We recently returned from the trip of a lifetime: circumnavigating the arctic island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway. Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago of islands located north of the mainland, a 2 hour flight from Tromso. Together we embarked on a 10-day excursion on the M/S quest ship with Polarquest (Expedition Svalbard). Our goal was to experience the beautiful and diverse landscapes of Svalbard, see glaciers up close, and spot polar bears in the wild!
The ship for our Svalbard expedition included 50 passengers and about 30 crew members. Our room was on the second floor and through our window we could watch the landscapes change by the hour. Not only is it crazy seeing fjords and glaciers from your bedroom window, it is even more surreal when the sun doesn’t set! Since we were so far north, the midnight sun means that there is 24 hours of daylight. That also means animal sightings can happen at any time, and getting woken up because someone spotted a polar bear is always possible.
One of the best parts of our trip was the team at Polarquest — I can’t say enough positive things about them. They made us feel so comfortable and excited to see the beauty of Svalbard. Plus, they were right alongside us taking photos when an arctic fox made a show on our second day, or when endangered whales made an early morning appearance. It honestly made me want to be an arctic guide.
Here’s an average day on the Polarquest ship:
9:30am first landing of the day
2:30pm second landing of the day
5:30pm recap & briefing
The day we boarded our ship we had an initial meet and greet followed by dinner. Though the majority of our time is spent on the ship, we typically have two ‘landings’ a day where we take zodiac boats out on the water with 8-10 people. This can involve exploring glacial landscapes or tracking an animal from the boat before landing. It’s always different, since each day and area changes! Once on shore, we always have the option of choosing how we want to explore a new area. There is a short walk group, a medium walk group, and a long hike group with a different set of guides for each. Depending on our mood, Jacob and I typically joined the medium walk group or the long hike group.
Mention ‘Find Us Lost’ when booking for $300 off any Polarquest Svalbard Expedition.
On Day 1 we woke up to the announcement of our first polar bear in the distance. Jacob and I jumped out of bed and threw our jackets on so fast! It was an exciting moment to know we were only hours in to the trip but we had already spotted a wild bear.
After having our breakfast we headed out on our first zodiac boat ride to Belsund. The morning was spent taking in the surreal scenery and drifting through the ice. We spotted our first group of Kittiwakes (sea birds) from the boat. We went on a medium walk this day to get a feel for what to expect. The landscapes in Svalbard are so much more diverse than I imagined — it was amazing to see sand alongside glaciers and mountains, all in one spot. Our group converged with the others towards the end of walk because we spotted our first group of reindeer in the distance.
In the afternoon we made our way to Recherchefjorden. Though previously a spot for whaling, this area has since been converted to a research base and is now used to gather information that ultimately helps protect the local environment. We learned that two female researchers were getting set up here to spend the next 6 months through winter documenting the region and bringing global attention to climate change. You can learn more about their mission here. It was amazing seeing a research station like this in person; for something that typically seems so remote and unreachable you already feel a pull to get involved.
Belsund & Recherchefjorden
Though it’s impossible to choose, this might have been one of my all time favorite mornings on the ship. We entered Brepollen (also known as The Glacier Bay) throughout the night, an area with the most spectacular glacial landscapes. The sky also cleared and when I first peeked outside our bedroom window, I knew Jacob and I had to go up to the top deck to get a photo! I knew the scale here would feel unmatched, but nothing prepares you for how small you really feel against the mountains and glaciers here.
After a leisurely breakfast we hopped on the zodiac to cruise around the area. The sun was shining and the water was so still, I’d never experienced anything so surreal. We spent awhile on the water before landing and going on a short hike up to take in the landscape from above.
In the afternoon, we made our way to a series of cliffs famous for nesting birds. The second we landed our zodiac you could hear them in the distance, even before seeing them! There were thousands making their way in and out of a crack in the cliff. Jacob and I chose to do the long walk so we could hike up the mountain and get closer. It was an unbelievable view from below the rocks, and we had lots of fun taking photos of the birds and landscapes from the top.
On our way down we noticed the other groups had met up and were focused on a specific area, so we made our way over to see what was going on. A white arctic fox had emerged from its hideaway and was coming over to observe our group! Arctic foxes are small and survive by hunting birds, so it had clearly made its home below the cliffs for easy hunting. While we were caught in this moment watching him, another fox emerged. The second one was a blue arctic fox, though his fur is a dark grey-black in color. Their coats help them camouflage in the range of landscapes found in Svalbard, and the reason this sighting was so rare is that the white ones typically stay in snow or ice-covered regions while the blue ones blend with rocky landscapes or mountains.
