Svalbard micro cruising

If you need just one reason to choose a micro cruise to Svalbard, then the origin story of our polar exploration specialists Secret Atlas is it. Co-founders Andy Marsh and Michele D’Agostino were working as crew on a three-month expedition in the Arctic when a towering cruise ship docked beside their vessel.

“I clearly remember the moment,” says Michele. “About five of us were visiting a village with 300 people living there – and then came a cruise ship unloading hundreds of people in it. It felt wrong; unethical. And we thought: we’ve got to launch something that’s an alternative to this.”

And thus, Secret Atlas was born with the crystal-clear idea of bringing 12-guest expedition cruising to Svalbard.

There are many other reasons for choosing a micro cruise to explore Svalbard, of course: the ease of getting out and about, for starters. Disembarking from a large cruise ship resembles a military operation. A team of guides cordons off and polar bear-proofs the landing site, marking out paths with flags so that hikers don’t veer off-piste and crush the fragile vegetation. Polar willows – only an inch or two tall – are a favourite snack of Svalbard reindeer, and easily crushed by stray bootsteps.

“For us, it’s completely different,” says Michele. “You can go from the boat to hiking on the beach, looking for wildlife, in 15 minutes. We remove the frustrations of waiting and landing in a limited area.”

Navigating changing climes in Svalbard

Andy and Michele are experienced polar guides and have witnessed the impacts of global warming on Svalbard first hand. Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly settlement and the start of most cruises in Svalbard, has the dubious honour of being the fastest-warming place on the planet.

The region is warming at six times the global average, and the people and animals here are feeling it. The amount of summer sea ice has halved since the 1980s and glaciers such as Kronebreen and Kongsvegen are shrinking at a record pace, retreating almost 200m each year and contributing to rising sea levels worldwide. Warmer temperatures can result in rain instead of snow, causing more landslides and avalanches.

Voyaging with polar guides & conservationists

Micro cruises take you about as close as you can safely get to the immense glaciers, fjords, lichen-covered hills and snow-streaked mountains of Svalbard.

“All ice makes different noises,” says Andy. “In Svalbard, it’s the roar when it calves; the water around the Zodiac bubbles. I’ve been next to an iceberg that cracked inside, but nothing fell off it. It’s scary; it’s awesome.”

Even after a combined 400 years’ experience of exploring Svalbard, your guides remain as in wonder of the region and its inhabitants as you are. Learning about climate change, wildlife and polar exploration in the Arctic with them isn’t all about on-board lectures. Guides will narrate scenes playing out before your eyes like a National Geographic documentary.
You come to see a fragile area that is being changed. Does that make you want to act differently?
“We shot this amazing footage of a young polar bear hunting reindeer,” says Andy. “That isn’t normal prey for them – traditionally, polar bears hunt seals off the ice, but there are less and less seal sightings on the ice, so they’ve had to shift their behaviour. Once, you would have seen polar bears on pack ice in the summer months, and now they spend much more time on land. When you see these things with your own eyes, it changes you and makes you more environmentally conscious.”

Micro cruises also allow you more time with the guides. Go on a photography micro cruise of Svalbard, for instance, and you may well find your trip helmed by Florian Ledoux, an award-winning photographer, filmmaker and environmentalist who filmed footage for the BBC’s Frozen Planet II and Disney’s Polar Bear.

“We always work with guides who are passionate about Svalbard and about encouraging people to understand what is taking place here,” says Andy. “There’s a David Attenborough quote that goes, ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’ You come to see a fragile area that is being changed. Does that make you want to act differently? That’s something we try to incorporate in our trips.”

Looking to the future of the Arctic

Micro cruises have a greatly reduced carbon footprint when compared with large ships – and the best crews are continually considering ways to reduce emissions.

“Our long-term goal is to make ourselves as invisible to the environment as possible,” says Andy. “Next year, we’ve got a new ship that we’ve designed from the bottom up with sustainability in mind. It’s retrofitted, reusing old materials, and has up to a 95 percent reduction in NOx diesel emissions, which is a good step forward.

“We’re on top of seeing which technologies are about too. With shipping, it’s all in a state of change. Truly sustainable fuel hasn’t emerged; they’re trying different things. It’ll be interesting to see what happens – the next aim would be to get an emission-free vessel.”

