Katie from our UK team just returned from our popular 12-day Svalbard Odyssey expedition, which showcases the best of this fascinating Norwegian archipelago. While no two expeditions are the same, each with its own unique set of opportunities and exciting challenges to overcome, discover what it can be like on one of our voyages in her comprehensive day-by-day account.
From incredible Arctic wildlife sightings to walking on sea ice to sleeping out on deck – try to imagine yourself in Katie’s shoes, wondering how every new day could possibly top the last!
After a night in Oslo, we landed in the northernmost settlement and capital of Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen. We were greeted by a full-size adult polar bear model, blustery winds and a sprinkling of snow. It really did feel as if we had entered another world.
A short bus ride took us to the hotel in the town, which was surrounded by snow-topped mountains and full of ‘park your dog here’ signs. The afternoon was at our leisure, but not wanting to waste a moment, we took a walk through the isolated town that, from October to March, sees no sunlight at all. Luckily for us, we were visiting in May, so we were treated to the Midnight Sun, a body-clock-altering phenomenon that only occurs in the summer months due to the Earth’s axis.
During our stay in Svalbard, we visited the Svalbard Museum, which offered a fascinating insight into the history of the town, including its hunting and mining history. We were also driven outside of the town boundaries, stopping for an obligatory selfie at the polar bear warning sign. Arriving at Camp Berentz, we were greeted by the sound of over 100 barking huskies (cuddles mandatory) in a nearby camp and the comforting smell of a roaring wood fire. We were invited into the traditional tents with a coffee and snack in hand to learn more about elusive polar bears before boarding the ship.
As we approached the Greg Mortimer waiting patiently in the dock, its white X-Bow® looked striking against the surrounding grey seas and black mountains. Once onboard, we were treated to hot broth and a drink from the welcoming crew, exactly what was needed to warm up! As we sat down for dinner while the ship sailed into the unknown, the atmosphere was of pure excitement for what was to come.
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we continued sailing northward. The morning was spent receiving briefings on polar bear protocols and ensuring that our clothes and equipment passed the rigid biosecurity procedures. We were also introduced to the people, places and wildlife of the archipelago by our onboard Naturalist, Cody.
It was then time for our first outing, and what an outing it was! We were anchored in Yoldiabukta, a bay with tidewater glaciers plunging into the sea, surrounded by towering mountains above, making for a very picturesque Zodiac cruise. We were lucky enough to get our first glimpse of walruses, which had hauled themselves out onto sea ice. This ice was then collected for use in our cocktails at the captain’s reception that evening, which was followed by a delicious dinner prepared by our chefs.
The next day, we were woken by our Expedition Leader Christophe’s soothing voice over the ship’s intercom. I opened my curtains to be greeted by jagged mountain peaks poking from the clouds, covered in a variety of bird species – a real treat for expeditioners.
During the night, we had sailed to Gnalodden in Hornsund, which was the site of our first shore landing. We eagerly waited for the expert Expedition Team to complete their polar bear scout before heading out in Zodiacs to a nearby beach. Some climbed towards the cliffs to get closer to the kittiwakes, dovekies, black guillemot and puffins that were congrerated there. The view from the top was certainly worth the short hike. Others remained on the beach, absorbing the calmness of this landing site. We were privileged to able to visit the hut of Wanny Wolstad, the first woman who overwintered here to hunt in the 1930s, while learning about the interesting life she led.
After a full morning of exploring, we headed back to the Greg Mortimer for a hearty lunch before setting sail for Burgerbukta. This short voyage was filled with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever witnessed, worth standing on deck for its entirety to take in beauty of it all.
Once we arrived, we cruised the bay by Zodiac, slamming the sea ice, bergy bits and growlers before getting up close to some fast ice. We were fortunate to witness puffins getting very friendly with each other, something not even our onboard Naturalist had seen before! That afternoon we completed our first Citizen Science Project, conducting a cloud survey whilst the NASA satellite passed overhead – just one of many important projects we were to take part in during our voyage.
Overnight, we changed course and started heading south due to the thick sea ice on the north of the archipelago. We woke to the enchanting beauty of Storfjord and Kapp Lee, where we prepared ourselves for a morning out in the Zodiacs. The air was crisp, the skies were blue, and the lack of wind combined to make the perfect conditions for this adventure. I joined the Citizen Science Zodiac with Albert, the onboard Citizen Science Co-ordinator. As we sailed through sea ice, with dozens of walruses hauled atop the frozen fjords, we trawled for tiny zooplankton to bring back to the ship to study.
Whilst we conducted our research, the ship sailed for a few hours to Negribeen, where yet again we were greeted by blue skies and a backdrop of a glacier spanning over 15 km (9 mi)! We were lucky enough to witness part of the glacier carving into the ocean, which was a magnificent sight. Some expeditioners spotted the emblematic Arctic bird, the Ivory Gull – usually a sign that a polar bear was close. Would we see one on this voyage?
Day five saw us begin sailing towards Freemansundet, a sound between two islands in the archipelago, known as the ‘bear highway’. The elusive polar bear was on our mind as we sat in the Observation Lounge, binoculars in hand and on the lookout. Despite multiple sightings of tracks, the bears continued to elude us, however we definitely weren’t in bad spirits. The ship was surrounded by sea ice, which the X-Bow® carved through with ease, making for a memorable sailing. After lunch, we headed out to a nearby landing site and went on a guided walk in the tundra amongst Svalbard reindeer, geese and snow!
