Exploring Svalbard’s Arctic wilderness

By Robert Ono
This article appears on page 30 of the January 2017 issue.
View of Bockfjord from the Sea Adventurer.

Anticipating days with crystal-clear blue skies and the opportunity to trek in the footsteps of early North Pole explorers, to view soaring mountain peaks, icebergs, polar bears, seals, walruses and birdlife and to visit early hunting settlements, we heard the call of Svalbard, the land of 1,000 Arctic glaciers, as it beckoned us in the summer of 2016. 

Reviewing available Arctic trips, my wife, Betty, and I soon focused on the “Spitsbergen Explorer,” a Svalbard circumnavigation cruise with 13 days of sailing on Quark Expeditions’ Sea Adventurer ($18,200 for two). 

Quark has been hosting polar trips since 1991, and we enjoyed traveling into the Antarctic Circle with Quark in 2015. Our 2016 trip would begin and end at Longyearbyen, situated on Svalbard’s Spitzbergen island.

A bit about Svalbard

One of the first questions that friends asked us as we were planning our trip was “Where is Svalbard?” 

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that lies close to the North Pole. A number of islands compose Svalbard, including Barentsøya, Bjørnøya, Edgeøya, Hopen, Kongsøya, Kvitøya, Nordaustlandet, Prins Karls Forland and Spitzbergen. Only Spitzbergen, the largest island, contains year-round settlements. 

Because the islands’ eastern coastlines are covered with snow and ice during much of the year, circumnavigation expeditions to Svalbard are limited to the summer months of late May through early August.

From the United States, our gateway to Longyearbyen was Oslo, Norway. Our journey began with 15 hours of air travel from San Francisco to Oslo via London’s Heathrow Airport. Arriving late in the afternoon, we stayed one night at the Park Inn by Radisson Oslo Airport (www.parkinn.com/airporthotel-oslo), located on the airport grounds. We paid $218 for a standard room. 

Our Oslo stay was our first exposure to the long hours of summer daylight. 

The next morning, we boarded a British Airways flight to Longyearbyen, one of the three daily summer flights between the two cities. 

When traveling on an organized tour, we find it’s best to arrive one day before the actual expedition’s start date. This allows time to recover from unexpected problems, such as lost luggage or a delayed flight. 

For our polar trips, we place difficult-to-find winter clothes in our carry-ons in anticipation of possible delayed luggage. This clothing includes waterproof pants and one pair of base-layer items, heavy socks and waterproof gloves and glove liners. Quark conveniently provides guests with waterproof parkas and boots to use during the expedition to reduce luggage requirements.


Longyearbyen is the largest settlement in Svalbard, with a population of about 2,100. The Radisson Blu Polar Hotel (www.radissonblu.com) hosted our one-night stay there. We paid $228 for a superior room. This hotel, one of at least six lodging alternatives in Longyearbyen, offered moderately sized rooms with basic furnishings and amenities, such as an in-room coffeemaker and Wi-Fi. 

Polar bears at Bjørnsundet.

During our walk through the town center, within walking distance of the hotel, we browsed the many clothes and sporting goods stores. The Coop department store (www.svalbard
) offered a one-stop location for a broad selection of groceries, drugstore items, cosmetics, liquors, household goods and electronics. If you’ve forgotten something for your expedition, the Coop is a good place to start your search. 

While in Longyearbyen, be sure to leave time to visit the Svalbard Museum (svalbardmuseum.no) and the North Pole Expedition Museum (spitsbergenairshipmuseum.com). Both provide area historical, scientific and cultural information and descriptions of evolving wildlife activity, all helping to explain how the Svalbard settlement developed over time.

A memorable meal

For a unique dinner in Longyearbyen, we decided to visit Gruvelageret (gruvelageret.no), located in an old mining building on the edge of town. Given that a walk to the restaurant would have been via a lengthy dirt road and perhaps near the edge of the town “polar bear safety zone,” we took a taxi to dinner.

Despite being in a remote area, our prix-fixe dinner offered an excellent and creative five courses. This was our first experience with a minke whale amuse-bouche and smoked blue halibut with mango salsa and wasabi mayonnaise. 

While this was certainly fine dining, the setting also added to our experience. The rustic building served as a mining storage building in 1946 before morphing into a shop, then stables. Purchased in 2010 by the current owner/chef, the building was converted, after much planning, to a restaurant, opened in 2015. The chef does a great job of tweaking menu items to match any dietary restrictions. 

Our dinner for two, with a wine flight, cost about NOK2,600, or $300. 

