often use fairly small ships (mostly between 50 and 150 passengers) that are ice strengthened. Because of this they can penetrate the pack ice a little and bring you to the nicest and wildest areas.
These cruises are not only about sailing, but offer excursions ashore, often twice or three times a day. With these excursions you’ll be brought ashore in zodiacs, inflatable rubber boats, and ashore walks of different length are offered most of the time. Sometimes these walks are over a tundra area, sometimes in the Polar desert. At other times zodiac or ships cruises are offered, depending on the situation. All these excursions are aimed to give you the best view of Spitsbergen and show different parts of its nature, history and geology.

In the pack ice

Most expedition cruise ships take between 50 and 150 passengers, though there are some with smaller or larger groups. Personally I prefer a small group, that way you get to know each other more easily and you are more flexible. Groups are often of mixed nationalities and language on board is English most of the time. However, there are sometimes organisations that charter a whole ship and offer it to people with a special interest or one certain nationality. Some organisations also offer cruises in other languages, e.g. German. Ask your travel agent for the cruise that suits you best.
The majority of the people on board is between 45 and 65 years old, but I’ve seen people between 1.5 and 90 years old. With most excursions you’ll have to walk for a few hours, so if you want to get most out of it, one ahs to be able to do so. On most excursions, walks of different lengths are offered though, so you can also choose one less demanding if needed. Also realize that, even though most ships have a doctor onboard, a hospital can be several hours away (by helicopter), so you need to be in good physical health.
As you spent a lot of time with the group, it always turns out easy to make new friends onboard. So even though most people come with a partner, single passengers never really have to feel alone.
On most ships there is a very informal atmosphere and often you are welcome to the bridge, where the crew if often very helpful in showing you things on the sea chart or radar.

an expedition cruise ship

It is nice to know what the life on board looks like, but you all want to go ashore, don’t you? The expedition staff will try to give you the best possible experience of the Arctic. If that means that you get out of bed at 2 o’clock at night to see a Polar Bear, so be it. So don’t worry to miss anything spectacular. Most cruises try to give a general overview of the archipelago and offer excursions to bird colonies, old whaling stations, scenic tundra areas or Walrus haul out places. Or zodiac and ships cruises through the ice in search for Polar Bears and other wildlife.
Itineraries can’t be given in forehand as weather and ice conditions and possibilities to find wildlife change by the day, so every cruise will be determined by those factors and hence be different.
Before going ashore you’ll be briefed about the do’s and don’ts, but the basic rules are very simple. As all excursions are in Polar Bear country, you have to stick to the group. So no wandering off by yourself, you have to stay with the guide (and his rifle). And while walking ashore, stick to the motto “Take nothing but memories and pictures, leave nothing but footprints”.

Moss campion on the tundra

I’m often asked about the best time to go on a cruise. I find this very hard to answer. Early in the season there is still a lot of ice, which limits the places where you can go. This is why the cruises early in the season (June, sometimes early July) take only 7 days. The advantage of going on one of these trips is that you see Spitsbergen still in its winter coat. The disadvantage is that I think 7 days is too short to get a good overview of the islands. The eastern parts are still locked in ice, and even if they’re not, there isn’t time enough to go there.
Later in the season most cruises are around 10 days, which gives time to sail around the islands. This is of course depending on ice conditions. If there is much ice, you may not sail around anything, if there is very little ice, you may even sail around Nordaustlandet and Kvitøya. But even if you can’t sail around the main island, it gives you enough time to really experience the arctic. And remember, ice is nice!! I would prefer a cruise with lots of ice, forcing us to return above one where there is no sea ice at all and we can go everywhere. But the charm of these cruises is that you can never predict what you’ll get. On this website you can find the most recent ice charts, so you can prepare a little for what can come.
I think the best time is the second half of July to the first weeks of August. In that time you’ll have flowering plants, nesting and/or young birds and (hopefully) still some ice around with all the wildlife connected to it.
The best time for Polar Bears? I really don’t know, so far I’ve seen bears on every cruise I’ve done and I can’t really say when I see most. Finding bears is always depended on several factors, the weather (they’re really hard to find when its foggy) and the amount of ice are the most important. The expedition staff will do their best to find them, but your helping eyes are always welcome!

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