The goal for this voyage is a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Along the way, we hope to experience the many facets of this incredible High Arctic territory. Our exact schedule and route will be shaped by weather and ice. During this mid-summer voyage, we hope ice conditions will be favorable for a circumnavigation, though we expect there will still be plenty of sea ice around to support ice-dependent animals such as polar bears and walrus. In addition to seeing Spitsbergen from every angle, this itinerary offers the appealing possibility of setting foot on all four of Svalbard’s main islands.
The first of many pristine natural areas on this itinerary is South Spitsbergen National Park, a vast region of varied landscapes including polar deserts and impassible mountain ranges. The centerpiece of this park is Hornsund, a picture-perfect fjord where countless mighty glaciers cascade from soaring mountaintops into icy inlets. The park also includes the southern shores of Bellsund, a picturesque bay where we find the remains of historical whaling operations, including cabins, wooden boats and thousands of whale bones—a scene from the distant past, literally frozen in time. Throughout the park, there is always a high probability of wildlife sightings. There are also plenty of possibilities for world-class hiking through wild polar landscapes with fascinating geology. Wildflowers are especially abundant during this time. Next along our route is the wildlife-rich Southeast Svalbard Nature Reserve, a pristine and rarely visited wilderness containing hundreds of uninhabited islands. On the large islands of Edgeøya and Barentsøya, we discover broad tundra valleys supporting the territory’s densest population of endemic Svalbard reindeer. We may see newborn reindeer calves at this time of year. The valleys are also important breeding areas for ground-nesting birds such a geese, eiders and sandpipers. Arctic foxes prowl the vast landscape, seeking to provide food for their growing cubs. Shallow, murky seas are ideal feeding grounds for walrus, which can be seen resting in large numbers on gently sloping beaches. Historical sites throughout the islands provide glimpses into the region’s bygone era of trapping and hunting. During this voyage, we expect to encounter the densest concentrations of sea ice in the enormous Northwest Svalbard Nature Reserve. In this remote and isolated region, ice can persist very late into the summer, giving it a truly polar character. This reserve covers the rugged northwestern parts of Spitsbergen and the entirety of Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in Svalbard. Here we find the massive Austfonna ice cap, part of which meets the sea along the 45-kilometer ice cliff known as Bråsvellbreen—one of the great wonders of the Arctic world. The polar desert environment supports little in the way of vegetation but hosts prodigious numbers of seabirds at breeding sites such as the spectacular sea cliffs of Alkefjellet. The probability of encountering polar bears and walrus in this icy wilderness is very high. At this time of year, the edge of the polar pack ice will likely be close to Nordaustlandet. We hope to sail along this dynamic boundary between sea and ice, where we have an unparalleled opportunity to witness the dramatic interplay between polar bears and seals. We will take the ship as close as safely possible to the jumbled and constantly shifting ice floes in the hope of observing polar bears in their preferred habitat. Finally, we reach Northwest Spitsbergen National Park, the crown jewel of Svalbard’s scenic wonders. Here we find deep fjords flanked by serrated mountain ranges and immense tidewater glaciers calving icebergs into turquoise waters. During our voyage, the seabird breeding season is in full swing and the skies are filled with millions of murres, guillemots and little auks. This is also a great time to encounter marine mammals, including beluga whales and various Arctic seals. Set among this incredible scenery and wildlife activity, we also find evidence of Svalbard’s earliest sealers and whalers. Human habitation along our route can be found at Ny Ålesund, a former mining town and airship base that is now home to an international community of Arctic researchers. This is one of the world’s most northerly settlements where we find a museum, gift shop and post office. The ambitious Svalbard and Polar Ice Edge route offers a comprehensive view of the Arctic’s many faces. Every day offers something new and exciting. We will not miss a single opportunity to encounter amazing Arctic wildlife, to witness incredible polar scenery, and to walk in the footsteps of historic expeditions that came before.