My Polar Experience with Quark Expeditions
I took a step back and surveyed my packing progress. The thermal layers and sweaters I’d laid out were in sharp contrast to the sunshine that was pouring in the window from Toronto’s first 30° day of the year. I couldn’t imagine that in a few days I would be out of the Toronto sunshine and travelling to Svalbard in the North Arctic Ocean with Quark Expeditions for my first polar experience.
The expedition I was embarking on with Quark was called Spitsbergen in Brief, six nights on board their brand new ship, Ultramarine. Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, located north of the Arctic circle. Quark offers a few different itineraries in this region, all of which begin with a three-hour charter flight north out of Oslo, Norway, to Longyearbyen, the main town on the island. The charter flight was the source of my packing angst. There was a strict limit on luggage and I wanted to make sure I had all the clothing I needed while staying within the limits.
When I finally exited the plane in Longyearbyen, a blast of fresh arctic air greeted me along the view of snow-capped mountains. As our group made its way from the plane, everyone was stopping to take pictures. Completely in awe of our soundings. Little did we know these views were nothing compared to what we would experience over the next few days.
I admit, even though I knew better, the word expedition conjured up images of old creaky ships and less than comfortable accommodations. If you have been having the same thoughts, let me assure you that Ultramarine is exactly the opposite.
This was only the third public sailing of Ultramarine, an ice class ship purpose-built by Quark for polar travel. An intimate ship, she only has capacity for 199 guests. While this might seem like an odd number, later in the expedition we learned that in Antarctica ships with less than 200 guests can disembark the entire ship at once, whiles ships with 201 to 499 can only disembark 50% of the guests at one time, and ships with over 500 passengers can’t disembark at all. Visiting the polar region on a larger ship than Ultramarine means passengers will have less time for their polar landings as the time needs to be shared or worse, you won’t even get to disembark and touch the 7th continent.
The staterooms on Ultramarine are luxurious and spacious, with more storage space than you will ever need. Travellers can choose from a variety of accommodations, including Explorer Suites with a large picture window, Balcony Suites, and Solo Panorama rooms perfectly designed for solo travellers. The bathrooms are some of the largest I have ever seen on a cruise ship, and feature a heated floor, perfect for warming your toes.
Spitsbergen in Brief
Late on our first evening, after we had set sail from Longyearbyen, a buzz went through the ship. A spotter had found a polar bear on the sea ice. I quickly learned that when this happens, the teams can’t make announcements over the loudspeakers because the sound carries across the ice and disturbs the animals. Instead, the team spreads the news through the ship like the best kind of gossip. The crew also calls staterooms to alert guests of the viewing opportunity. I grabbed my yellow Quark parka and followed some of my fellow explorers to the front deck of the ship.
On deck, the Quark Expeditions Leaders had set up high-powered telescopes and trained them on the sea ice where the polar bear was making his way along the edge. For the next 20 minutes, we watched not just that polar bear, but also a mother and a cub move across the ice as the midnight sun glowed high in the sky. It was magical, and I knew this trip was going to be unlike any other I had experienced.
The next morning we were up bright and early, ready for adventure. After a gourmet breakfast in Balena, the main restaurant, all the guests convened in the Ambassador Theatre for our first briefing. They introduced us to the Expedition team. Birdie, the Expedition leader, joked that after the great start to our trip with the polar bear viewing the night before, he didn’t know what he was going to do with us for the next four days.
Bridie and his team explained that the daily itinerary might seem vague and full of maybes, but that was deliberate. He had a plan, but sometimes, Mother Nature intervened. For example, as we had spent the previous evening watching the polar bears, we hadn’t sailed as far as we need during the night to execute his original plan. But not to worry, there were many magnificent spots to choose from. Changes to the agenda were all part of the expedition experience.
For the next four days, we explored the fjords of Spitsbergen. Twice a day, the guests descended to the ready rooms on deck two of Ultramarine, donned our Quark provided muck boots and lifejackets before loading into the zodiacs for excursions.
There were essentially two types of excursions included in the expedition.
The first is a zodiac cruise, normally about an hour and a half to two hours that allows guests to view the majestic cliffs, glaciers, and icebergs up close and search for wildlife like birds and seals. Each day was as spectacular as the next, but a highlight for me was our morning spent in the Kongsfjorden on the west coast of Spitsbergen. It was an unbelievably bright day and a balmy -3 degrees, a very comfortable temperature with our Quark Parkas on. The ice in this region was just breaking up for spring, leaving behind icebergs and flats of drift ice. While the polar ice was retreating, we could do a landing on the fast ice (fast ice is ice that is attached to land short for fastened ice) that stretched out in front of the Kongsvegen glacier.
