The Arctic coastlines offer some of the finest scenery and wildlife experiences in the world. Visitors to the region can witness enormous colonies of seabirds thronging the cliffs and shores, and enjoy the thrilling antics of whales and dolphins at sea and seals and Walrus hauled out on the rocks and ice floes. The lucky may even encounter the very symbol of the Arctic - the Polar Bear. Though remote and sparsely populated today, many of the places we explore have been inhabited in the last 5000 years, and thousands of unique prehistoric and historic sites are a testimony to the thriving cultures of the past.
The Norwegian name for this archipelago including Bear Island and Jan Mayen is Svalbard. However it is usually known as Spitsbergen. Covering an area almost as big as the Republic of Ireland, Spitsbergen with its population of 3,500 in five settlements is still today virtually unspoilt wilderness. With its rugged mountains, sweeping tundra, ice caps and glaciers, it is a true High Arctic archipelago, and only 600 miles from the North Pole. Its abundant wildlife was once a huge draw for whalers and trappers but now discerning visitors are discovering the attractions of huge Arctic seabird colonies and the chance to enjoy and photograph species like Walrus, Reindeer, Arctic Fox and of course, Polar Bear.
Day 1: Longyearbyen - Spitsbergen. Arrive in Longyearbyen, the administrative capital of the Spitsbergen archipelago of which West Spitsbergen is the largest island. Before embarking there is an opportunity to stroll around this former mining town, whose parish church and Polar Museum are well worth visiting, while in the surrounds of Longyearbyen, more than 100 species of plant have been recorded. In the early evening the ship will sail out of Isfjorden.
Day 2: Ny Alesund. Heading north along the west coast, we arrive by morning in Krossfjorden, where we take to the Zodiacs for an exhilarating cruise along the sculpted front of the 14th of July Glacier. On the surprisingly green slopes near the glacier, a colorful variety of flowers bloom, while large numbers of Kittiwakes and Brunnich’s Guillemots nest on the nearby cliffs. There is also a good chance of spotting opportunistic Arctic Foxes, who patrol the base of the cliffs in case a hapless chick falls from its nest, and Bearded Seals, who cruise this scenic fjord. In the afternoon we sail to Ny Alesund, the world’s most northerly settlement.
Once a mining village - served by the world’s most northerly railway, which can still be seen - Ny Alesund is now a research center. Close to the village is a breeding ground for Barnacle Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Arctic Terns. Visitors interested in the history of Arctic exploration will want to walk to the anchoring mast used by Amundsen and Nobile in the airship Norge in 1926 and Nobile in the airship Italia in 1928 before their flights to the North Pole.
Day 3: At Sea. At Smeerenburg on Amsterdamoya, we visit the remains of a 17th century Dutch whaling station, the blubber pots now surrounded by hundreds of tree trunks washed ashore after floating from Siberia. Our voyage continues around the north coast of West Spitsbergen as we head for the Hinlopen Strait.
Day 4: At Sea. Before turning south into Hinlopen Strait (if the pack-ice allows us) we will have reached our most northerly position. On and around the ice at the entrance to the strait, which divides West Spitsbergen from ice-clad Nordaustlandet, there is a good chance of seeing Bearded and Ringed Seals, Polar Bears and Ivory Gulls. On the eastern side of Lomfjordshalvøya we take a Zodiac cruise through the ice floes to the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, where thousands of Brunnich’s Guillemots nest in a spectacular setting.
The basalt pillars, rising hundreds of meters, and the overhanging ice cap with its waterfall are an awe-inspiring sight. Finally, on the eastern side of Hinlopen Strait we intend to make an evening landing in Augustabukta on the island of Nordaustlandet, the most northerly of the major Spitsbergen islands. Spitsbergen Reindeer graze the sparse vegetation of this largely ice-covered island, where Pink-footed Geese, Walrus and a rare Ivory Gull colony are also found.
Day 5: At Sea. Today we go ashore at Svartknausflya, a ´polar desert´, an area of Nordaustlandet that gets so little precipitation that not even hardy tundra plants can survive. The bare, sandy hills are a strong contrast to the world’s third largest ice cap, which plunges into the sea not far away.
Day 6: At Sea. Cruising south-east we pass just north of Svenskøya, the westernmost island in the totally protected Kong Karls Land, which is the most important denning area of Polar Bear in the Arctic. There may be patches of pack-ice and, if so, there is a good chances we will see Polar Bears, Harp and Ringed Seals, Ivory Gulls and Pomarine Skuas. Sailing south-west through Olgastreet, we may encounter the magnificent, but rare, Greenland Whale, which was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century.
Day 7: At Sea. In Freemansundet we plan to land at Sundneset on the island of Barentsoya to visit an old trapper´s hut and then take a brisk walk across the tundra in search of Spitsbergen Reindeer and Barnacle Geese. Later we cruise south to Diskobukta on the west side of Edgeøya. After a Zodiac cruise through the shallow bay, we land on a beach littered with tree trunks, which have drifted here from Siberia, and whale bones. We can also climb to the rim of a narrow gully which is inhabited by thousands of Kitttiwakes, together with Black Guillemots and piratical Glaucous Gulls. During the breeding season, the base of the cliffs is patrolled by Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears, especially females with young cubs, searching for young birds that have fallen from the nesting ledges.
Day 8: At Sea. In the morning we land on the attractive island of Bolscheøya, in the archipelago of Tusenøyane, to the south of Edgeøya. Here too we see the remains of Walrus and Greenland Whales, but on a happier note we may also spot a variety of interesting birds, among them Grey Phalaropes, Arctic Skuas, Red-throated Divers and, if we are lucky, a Pale-bellied Brent Goose, a sub-species found only on Spitsbergen, Franz Josef and, occasionally, in Greenland. In the afternoon we hope to land on Aekongen where there is a complete Greenland Whale skeleton. There are also spectacular basalt rock-columns here, and we may also see Common Eiders with chicks. At night we sail to Sørkap, the southern tip of Spitsbergen.
Day 9: At Sea. We start the day quietly cruising the side fjords of the spectacular Hornsund area of southern Spitsbergen, enjoying the scenery of towering mountain peaks. Hornsundtind rises to 1,431m while Bautaen shows why early Dutch explorers gave the name Spitsbergen - pointed mountains - to the island. There are also 14 magnificent glaciers in the area and very good chances of encounters with seals and Polar Bears. We may visit the Polish research station where the friendly staff will give us an insight into their research projects. Behind the station the mountains are home to thousands of pairs of nesting Little Auks.
Day 10: At Sea. Today we land on Ahlstrandhalvøya at the mouth of Van Keulenfjorden. Here piles of Beluga skeletons (the Beluga is a small white whale), the remains of 19th century slaughter, are yet another reminder of the consequences of thoughtless exploitation. Fortunately, Belugas were not hunted to the edge of extinction and may still be seen locally. Indeed, there is a good chance that we will come across a pod. Cruising into Recherchefjorden during the afternoon we can explore an area of tundra at the head of the fjord where many Reindeer feed.
Day 11: Longyearbyen. Return to Longyearbyen and disembark for the transfer to the airport and the flight to Oslo and home.
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