The two foxes ended up playing together while we watched for almost 15 minutes, and it was the most incredible sight. I couldn’t believe how comfortable they were with our group standing only a few feet away.
Brepollen – The Glacier Bay
The Bird Cliffs
On the third day we woke up in Boltodden and landed our zodiac on the tundra with the mission of finding one specific thing: a dinosaur footprint! This hike was leisurely and made me feel like a kid again. Our guides were all so knowledgeable, so Jacob and I asked a lot of questions to get to know the area and more facts about Svalbard.
After lunch and some time to ourselves, we met on the upper deck of the ship for a briefing to learn about the area we saw today. About ten minutes in, someone spotted whales out the window and we all rushed outside for a closer look! It was our first whale sighting and they were fin whales right alongside our boat.
That evening there was an option for us to do a third zodiac landing in Negribreen. Based on our guide’s recommendation not to skip any outings (you never know what you’ll see!), we joined in. It was around 10pm when we left, and the sky was lit up with sunset colors. After spending some time exploring the nearby glacier and watching a group of ivory gulls (a rare bird species), our guide spotted a polar bear. It was our first sighting of a polar bear on ice, and he was quickly on the move, jumping in the water and swimming. We kept our distance so as not to disturb him, when the Polarquest team had the idea to head back to our ship to get an overhead view of him.
We quickly rushed back to the ship and went up to the upper deck. The captain slowly moved the boat towards the area he was, and luckily the bear chose a piece of ice nearby to lie down. We spent the next couple hours watching him…our first midnight sighting! The upper deck has a bar and a tea and coffee station, so I made myself some tea and alternated between stepping outside and getting cozy on the chairs in the heat. It was such a magical night.
After getting our polar bear fill we were awake for awhile from the excitement. We intended to sleep in…but we were woken up much earlier than expected (5am!) when our tour leader announced that bowhead whales were spotted outside our window. Jacob and I had asked two of our guides the day before what their most incredible sighting was, and they separately both said bowhead whales. There are only meant to be a couple hundred left in the world, so this was something incredibly special. So of course, we shot out of bed!
Later in the morning we headed off on our zodiac in the hopes of seeing walruses. Sure enough, we pulled up and right away spotted a group lounging by the water. They are the craziest animals to watch, always interacting with each other and of course, very vocal. After capturing some moments with our camera, we headed off on a long hike. This was one of our most memorable ones, as we had a couple close encounters with the Svalbard reindeer.
The Svalbard reindeer are endemic to this region and only found on Svalbard. They tend to be curious when it comes to people, and if you crouch low to observe they’ll often disregard you or peek from time to time to check back on your position. We had some close encounters while hiking up to a stunning overlook of a valley below.
In the afternoon, we were treated to an unexpected surprise: a polar bear on the move on a nearby mountain! The Polarquest team quickly got the zodiac boats in the water and we joined in to track the bear as it walked along the shoreline. After about half an hour, we were tipped off from another boat that there might be another bear nearby. This ended up being one of the most amazing sightings – a mother polar bear with her two cubs. They had positioned themselves up on a cliff above a washed up walrus carcass, heading down to eat from time to time.
Seeing the baby cub leave its mother to come down by itself was incredible. Polar bears don’t typically go for walruses and usually prefer seals, so this walrus was likely already dead when it washed up to shore. After staying for awhile, other animals started to visit the area and see what was edible. We watched as three arctic foxes joined, and a number of birds swooped in. It was amazing seeing so many animals in one place, all interacting with each other in their natural habitat.
We awoke to some moody weather this morning, and the captain navigated our ship through lots of ice floats to visit Bråsvellbreen. It’s an incredible glacier front, 160km long, with waterfalls along it. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to fly our drone, so with permission from the team, we lowered a zodiac boat on the water and Jacob went off to an ice float while I stayed behind to capture the process. It was such a unique perspective seeing the ice wall from the top, so we decided to put together a short video for everyone on the ship. Here are a few of our favorite drone shots from this morning.
Glacier Aerials Video
Mention ‘Find Us Lost’ when booking for $300 off any Polarquest Svalbard Expedition.