After our landing, we cruised by the Kronebreen glacier, drinking in the arctic’s peacefulness and snapping as many photos as we could, trying to capture the spellbinding scenery digitally. A seal popped up in front of our zodiac but they were to quick for us to get a photo. Luckily, a little further along, we came across another seal sunning themselves on the ice, unperturbed by the gaggle of yellow jacketed visitors all trying to get a photo.
The second type of excursion was a landing, which could comprise a hike or a perimeter walk, depending on the location. We did two hikes and a perimeter walk during our expedition. For the hikes, the guests could choose the level of difficulty they were comfortable with, from advanced to contemplative. During our hikes, we learned about the history of mining in the area from the early 1900s and saw some artefacts from this time such as huts and abandoned mine equipment. We often came across grazing Svalbard reindeer and the occasional fox ran by in the distance.
For all excursions, Quark maintains the highest levels of safety. The expedition team pre-scout for polar bears and other wildlife, the hikes are in small groups to ensure everyone stays together and there are briefings for safety in the zodiacs.
In additional to the included excursions, Quark offers two different paddling options at an additional cost. The first is a package for the week, where when guests heading out in the zodiacs, the paddling group sets out in solo kayaks, whereas the one time paddling excursion is a one time guided paddle using two person inflatable kayaks, I tried the one time excursion and I am so glad I did. Gliding through tranquil arctic ocean amongst chucks of ice was meditative and allowed me a different perspective of the landscape than the zodiac rides.
Other Activities and Entertainment
No Quark polar expedition would be complete without a Polar Plunge! Form the start of our expedition the rumour circulated that the polar plunge was coming. The expedition team was waiting for the perfect spot, ideally one with icebergs in the background. Day two of our expedition, they found it. We were at the North end of the island, only 600 km from the North Pole. The air temperature was -2, and the water was 2 degrees. An announcement came over the loudspeaker, “It’s time, explorers! everyone who wants to take part in the polar plunge should line up near the ready rooms on deck two, ready to go in their bathing suit and robe.” They followed that pronouncement with, “Dr. Dave, please come to the ready rooms to stand by for the Polar Plunge.” the fact that the expedition Doctor would be on hand wasn’t comforting.
I joined the queue equal parts existed and nervous. The crew played loud party music and one leader was wearing a polar bear onesie hyping up the crowd.
One by one, the polar plungers jumped, and before I knew it, I was up. No Turning back. An expedition leader tied a harness around my waist, pointed at the ocean and said “whenever you’re ready”. Yikes! I took a deep breath and jumped.
I don’t think I can adequately describe the feeling of the freezing water. My body went numb and the reason for the harness was quickly apparent. They use it to haul in jumpers. I somehow could swim over to the stairs and exit the water. The team on deck congratulated me and I scrambled for my robe. You know the pins and needles feeling you get when your foot falls asleep? That’s what my body felt like a million times over. I received a badge and shot of vodka to commemorate my accomplishment and exited the deck area past my cheering fellow passengers, who were still waiting their turn. My biggest takeaway; bragging rights. Few people get to jump in the Arctic Ocean but, then again not jumping in the arctic might be the smarter choice.
In the evenings, the expedition team did a debrief of our day and gave other talks related to the polar regions. Tara, one of the expedition team, gave the most memorable talk. She told the story of how she, along with two others, completed the first circumnavigation of Svalbard by kayak. It took them 71 days to travel over 2200km by kayak, and in what was an epic adventure filled with polar bears, whales and walrus. It also reminded me of how wild this region we were travelling in was. I am in awe of her achievement.
Our last night we sailed back to Longyearbyen, and I wasn’t ready for my Quark expedition to end. The much used phrases “trip of a lifetime” and “life changing experience” are two that can easily describe my experience with Quark Expeditions, but somehow they don’t do it justice. During my trip, I gained a new appreciation for the vastness of nature and the peacefulness that found miles away from our everyday lives, And while this wasn’t a sit around, lazy sleep in and vegetate vacation, there were cocktails, amazing food, and I came away relaxed and rejuvenated and for once didn’t over pack.