In this edition of our Explorer’s Journal, Destination Expert Adam Laughter embarks on an Arctic cruise around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Join him as he guides you through his expedition filled with polar bears, icebergs, and a thrilling plunge in the ocean.
Hi y’all! This is SA’s Destination Expert Adam coming at you from the Arctic.
I recently went on an Arctic cruise with my father on Quark Expeditions’ brand-new Ultramarine, and I wanted to share this epic adventure with you. To give us a few days to adjust, we spent two nights in Oslo, Norway before boarding our three-hour chartered flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
The Ultramarine is one of Quark’s newest additions and we were lucky to be joining it on its third-ever expedition. This incredibly comfortable 190-passenger ship was about to provide the perfect balance of comfort, expedition, and luxury. Our Balcony Suite was equipped with more than enough space for two travelers and had stunning views - and the heated bathroom floors were a nice touch.
Built in 2021, the Ultramarine has a wraparound deck that offers perfect opportunities for viewing the polar landscapes and wildlife. (Photo: Quark Expeditions)
Our first afternoon onboard was filled with some standard protocols and a nice meal of mahi-mahi before heading to the panoramic deck to check out the sea ice and search for wildlife. On what was an extremely unique turn of events for a first night, our expedition team spotted a polar bear sleeping on the sea ice. After about 45 minutes, it made its way to the water edge and slowly walked in front of the ship along the ice break. Even at 9pm, the sun was luckily still beaming down to warm us all up. At around 11pm, things turned into a full party when we spotted a mama bear with her two cubs just a few feet away from another bear feeding off a seal!
Our first official sightings of the King of the Arctic – the polar bear! (Photo: Quark Expeditions)
We struck Arctic gold with our trip as we woke up with yet another polar bear along the sea ice in front of our ship. While we all marveled at the bear in the distance hunting for seals, an Arctic fox sprinted across our view.
We almost didn’t catch sight of this little one! (Photo: Quark Expeditions)
Today was our first landing on the Arctic ground at Camp Millar. Built in 1910, this was a prospecting camp of the Northern Exploration Company of London. It is situated on the northern side of Bellsund, west of Fridtjovbreen (the westernmost glacier in Nordenskiöld Land).
We grabbed our poles and bundled up for a short walk to explore the abandoned huts surrounded by plenty of Arctic reindeer. These were not your typical “Rudolphs” we’ve all become accustomed to, but very cute nonetheless. The reindeer here on Svalbard are some of the smallest of the species due to their isolation on the island with limited food supplies. Since, like cows, they have four stomachs, they are able to hibernate food in the rough winter months, digging through the snow to find some nutrients underneath. Once the summer rolls in, they then eat heavier amounts.
We also spotted another Arctic fox hopping around with geese and Arctic ducks before heading back on a zodiac ride to the ship.
With the Svalbard reindeer’s diet, their weight can have a fluctuating difference of 55 lb. throughout the year. (Photo: Quark Expeditions)
I can easily say that today was the first time we felt any movement on the ship as we made the long-haul overnight to northwest Spitsbergen. It was a dark cold morning, and the conditions were a bit rough for a morning excursion, so we kept warm on the ship. Svalbard was sure to keep us entertained though with yet another polar bear hunting in front of us on the ice.
After breaking through sheets of ice and repositioning ourselves on the northern tip of Svalbard, we bundled up and loaded the zodiacs to explore the ice field around us. As we pushed around ice sheets, we stumbled upon a walrus enjoying a nap. All the zodiacs huddled around as close as we could to get a good shot of the big ol’ fella enjoying his afternoon snooze.
It’s more common to find walruses lounging in packs, but maybe this guy was having a “me” day. (Photo: Adam Laughter)
On what was by the far the coldest day of the trip, our expedition staff felt that today was the moment to submerge ourselves in the Arctic … literally. More than half the ship lined up for a traditional polar plunge. At 79.5 degrees north and in 35°F / 2°C water temperature, I completed the plunge into the Arctic Ocean. Thankfully, a shot of vodka awaited me afterwards! I also received a nifty patch to prove it happened. For those wondering, my dad at 70 years old claimed he had nothing to prove and sat this one out.
For the record, I don’t remember yelling! (Video: Adam Laughter)
Today was one of my favorites! The sun was shining bright today as we made our way back down the coast of Spitsbergen to see the Kongsbreen glacier. We headed out on a zodiac ride through the ice sheet just at the base of two glaciers. We were able to double up with a landing to set foot on the ice and grab some photos with the glacier backdrop. The benefit of going this early in the season is that the ice sheet is still standing, and the icebergs haven’t melted quite yet. While we were all occupied navigating through the maze of icebergs and drifting ice patches, a friendly bearded seal decided to join in on the fun.
We weren’t the only ones exploring the iceberg maze today. (Photo: Quark Expeditions)
This afternoon we landed on New London, an abandoned mining site now covered by the Arctic snow. What they don’t tell you about all the warm gear is that it does not make for easy hiking, especially when coupled with two feet of snow. After a rough uphill climb and a bit of motivation from our reindeer friends, we reached our lookout point for a well-deserved view over the fjord and our shiny Ultramarine.
(Photo: Adam Laughter)
Heading back south to Longyearbyen, it was our first rocky night onboard as we hit a storm in open water. After doing a few cruises in my life, I was a bit nervous about the stability of the ship and was surprised at how smooth the journey was onboard. Even with a storm, the Ultramarine has a stabilizer system to help reduce movement onboard in case of rough seas. Although we were swaying, I was still able to sleep like a baby.
The final day in Svalbard was welcomed with – you guessed it – another polar bear sighting before heading ashore at Skansbukta. This was our only “free-roam” site where we could walk around without the presence of a guide. For safety reasons, most land explorations in the Arctic are strictly done with an expedition staff member who is armed with a rifle and proper training to handle wildlife encounters. Polar bears could be around any corner, and although they're great to see from a far, I don’t think anyone is curious enough to see what the largest bear in the world can do when it feels threatened.
Final count of polar bear sightings: Nine! Our last one was having fun rolling on the ice and jumping in and out of the water. (Photo: Quark Expeditions)
On our bittersweet last evening in the Arctic, we explored the Billefjorden and caught glimpses of seals and walruses just before arriving to the port in Longyearbyen. The ship crew prepared a final toast, and our adventure was capped with a special slideshow of our journey.
This was definitely an unforgettable father-son trip. (Photo: Adam Laughter)
Ready to set sail? Pack your things and take on this grand voyage through Norway’s Arctic islands. You can even cruise other regions of the Arctic, from Northern Canada to Greenland and Iceland. Get in touch with a Destination Expert and let the adventure begin!
About the Author: Born and raised in the foothills of North Carolina, Adam Laughter has spent the last half-decade living and traveling throughout Latin America. With years of first-hand experience, he plans private tailor-made adventures for his travelers from his home base in Lima, Peru.