The following morning, we gathered our luggage and prepared to board Quark’s Sea Adventurer. Once on board, we unpacked our duffel bags, attended an evacuation drill and an introduction to the crew and learned the overall plans for our route. 

Life on board 

We soon fell easily into a daily routine. Each day started with a wake-up call over the cabin intercom from the expedition leader, a well-experienced senior staff member who was responsible for the overall itinerary, daily agenda and expedition crew assignments plus coordinating with the ship’s captain and hotel manager. The expedition leader was also responsible for the general safety of the guests and working with the crew to find scenic opportunities for passengers. 

The Sea Adventurer cabins were functional and clean but not necessarily luxurious. The cabin crew was very friendly, cleaning the rooms each morning and returning for turn-down service in the evening.

Breakfast started between 7:30 and 8, depending on the planned start time of the first daily outing. Open seating was the general rule in the dining room. Breakfasts and lunches consisted of a wide selection of buffet offerings, and dinners offered three formal courses: soups and salads; main dishes with vegetarian, fish and meat entrées, and several dessert choices. Wine, beer and sodas were available for purchase. 

Scenic Zodiac ride at Monocobreen.

Each meal was nicely prepared, and we appreciated the challenge of preparing and serving a variety of meals for 85 guests in this remote location.

During our Svalbard circumnavigation, we were largely in calm seas. However, there were a few days and evenings with periods of heavy ocean swells. Guests employed different methods to deal with seasickness, and the onboard expedition physician had a number of options to help those passengers who needed seasickness medication. Interestingly, there was no charge for physician consultation or any drugs dispensed.

Off-ship activities

In regard to outings, there were often two Zodiac excursions daily. However, the nearby presence of possibly dangerous wildlife (polar bears and walruses), heavy sea swells or thick and/or shifting sea ice, as well as current weather conditions, were reviewed before any outing. These factors determined whether we could use the rubber Zodiacs for a shore landing or for a cruise to explore nearby inlets and bays or if we would be forced to remain onboard to observe the Arctic scenery from the ship. 

Generally, this polar expedition included scheduled hikes following Zodiac landings in the mornings, with scenic cruising by Zodiacs in the afternoon. That said, high winds and rough swells on one day required that everyone remain on the ship in the morning, but two Zodiac activities were scheduled after lunch. 

When conditions dictated that we stay on board the ship, lectures on regional wildlife, geology or natural history were provided by expedition crew members. Occasionally, movies were shown in the main lounge during those times.

The lunch buffet started between noon and 1:30, depending on when the morning activities ended. If the Zodiacs were in use during the morning, lunch was scheduled to begin after everyone had returned to the ship.

Access to food was never an issue during our cruise. Besides our regular, well-prepared meals, an afternoon tea with sandwiches and desserts was served at 4 p.m., and an endless supply of ship-baked cookies was always available in the main lounge, along with coffee, tea, hot chocolate and filtered water.

Predinner discussions led by staff were held in the main lounge between 6:30 and 7 p.m., with warm hors d’oeuvres served. During this meeting, crew members reviewed what we had seen during the day, displayed a photo of the day and finished with a preview of the next day’s planned activities.

Our evening dinners started as early as 7:00 to as late as 8:00. Again, dinnertime was dependent on when we returned from the afternoon activity. 

A brief presentation by a crew member was held in the lounge after dinner, with a focus on humorous and interesting stories. The evening activities ended between 9:30 and 10, which left us a little time for evening reading before going to sleep.

Guided hikes

As there were only 85 passengers on this trip, travelers were distributed into three departure groups, each group rotating daily for an early embarkation position. After a 30-minute advance alert informing groups of the first departure time, passengers had plenty of time to put on their warm base layers, mid-layer clothing and waterproof pants, jackets and boots plus life jackets. 

For the hikes, we avoided our mid-layers to keep from overheating. In fact, on one unusually sunny day, I was able to hike in a short-sleeved polo shirt! 

The Zodiac outings ranged from 90 minutes to three hours.

Chocolate extravaganza on board the ship.

Compared to our Antarctica expedition, this Arctic trip permitted greater opportunities to participate in 2- to 3-hour guided hikes. 

In Antarctica, guests were often limited to the small areas marked by expedition staff for individual exploration. On this itinerary, passengers were able to choose an Arctic hiking group based on the aggressiveness of the walk — contemplative, medium or fast-charging. The chargers often hiked the longest distance and up to the highest-elevation locations. 

Betty and I tended to hike with the medium-speed interpretive group so that we could take time for photography and to observe wildlife and plants that were identified by the expedition naturalists and crew members leading the walks. 

The walks were often over tundra that made it feel like you were walking on thick carpet. And on one walk, several hikers, including me, struggled to keep both feet from becoming stuck in mud that was about 10 to 12 inches deep.

