Polar expeditions emerge as distinct niche

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Ted and Suellyn Scull cruised aboard Marine Expeditions" Marine Adventurer from the West Coast of Greenland into the famed Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Their report follows:

ABOARD THE MARINE ADVENTURER IN THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE -- Polar expedition-style cruising has taken off in the past decade, and people come aboard with wide-ranging interests and expectations, most having little connection to mainstream cruising.

Expedition cruising features up-close explorations via Zodiac craft. Antarctica is the best known expedition-oriented destination, identifiable by its clear-air beauty, bird life, including penguin species, toothy walrus, elephant seals, whales and, of course, humongous icebergs. The Arctic is much less understood, but many of the same ships cruise to both regions.

Marine Expeditions cruises the Arctic using former Russian research vessels. Charter flights to and from the ship, sailing from either Greenland or the Canadian Arctic, leave from Ottawa, and overnight stays are required in both directions. Our charter landed near the Sondre Stromfjord on Greenland's west coast, from where we transferred to the ship.

The 117-passenger Marine Adventurer, to be replaced for the 2000 season by the 128-passenger Marine Discovery, provides a suitably comfortable ice-strengthened vehicle for exploring remote parts of the world.

All cabins aboard the latter are outside, and the ship has a lecture hall, library and solarium. The Russian crew serves American-style meals at one open seating. The ship's staff hails from the U.S., Canada and Britain, as do most of the passengers.

Sailing up Greenland's west coast, we first anchored off the fishing port of Illulissat, which boasts populations of 6,000 people and 60,000 sled dogs.

The main attraction here, though, is the Jakobshavn Glacier, which advances 65 feet each day and creates a new iceberg every five minutes. One naturalist said the chances were pretty good that this prolific glacier spawned the infamous iceberg that cruised south and sank the Titanic.

The second day dawned crystal clear as the ship dropped anchor off Umanaq, a small island town nestled at the base of two impressive granite peaks.

We climbed to a hillside cave where 500-year-mummies of seven women, two boys and an infant had been discovered. The mummies are now on display a museum in Greenland's capital city.

Most passengers stayed aboard to take in the magnificent view of the bay, choked with slow-moving ice and is rimmed by snowcapped mountains.

After a 24-hour passage across Baffin Bay, we made several landings on Baffin Island. Since April 1, the island has been part of the newly created Inuit territory of Nunavut, hived off from the vast Northwest Territories.

We walked the beach at Pond Inlet, encountering a freshly killed ringed seal, and poked around a Thule encampment dating from between A.D. 900 and 1700.

Cruising Milne Inlet one evening, a pod of narwhals surfaced, and we kept them in view while the staff grilled steak, sausage, wahoo and caribou ribs for an outdoor meal under the coldest conditions I ever have experienced.

On Beechey Island, three graves marked the site where members of John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 expedition met their ends. As we would learn, they may have been the lucky ones. The rest of the party died of lead poisoning after eating canned preserved meats. Hundreds of scattered tins led researchers to uncover their trail of death.

Landing on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world, we encountered a polar bear and cub, plus walrus lounging on bergy bits and bloodied ice where a seal had been recently killed.

A musk ox, a bedraggled-looking beast with two layers of fur, allowed us to approach but pawed the tundra when someone edged in too far.

We finally disembarked at the tiny community of Arctic Bay and visited an Inuit school, a modern complex that would be the envy of any small town.

Boarding the return charter flight, a wintry wind whipped snow across the runway, indicating high time to head south where both the calendar and climate coincided with the tail end of summer.

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