When mulling over summer family vacation ideas, travel to the Arctic isn’t on the usual short list … and we think it should be. I just got back from spending a week exploring the Svalbard archipelago with Lindblad Expeditions and found the entire experience not only thrilling and visually extraordinary, but supremely relevant for geopolitics in 2019 and beyond. In fact, this is most educational and eye-opening trip that I’ve taken since my trip to Antarctica with Lindblad in 2016. The trip is called Land of the Ice Bears — aptly named, as this landscape is also the planet’s sole habitat for polar bears. Observing these magnificent animals in the wild is the primary draw, but the lesson we all learned is that an Arctic family vacation has much more to offer than polar bears, as magical as they are to see in person.
We learned right away that the Arctic is vast and that its wildlife, although abundant, takes work and talent to find. Arctic guides have to know where to look and even then, it takes laser focus with hours spent behind binoculars to spot animals, particularly since many of them are white and blend in with the snow and ice. And this year we also learned that the amount of ice, even just compared to last year, is at radically lower levels and that the 2019 melt happened 3 to 4 weeks earlier than the recent past, which means that the wildlife that depends on that ice for survival, like the polar bear, has moved away with it.
As the subject of climate change and its impact on our planet is in the news on practically a daily basis now, we know that what experienced is not a one-off anomaly, but part of a radical shift in our climate, and the Arctic is an epicenter for changing conditions. Our sailing included multiple presentations one of the world’s top ice experts, Robert Jacobel. Robert shared how the unprecedented melting of the Artic’s ice has created a vicious cycle: the less ice there is, the less the sun’s rays are reflected, the more the oceans warm, the more ice melts and the vicious cycle continues. This is a dramatic simplification of the intricacies involved of our climate shift, but these foundation elements are critical to what is happening and it is the speed at which the ice is melting that is of utmost concern.
I suspect this trip will not be called Land of the Ice Bear, in perpetuity; we saw just five bears given the ice level in June 2019, while last year on the same trip they saw 28. This didn’t ruin our trip, it just shifted what we experienced. Regardless, exploring the Arctic with kids is a fantastic opportunity to gain an in-person understanding of the far reaches of our planet. Here’s a look at a few of the high points from our itinerary.
Expeditions by nature have a high degree of spontaneity and follow the best possible conditions for excursions and wildlife viewing. What we experienced on our itinerary will never be replicated exactly, but here’s look at big-picture highlights.
All Lindblad Expedition trips to Svalbard are kicked off in Longyearbyen, part of the Svalbard archipelago governed by Norway. Located more or less 650 miles from the North Pole, it’s the world’s northernmost town. Suffice to say, at 78 degrees north, this is a unique destination. The sun disappears below the horizon on October 5, and doesn’t return until March 8 — 155 days without light! That thought is unimaginable. Likewise, the midnight sun lasts from April 17 through August 24, 130 days. There are some sleepless nights in this part of the world, but the upside is that they are paired with the benefit of extra daylight hours for incredible sightseeing over the summer months. Lindblad Expeditions’ Longyearbyen itinerary include stops at the Svalbard museum, an excellent museum for its size with plenty of engaging visuals that tell the story of local history, geology and wildlife.
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Our tour of Longyearbyen included a meet-and-greet, snuggles and all, with very friendly working Svalbard sled dogs, a highlight for the kids and pup-loving parents on our expedition.
Circumnavigating Svalbard in search of wildlife centers on in-depth excursions into several of this region’s magnificent fjords. We kicked off our trip in the Bellsund fjord on West Spitsbergen, an immediate lesson in what vast landscape really means. Bellsund, one of the largest fjords in western Svalbard, extends 50 miles inland. This is where we experienced Arctic tundra for the first time. While it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of spotting beloved Arctic wildlife like beluga whales and polar bears, our first excursion on land taught us that the land itself is part of the voyage of discovery. We took our first saunter on the spongy tundra littered with carcasses and bones of Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox. The feeling of untouched timelessness with little human intervention is part of the magic. The cliffs throughout the Svalbard archipelago are home to thousands of nests for the abundant seabirds who live in this area; even non-birders were captivated by the tales of survival in the harsh conditions.
We saw our first polar bear in Storfjorden and were introduced to a spectacular icy wilderness in line with what we all envisioned the Arctic would look like, as our ship was surrounded by fast ice and icebergs, an ideal habitat for polar bears. It took hours of focused scouting by all the naturalists to spot our first bear taking a stroll looking for food along the shoreline — in other words, doing what polar bears are meant to do! A joyful time for all. The opportunity to see these majestic animals in their native habitat is truly a marvel.
Every day on expedition-style voyages involves sailing at night with a plan in mind and then evaluating the conditions to see what is possible. We had breakfast in front of a clump of walruses sleeping on a muddy beach on Edgeoya, the third largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, and had the opportunity to observe them at a safe but intimate range as they napped with occasional yawns and grimaces. We were even able to catch one in a swim. In typical Lindblad fashion, our approach was observation and a true opportunity to really settle into the moment and get an understanding of these animals. Excursions are led by naturalists who give live commentary and assessments of the animals.
Wildlife highlights can come at any moment on Lindblad trips. Ours came as we sailed into beautiful afternoon light and watched a carefree, frisky cub and his mama wander down in icy beach. We followed them with our eyes from the bow of the ship until they disappeared into the wilderness. For many of us it was the highlight of the entire trip and exactly what we came to experience. It was so enthralling that many of us were left wishing that we could rewatch the scene day after day, but part of expedition magic is most definitely moving on to see what else comes up.
If the bears were the star of the wildlife show, the landscape at Hornsund was the star of the visuals for me. We had breakfast in front of a magnificent rock face teeming with life, overlooking massive glaciers spilling right into the sea. Conditions were incredible for a landing and we were able to hike to a superb view of an icy bay surrounded by snowy peaks. Thousands of seabirds hovered above us in the cliffs. We all took a moment to let the sounds soak in and had 5 minutes of quiet. It was truly unbelievable. We had great views of this area’s highest peak, Hornsundtind, and marveled at the scenery. Our day ended with a zodiac ride by a glacier that calved right in front of us!
And in true Lindblad fashion, there are always elements of surprise and the unexpected. In our case, a zodiac cruise was made even more memorable with a visit by drink-wielding pirates.
Our last day in the Arctic was spent enjoying activities by colossal glaciers at the northernmost point of our expedition, 79 degrees. Conditions were good enough to take zodiac rides and kayak. Seeing the ice from the water always provides a radically different perspective and appreciation for the environment.
The Lindblad Expeditions experience isn’t just about seeing the sights … it’s about how to see them and pairing what you witness with subject experts. Every sailing has different naturalists who are there to educate and inspire by sharing their deep knowledge of the environment. From marine mammal experts to seabird experts, from undersea experts to one of the world’s premier ice specialists, there is no shortage of information exchanged and experienced. You always leave with a complete picture of the landscape from all angles, and this is one of the things I appreciate more and more about the Lindblad way.
And given the scope and speed at which this environment is changing, the time is now to get to the Arctic and see it in its current state of wonder.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.
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