For all hikes, due to possible polar bear danger, the crew members carried flare pistols and rifles, in addition to GPS devices, distance rangefinders and binoculars. Where we were permitted to explore on our own, armed expedition crew members were stationed at area perimeter locations.

Svalbard stops

During our Svalbard circumnavigation, we visited 19 areas. There were no landing piers or, for that matter, human settlements to visit at any location. Each Zodiac landing was made along a sparse, thin beach or rocky shoreline. 

The expedition crew assisted each passenger in safely entering and exiting the Zodiac beside the Sea Adventurer and at the shoreline.

As wind, fog and heavy swells descended on us at times, the ship didn’t follow a direct route around Svalbard. While we generally moved in a clockwise direction around the archipelago, we also reversed our course several times to move to a location with greater protection from the elements or to a spot that promised spectacular wildlife viewing. 

Our northernmost outing occurred at Kvitøya, at 80°N latitude. 

During our stops, we were rewarded with views of abundant wildlife and spectacular landscapes. Several times, curious polar bears came to the side of the Sea Adventurer and, at one point, watched Zodiac riders from a nearby shoreline. 

Other mammals sighted were walruses, seals, whales, reindeer and arctic foxes. 

The opportunity to view birdlife was present every day. The most prevalent birds were arctic skuas, arctic terns, black-legged kittiwakes, common eiders, guillemots, glaucous gulls, northern fulmars and snow buntings. On our Zodiac cruise along the basalt cliffs of Alkefjellet, we watched a fascinating colony of an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs of nesting guillemots.

The glacier-laden landscape presented a variety of views as well. From a basement of metamorphic rock, we could see soaring rocky basalt cliffs and limestone peaks. In other areas, moraine and fluvial deposits left gently sloped hills covered by tundra. In areas of richer soil, low-growing grasses and flowers, such as saxifrage and buttercups, were found. 

We also had the opportunity to quietly reflect on the early Arctic explorers as we viewed a monument to Salomon August Andrée at Kvitøya. 

In 1897, Andrée, a Swedish engineer, attempted to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon. Departing Spitzbergen, his balloon leaked precious hydrogen from the start and, about 60 hours after departure, he crashed onto moving sea ice. Unharmed but unable to outpace the Arctic winter, after about 80 days Andrée and the other two balloon survivors perished on Kvitøya. Their whereabouts remained unknown for 33 years.

Walking along Hilmar Rekstens vei in Longyearbyen.

Choosing an expedition company 

When choosing a Zodiac-based polar expedition, there are several factors to consider. There is an advantage to sailing on a ship with a capacity of no more than 100 guests, as, in most polar areas, expedition operators must refrain from unloading more than 100 passengers on land at one time. If your ship has 200 guests, your actual time on land could be cut in half. However, if you’re seeking only to cruise through a polar region, without on-land adventures, then the passenger count is less significant.

The presence of ship stabilizers, fins that extend under the ship’s waterline to reduce the effect of rolling seas, can also be important to polar travel. Despite having such fins, seas with 16- to 24-foot-high swells will still feel rocky. 

Finally, if the ship has an ice-strengthened hull, your trip might allow less-restricted travel through thick sea ice. 

The Sea Adventurer met many of these specifications. The ship has a 1A ice-class rating, the highest (short of being an icebreaker) according to Finnish-Swedish ice class rules. It is 332 feet long and carries a maximum of 117 guests in 57 cabins. 

As the Sea Adventurer offered a sea kayak option, there were often fewer than 100 guests queued for the Zodiac trips. 

With its two stabilizers, the ship routinely plies the Antarctic and Arctic regions for Quark Expeditions. It is scheduled for major public area, cabin and mechanical renovation in early 2017, to be completed in time for its 2017 summer-season itineraries.

Consulting friends and reading expedition reviews are essential to selecting a polar expedition company. We also look for an expedition crew that includes field experts, such as naturalists, ornithologists, geologists and historians. Finally, the presence of a physician and an experienced expedition crew are essential. 

When deciding whether to take an Arctic or Antarctic cruise, it is important to consider the different experiences available on each. If penguins, sea mammals, spectacular icebergs and possible visits to historical areas are your focus, you can find them in Antarctica, while the Arctic offers views of polar bears, walruses and vast birdlife and, depending on the area, visits to cultural sites and former whaling and trapping sites. The Arctic also offers opportunities to take longer-distance hikes. 

Finally, your availability calendar might affect your choice. In Antarctica, most expedition visits occur from October through January. In the Arctic, the expeditions are typically scheduled from May through August.