The bear may be the polar poster child, but in your hunt for the king of the Arctic, don’t overlook the other wildlife that shares his frozen kingdom. The great caribou migration is a chilly version of the Serengeti, while the impossibly huge walrus, with metre-long tusks, is an astonishing sight. Arctic foxes are adorable balls of fluff, and narwhals are an eerie sight in the icy seas.
Navigating these waters is possible for just a few months each year. The wilderness islands include the Wrangel Nature Reserve, whose mammoth steppe vegetation is filled with strange endemic flora. Visit the remains of a 3,400 year old Eskimo camp, and look for grey whales, polar bears, musk oxen and Pacific walrus. Brown bears and smoking volcanoes can be seen along the Kamchatka Peninsula.
People spend so much time thinking about what’s surrounding the boat that they rarely consider what is on it. The rapport with other passengers – particularly on smaller ships, is often a trip highlight. You can share stories and adventures, have photography competitions and meet likeminded expeditioners from around the world. The vessel is all part of the voyage.
You might think that being on a boat for a fortnight would leave you living off uninspiring rations – or facing the quantity over quality cruise ship approach. But this is a high-end vacation – with high-end cuisine to match. You need good food in a cold climate, and restaurants serve an excellent variety of dishes. More luxurious vessels have three course meals and extensive wine lists.
Top of the Arctic cruise bucket list, the earth’s largest land predators is certainly deserving of the acclaim. Look out for them on ice floes, peering for seals beneath the breathing holes, or leading their cubs from their winter dens across to the sea ice. Onboard lectures explore the life of the polar bear – you’ll learn about its life cycle and how such a huge creature can survive in such an inhospitable landscape.
Canada is the place to go for Inuit art. Always a creative culture, the Inuit traditionally used bone, ivory and antlers for their carvings. Soapstone and serpentine are now common, although hand carving is still the preferred method. Prints, baskets textiles, painting and wall hangings are superb, and buying items ensures the traditions are taught to future generations – as well as providing much-needed income.
Far beyond the Arctic Circle, this archipelago is the stuff of icy legend. Walrus and auks, reindeer and bearded seals, foxes and some 2,000 polar bears inhabit the snowy shores and mountains – meaning there’s more bears than people! Spitsbergen, the largest island, has glaciers and fjords to explore. Trek across flowering, windswept tundra, visit the polar research station and try your hand at dog sledding.
Enormous, frozen Baffin Island is a haven for Arctic wildlife, including walrus, seals, polar bears and huge colonies of seabirds. Sail past glaciers, fjords and Arctic plant life, looking out for rare bowhead whales. Meet the Inuit inhabitants of tiny Kimmirut, who live a traditional lifestyle and create wonderful carvings and drawings. You may also hear their unusual throat singing.
While bases in the Antarctic are well established relics of an old way of life, those in the Arctic are remnants of ephemeral, temporary campsites, a hut and a few whale bones in the bleak middle of nowhere. It is a part if the region’s history, but in our opinion there are better ways to spend your time up here.
The passage’s history is fascinating and brutal; this route around the top of the world was long sought. Today, however, there are much better ways to see the Arctic – with more wildlife, more culture and much better accessibility. Additionally, slapping the name “Northwest Passage” instantly equates to a higher price tag – it’s the cheeky designer label of the Arctic cruise world.
Defying international regulation, Norway still allows whale hunting – as well as eating whale meat. While we accept that native communities should be permitted to maintain traditional hunting practices, commercial whaling is a totally different prospect, posing a threat to the survival of the species. Don’t support it.
You won’t find them waddling about in the Arctic, penguins can only be found in the southern hemisphere.