Quark Expeditions: Cruising the Svalbard archipelago

Quark Expeditions: Cruising the Svalbard archipelago

Quark Expeditions have been offering passengers polar adventures for decades. It started when they took the first group of commercial travellers to the North Pole in 1991. Now climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average. But Quark believes that polar tourism can be a powerful tool for awareness and conservation.

Their latest polar cruise offerings include a photography expedition to Svalbard. This remote Norwegian archipelago, at the edge of the world, is the realm of the polar bear. Here, Justin Meneguzzi discovers a brutal, but fragile, wilderness.

Quark Expeditions vessel sailing in the Arctic

Explore the realm of the polar bear with Quark Expeditions

I’m ensnared in the polar bear’s stare. He has deep hazel eyes and a bridge of powdered snow on his black nose as he sniffs the air. Droplets of water are trickling down the fine hairs on his back. The mighty ‘King of the Arctic’ is just metres away, sizing me up. But I’m safely elevated above him, at the bow of our ship. I meet his gaze through my camera and the shutter clicks. In response, the enormous carnivore tilts his head like a curious dog, revealing a side that I never expected to see.

Just moments ago, I was dining and chatting with my well-travelled fellow Arctic expeditioners. Then suddenly, a bell rang announcing our unexpected dinner guest. Cue a wave of flapping jackets and scattered cutlery as everyone – even the chefs – dashes to the bow. We arrive to see the bear sniffing around the ship, trying to work out where the smell is coming from.

It’s only the beginning of our two-week voyage aboard the Ocean Adventurer, Quark Expeditions’ newly refurbished expedition ship. We are circumnavigating the Svalbard archipelago – a cluster of islands in the Arctic Ocean between Norway and the North Pole. The area is the realm of the mighty polar bear – the star of any voyage into this unforgiving environment.

Polar bear Svalbard Norway

Learn from the experts with Quark Expeditions’ onboard photographers

Following the hubbub of the bear interrupting dinner, I meet with Sue Flood for a private photography masterclass. She can usually be found documenting the polar extremes of our planet alongside Sir David Attenborough. Or working with BBC’s prestigious Natural History Unit. But for now, Sue has joined our special photography-themed voyage as Quark Expeditions’ expert guest photography guide. Any trepidation I feel about meeting a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society melts away when Sue begins browsing my snaps. I’m relieved to hear musing of general approval.

The trick in wildlife photography, Sue tells me, is to focus on the animal’s eyes, which can convey so much drama and personality. But, more importantly, “try to develop your own style and always look for something different, like great behaviour, lighting or composition. What is it about the scene that is going to capture someone’s imagination and stop them in their tracks?”

But don’t be dissuaded if you don’t have a top-of-the-range camera, says Sue. She tells me she’s landed magazine covers with photos taken on her mobile phone. And that mobile technology has advanced to the point where anyone can experiment with photography.

Spotting walruses

In the High Arctic, you’re never lacking for experimental subjects. While cruising past Wilhemøya, another alarm blares at 2am. We emerge squinting in the unyielding sunlight to watch a bear crest a snow-covered hill and disappear again. At Edgeøya, we find great masses of walruses with bloodshot eyes seemingly nursing their hangovers on a beach. Swooping black guillemots make challenging target practice as they dive in and out of the ocean for fish. Meanwhile, wily Arctic foxes prowling for bird’s eggs keep keen-eyed photographers on their toes.

Reindeer in the Arctic

Creating new Environmental Ambassadors

Back on board, much time is spent is eating – the Arctic burns a lot of calories. Or playing board games and editing photos. Come evening, we settle in for a special presentation from our expert guides. Later, we enjoy happy hour on the deck, hoping a whale might crash the party.

The ship is big enough to break away from the crowd, so I retreat to the quiet of the bridge. Here, I join our expedition guide, Todd Weisbrot, as he scans the water for signs of orcas, his favourite animal. Having worked as a guide for nearly a decade, Todd believes polar tourism can be a tool for conservation and awareness.

“The Arctic is a threatened area, but it’s also incredibly dynamic. This is where you see global warming happening, and the effects of melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Everything in this fragile ecosystem is connected and removing just one element from it can see significant trickle-down effects,” says Todd. He tells me many travellers come here because they want to see the Arctic before it is gone.

Sadly, the effects of human-caused climate change have been glaringly visible on our voyage. We’ve seen remote beaches littered with fishing lines, plastic bags and Japanese soda cans. The result of circulating global ocean currents that bring trash to the Arctic. Later, while cruising past the majestic Lilliehook Glacier, we heard a thundercrack as an enormous chunk of ice plunged into the sea.

Arctic landscapes in Norway

Why does the Arctic matter?

Unlike Antarctica – the continental landmass at the southern end of the planet – eight countries surround the icy Arctic sea. These include Canada, Iceland, Russia and the United States. It’s home to much-loved species like polar bears, puffins and reindeer. As well as nearly four million humans, including Indigenous communities.

Climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average, placing the livelihoods of humans and animals in the Arctic at risk. But the melting Arctic should be a cause for concern for all of us, even if we don’t live there.

The Arctic’s ice helps regulate the planet’s temperature. It acts as a giant white shield, reflecting the sun’s rays back out into space. Less ice means less reflection, which results in more heat absorbed into our atmosphere. At the same time, warmer temperatures release greenhouse gases captured in Arctic permafrost. Both of these things can create a negative feedback loop that accelerates climate change.

Wildlife photography Quark Expeditions Arctic voyage

Visible effects of climate change throughout the world

The rapidly warming climate is linked to the increased frequency of natural disasters in recent years. Which includes the Black Summer bushfires that devastated Australia in the summer of 2019. Climate change also affects the crops on which our global food system depends. To explain, staples, like rice and wheat, could become more expensive, which is likely to hit vulnerable communities hardest.

A warmer atmosphere leads to greater acidification of our oceans. For marine mammals, like whales and polar bears, these changes pose a significant risk to their survival. Polar bears rely on sea ice to travel long distances, hunt for seals, and make dens for their cubs. At current rates, scientists predict sea ice could disappear entirely by 2035. Meanwhile, polar bears are on track to experience reproductive failure by 2040 and devastatingly become extinct by 2100.

Climate change is reversible, but the window for change is shrinking. By reducing carbon emissions today, we can help minimise the impacts on our fragile Arctic.

Quark Expeditions

Be part of the change for good with Quark Expeditions

Back on deck, Todd interrupts my reverie by reaching for the ship’s alarm bell. He spots something, but it’s not an orca. A frustrated mother bear is trying to hunt for seals from a hole in the sea ice while her two cubs gambol in the snow. Their clumsy movements scare off any potential prey. It’s a precious reminder of what’s in our care, and what’s at stake.

Getting there: Norwegian Air and Scandinavian Airlines fly daily from Oslo to Longyearbyen, the main departure point for Svalbard expeditions. Flights are regularly cancelled due to wild weather, so allow extra days to arrive before your ship departs.

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