The leaders of these tours hope that seeing the challenges that the Arctic faces will inspire people to make meaningful changes to their lives back home – avoiding banks that invest in fossil fuels, switching to energy providers that use renewable energy where possible, reconsidering how we travel around at home and abroad (check out our practical tips), joining protests and campaigns, and supporting environmentally astute political parties.
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Types of micro cruises in Svalbard

Wildlife micro cruises

Most people arriving in Svalbard are here to see the wildlife – namely, the 3,000-plus resident polar bears.

“We had polar bear sightings on every trip last year,” says Andy. “One time, we came up to a fjord’s ice edge while watching a mother and her cub. At times, she was being chased by a male, so we got to see this behaviour in the wilderness. We didn’t just turn up and take a photo – we sat there for about four hours and really saw the dynamics playing out. And because we were a small group, everyone was happy sat in Zodiacs. It’s great to have the time to do that.”

“When you see a polar bear from the Zodiac in this way, they ignore you,” adds Andy. “They know you’re there, they might sniff the air, and then they continue on their way – which is incredible considering the danger they can pose to you on land. But they’re just not scared of you.”

Of course, this is the wild, so no sightings are guaranteed. Besides, Svalbard is about much more than polar bears.
If there is an opportunity to see polar bears at 2am, we wake everyone and ask if they want to go down and take a look. No one has complained so far!
Other wildlife includes herds of grazing reindeer, cacophonous walrus colonies, curious Arctic foxes and sunbathing seals. Whales feed in the fish- and krill-rich Arctic Ocean, including blue, humpback, fin, beluga and minke whales – the latter still hunted by Norway in defiance of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) ban on commercial whaling. There are cliffs milling with birds in the summer too. Most famously, Alkefjellet – a sheer cliff face taller than the Statue of Liberty – is packed with around 60,000 guillemots.

You also travel in the knowledge that both you and the wildlife are in safe hands. Wildlife guides on micro cruises are among the best in their field and follow the strict wildlife watching rules to the letter. They won’t approach polar bears (even if you ask them) and know exactly what to do if you come across one on land.

“We like to say that there is no itinerary when we go on an expedition because we are opportunistic in the way we explore,” says Michele. “Big ships have to run to a tight schedule, but for us, if there is an opportunity to see polar bears at 2am, we wake everyone and ask if they want to go down and take a look. No one has complained so far!”

“Svalbard is not a safari park,” adds Andy. “It’s different to South Georgia and Antarctica, where the beaches are covered in seals and penguins the whole time. You have to look for the wildlife here – but that’s part of the experience.”

Photography micro cruises in Svalbard

Photographers are recurring visitors to Svalbard, thanks to its changeable landscapes. Each season invites a different vista and an ever-rotating cast of creatures.

“We start our photography trips in April when it’s frozen,” says Andy. “There’s lots of sea ice and the landscapes are completely snow-covered. Svalbard undergoes this transformation from the beginning of May and it’s like a completely different place. The snow goes by the summer and landscapes can be very barren, so it’s appealing in that way. Svalbard is also excellent for glaciers. They’re quite active in the summer so you get to see them calving from June onwards. In June and July, you can sometimes get as far as the pack ice, but it depends on how far it’s retreated that year. It’s a really awesome experience.”

For photographers, one of the big perks is the invisibility cloak that small ships provide – and the natural behaviours of the animal that prompts.

“You know the polar bear is there, so you switch off the engine at the edge of the ice, and you wait,” says Andy. “It can come quite close to you, but you’re not going up to it. It’s walking past you, and you’re observing that. There’s no way you’d get that in a big group – and if you’re a photographer, that’s amazing.”

Tailor made micro cruises in Svalbard

Choose a tailor made micro cruise to get the whole ship to yourself. Itineraries – from the routes and landings to the preferred vessel – can be tweaked to your liking. You’ll even be matched with guides who share your passion, whether that’s for whale watching, polar exploration, climate science or geology.

Tailor made micro cruises in Svalbard are especially popular with multiple generations of a family or a larger group of friends. There’s no minimum age in terms of safety – it’s more about making sure that children know what to expect when it comes to sea crossings and wildlife watching. If everyone is interested in wildlife and nature, and happy living in cosy cabins, then it’s full speed ahead.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Secret Atlas] [Intro: Secret Atlas] [Quote: Secret Atlas / FlorianLedoux] [Wildlife micro cruises: Secret Atlas / FlorianLedoux] [Photography micro cruises in Svalbard: Secret Atlas / David Gonzalez] [Tailor made micro cruises in Svalbard: Secret Atlas / FlorianLedoux]