An Arctic cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime trip worth saving for. Here's how to make sure you get it right
Svalbard, home of the midnight sun, is a rugged desolate archipelago in the Arctic Ocean belonging to Norway with Spitsbergen as its biggest island and Longyearbyen as the main settlement. Towering snow-covered mountains riven with glaciers create a spectacular backdrop to drifting sea ice and an abundance of wildlife.
Nudging your way into the isles and inlets of this glorious archipelago demands maximum maneuverability and you don't want to lose sight of something because of the ship you're on. Your ability to spin around at 180 degrees should a pod of whales suddenly be sighted is a definite plus.
Look for a ship with a 24-hour open bridge too, allowing you to ‘come in from the cold’ when wildlife spotting on deck. You'll still have the perfect viewing platform and potentially be accompanied by the captain!
The more you survey, the more you see. Whether on deck or in a zodiac (inflatable dinghy) cruising, keep watch for walrus, whales or narwhals. You might think that polar bears with their custard-yellow coats can easily be picked out against the dazzling whiteness of ice but they are creatures of stealth and kings of camouflage.
Keeping the world’s largest land carnivore at a safe distance is paramount. In advance of land excursion the area must be ‘swept’ by armed guides.
(This is the most frequently asked question for Svalbard/Spitsbergen guides)
Lined-rubber waterproof boots for those wet zodiac landings are perfectly comfortable for short hikes but for longer hikes you need your ‘old faithful’ hiking boots. Carry them in your rucksack and swap over once you are on land, but be sure to remember thermal socks as well.
They need to be umbilically attached. It’s a wildlife fest for birders: Arctic terns, diving skuas, northern fulmar, snow buntings and Svalbard rock ptarmigans are just a taster of what to expect. Field books are usually supplied but you should carry pencils and notebooks to log what you've seen. On some ships, the team encourages visitors to add to the voyage list at the end of the day.
Several breathable thermal layers finished off with water proofs will keep your core warm and the wind chill at bay. Two pairs of socks – one thin, one thermal, two pairs of gloves – a liner and a fleecy waterproof pair similar to ski gloves are recommended. Not forgetting layers of sunscreen to protect against the harsh Arctic sun.
Author Angie Butler is from Ice Tracks Expeditions. Experts in Polar trips, they are currently planning a 10 night/11 day ‘Spitzbergen Explorer’ voyage from 5th July 2013 – 15th July 2013 on Akademik Sergey Vavilov. Personally guided by Carolina Mantella. Find out more here.