Discovered in 1596 by Dutch captain Willem Barentsz, the High Arctic archipelago of Spitsbergen was the focus of early whalers and adventurers for more than 400 years. Legendary explorers such as Scott and Amundsen used Spitsbergen (also called Svalbard by the Norwegians, who administer the islands) as a launching point for their polar explorations.
Today, only about 2000 people live in these far-flung islands, mostly in two communities, Longyearbyen and Ny Alesund. The vast majority of the territory is uninhabited, except for a few hundred polar bears, several thousand walrus and millions of seabirds. It's these 'other' inhabitants that attracts us here.
A Spitsbergen cruise is the only practical way to explore this fascinating archipelago, during the summer and early fall months. In a typical year, the sea ice begins to break up around mid-June and the floe edge gradually retreats northward as summer progresses.
Early in the season, it's along this edge of the ice that one can find polar bears, walrus and seals hauled out. By July, polar bears are usually found on Spitsbergen's islands, along the shore. This is the time for the Arctic's annual explosion of birdlife: millions of seabirds, such as kittiwakes, guillemots and auklets, nest on precipitous cliffs. Massive tidewater glaciers cut their way through broad valleys, and huge skyscraper-sized blocks calve and slide into the sea.
By August, most young birds have fledges migration has begun and seabird numbers drop rapidly.
In addition to this wildlife wonderland, numerous historic and archeological sites dot the islands. As mentioned above, whalers and others have been visiting these islands since the 1600s and their encampments and graves testify to the unforgivingness of the North. The great Nineteenth Century would-be North Pole explorers left their marks too. Remains of encampments and structures built by Amundsen as well as the Andree balloon expedition's attempt on the pole can be explored.
Visit our blog for a detailed log of one of our recent Spitsbergen cruises.
Using four comfortable expedition-class, ice-strengthened ships, the M/S Expedition, M/V Plancius, and M/V Ortelius, we have developed several itineraries ranging from 8 to 16 days, which explore the vast inlets and fjords. Our Spitsbergen cruises offer 24 hours of daylight and the near certainty of seeing polar bears as well as walruses and a variety of seabirds rarely found outside the High Arctic. We visit fjords where, as the season progresses, we can hike for several hours across a tundra dotted with an astonishing array of wildflowers.
This is an excellent destination for those wanting to experience the glory of a summer in the Arctic, only a few hundred miles from the North Pole, using a comfortable expedition-grade cruise ship as your base.