As told by Elizabeth Frels
As a lifelong safari enthusiast, I've experienced my fair share of wildlife encounters.
I simply love being close to nature: seeing herds of elephants walking by, witnessing prides of lions stalking their prey, and marveling at leopards sleeping away the day in a tree.
But none of my African safari encounters could quite prepare me for my wildlife experience in the Arctic.
Toward the tail end of the polar expedition season, I found myself flying over the vast area of Lapland and the Arctic Ocean toward what I felt was the end of the Earth: the Svalbard archipelago. Upon landing, I realized I was truly in the middle of nowhere. That remoteness was something I had never experienced before in all my years of travel.
I immediately embarked on Quark Expedition's brand-new Ultramarine vessel – which was full of more eco-friendly bells and whistles than I thought possible – and began my exploration of Spitsbergen, Svalbard's largest island.
One of the highlights of expedition travel is the shore excursions by zodiac. Aboard the Ultramarine, we disembarked on zodiacs at least twice a day to explore the glaciers, fjords, icebergs, abandoned mining settlements, and frigid landscape of Spitsbergen, of which more than 70% is comprised of icy national parks or nature reserves protecting the resident wildlife.
The zodiacs were unexpectedly where the most surprising animal encounters occurred. At any moment, a walrus or a seal would make their presence known. For example, one day, we were in our Zodiac watching the sea ice as it broke off from a larger glacier when, all of a sudden, a seal popped up onto the ice. The surprise and delight of that moment was definitive of my Arctic adventure and contributed to the excitement around being in this undiscovered place.
"While polar bear encounters are never a guarantee on this type of journey, I had the honor of seeing nine during my wildlife expedition. And I can say that it was better than I could have imagined."
The shore excursions, however, were where I felt most connected to my safari roots. As we hiked through the colorful tundra, it wasn't uncommon for an Arctic fox to run across the snow right in front of us or to come across a herd of Svalbard reindeer wandering by. Plus, the bird life was more impressive than expected.
Finally, of course, there were the polar bears – the top on the list of what animals one can see in the Arctic. While polar bear encounters are never a guarantee on this type of journey, I had the honor of seeing nine during my wildlife expedition. And I can say that it was better than I could have imagined.
Polar bear viewing isn't like a safari where the wildlife is right there. You are, of course, quite far away and ideally viewing them from the safety of the ship. However, we had a lot of time to observe the behavior of the polar bears from our binoculars: we watched them catch fish out of the water, dine on seal carcasses, and interact with other family units. As a male polar bear feasted on a large animal, a mom and cub nearby tentatively wondered if he would let them share in the meal.
It was in those moments and during our many discoveries that the fragility of this region came into focus for me. I saw firsthand the degradation of the glaciers as they receded and met the many animals that rely on the ecosystem to survive.
Fortunately, companies like Quark Expeditions are playing their part in paving the way for travelers to have a positive impact. Their Polar Promise program serves as a commitment to protect the places they visit through funding polar research and conservation, significantly decreasing carbon emissions, reducing waste by 95%, and halving their fuel consumption.
It is now my sincere hope that the animals of the Arctic – the playful walruses, the intimidating seals, the docile reindeer, the adorable foxes, the mighty polar bears, and so many others – just like the lions and rhino and giraffe of the savannah, have their homes restored and allow many future travelers to experience their majesty as I have.
Consider adding one of these land-based extensions for even more animal encounters in the Arctic.
Extend your time in Svalbard with a few nights in Longyearbyen, one of the northernmost towns in the world, with its charming village of red and gray homes. Marvel at the Northern Lights from the comfort of a revitalized trapper hotel, taste wine from the northernmost winery on Earth, visit the local huskies, and share stories with the locals. You will soon learn why this fascinating place boasts no hospitals or cemeteries.
Finland is a natural inclusion on any Arctic adventure. Consider visiting a traditional Sámi reindeer farm with glass igloo accommodations. The host's family has been caring for reindeer for 12 generations and therefore provides visitors with insight into the Sámi traditions and socio-cultural sustainability involved in caring for these magnificent herds. It also checks off that enviable "glass igloo under the Arctic sky" bucket list item.
Manshausen Island is a 55-acre private island located off the coast of northern Norway above the Arctic Circle. The RIB boat ride alone promises even more encounters with the region's wildlife, sea eagles, and beautiful fjords. The all-glass sea cabins here provide a luxurious base from which to experience both relaxation and adventure, be it kayaking, fishing, bird watching, immersing yourself in the region's cultural heritage, or relaxing in the sauna.
"Photographing the brilliant northern lights can be tricky. For photos that do them justice, be sure to use a SLR camera and tripod. Also, request a regional aurora chaser photographer to help get the shot."
- Lauren Moore, Director of Operations
See the Animals of the Arctic
Dedicated to the experiential style of Ker & Downey travel, QUEST Magazine features eye-opening content that focuses on unforgettable experience, unheard-of destinations, and the very best our world has to offer. Each issue is packed with insider information, what's new in the world of travel, and editorial pieces that focus on our global culture, philanthropy, and transformative travel.Read Issue 20