Overnight, we had sailed around the south coast of Spitsbergen and northwards along the western coast to see how far north we could forge a path through the sea ice. We were on a true expedition, which was thrilling. We were woken from our deep slumber by an announcement that there were humpback whales at the bow of the ship. Every expeditioner rushed to the deck to watch these magnificent creatures, and while we were there, the water around the ship started to bubble as a pod of harp seals joined us to play in front of the ship. All of this before breakfast!
We were treated to a fascinating morning of lectures, including an introduction to photography from a Photography Guide and a presentation about the life of a snowflake. In the afternoon, the Greg Mortimer had reached Recherchefjord, where yet again blue skies and mirror-like waters greeted us – we really had been spoilt weather-wise. That afternoon, we took a short Zodiac cruise to land, and hiked towards a glacier over rocks filled with bright purple saxifrage. Another magnificent day in this northern paradise.
Today we ventured by Zodiac into the fjord, surrounded by huge icebergs in wonderfully intricate shapes. A bearded seal was hauled out on the sea ice, singing a ballad to attract a mate. After lunch, the ship headed northwards and into more sea ice; it truly felt as if we were one of the first explorers venturing into this remote location.
Then came the call many had been dreading – it was time for the polar plunge. Surrounded by ice and sea measuring a balmy -2 °C (28 °F), it was time for the brave to take a dip in the ocean. Around 50 expeditioners took part in this rite of passage, and what a buzz we felt afterwards, especially after warming up in the Jacuzzi.
During the evening, there was an announcement that we had crossed into the Arctic Circle at 80 degrees north – what better time to have a BBQ out on deck? With music, beautiful views and great company, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day. However, the Expedition Team had one more surprise for us – we had the opportunity for a slumber party on the deck. So, 16 brave expeditioners took to the deck in their bivvy bags, wrapped up warm to sleep under the Midnight Sun. What. A. Day.
Trust me when I say that waking up in the open air surrounded by sea ice and mountains never gets old. How could today beat the previous days, I hear you ask? Well, the Expedition Team had something special in store for us. The eagle-eyed among us had noticed we had stopped sailing and the gangway was being lowered. Shortly afterwards, Christophe announced that we had the rare opportunity to walk on the sea ice.
After getting ready in the mud room, we ventured down the steps with nothing but ice surrounding us. It was an indescribable experience, and the feeling of being truly immersed in the Arctic wilderness came with many powerful emotions. Some took themselves away to take in the moment privately while others enjoyed making snow angels on ice which had never been touched by another human.
After a busy few days, we welcomed some rest, taking in lectures from the expert Expedition Team and hitting the Jacuzzi. Whilst soaking ourselves, someone spotted a yellow mass in the water, which turned out to be around 50 Beluga whales swimming around the ship. Sitting in a Jacuzzi with our binoculars in hand observing 10% of the Arctic Beluga whale population was another moment I will treasure forever.
The afternoon saw us on another Zodiac cruise, cruising the mirror-like waters where the whales had been spotted just hours before. The water was full of black guillemots and the land boasted fresh polar bear tracks – could today be the day?
Back onboard and on the move again, we headed up to the Observation Lounge, but to no avail. After dinner and with slightly dampened spirits, we finally heard the sound we’d been waiting all voyage for: ding dong, “Polar bear starboard!”
After sprinting upstairs, we finally witnessed one of these magnificent animals, and what a show he put on for us, striding across a beach, swimming in front of the ship to sea ice, frolicking around and attempting to snare a seal. To his dismay, the seal was onto him before he could pounce, but what a treat for us all to be watching. The bear stayed in sight for a few hours as we all went to our beds, satisfied after another memorable day.
With our last day onboard finally upon us, we ventured out for a final Zodiac cruise around the bay where we had spent the previous night watching the polar bear. While the bear was long gone, we were not without wildlife. We were surrounded by Arctic Terns, one of the birds with the longest migrations from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and countless gulls.
In the afternoon we were invited to visit Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal mine from the 1950s. We were greeted by our tour guide, who had worked there alongside 1,800 workers during its prime. He took us to abandoned schools, pools and social housing while describing what life was like. Some expeditioners even enjoyed a game of basketball in the abandoned gym. Pyramiden is now a tourist attraction with one hotel travellers can stay in, if they are game. It was one of the most eerie but interesting experiences of this voyage.
For our final night and dinner together, there was a parade of all crew members, which gave us the opportunity to thank them for all their hard work and for helping to facilitate what had been a truly life changing expedition.
Business Development Manager for the UK
Katie has firsthand experience of remote nature travel, having worked onboard cruise ships sailing around the Arctic to destinations like Greenland and Iceland. This sparked an appreciation for experiencing the natural world at its most pristine. Her passion for sustainability, and doing what we can to protect these natural destinations aligns with AE Expedition’s values of respectful exploration and discovery.
With diverse travel industry experience, including working with tour operators, a small ship startup and onboard cruise ships, Katie brings a keen drive to bring AE Expeditions to more adventurous travellers across the UK.