SPITSBERGEN, Norway -- About 40% of the 200 passengers on a recent Abercrombie & Kent trip to the Arctic had previously visited Antarctica. And when they reminisced about the southern continent, it was always in superlatives, with a side order of hyperbole.
"There is so much to see, you need two sets of eyes," one passenger told me.
"It was like walking into an IMAX movie," said another. "Thousands of penguins and seals. Towering glaciers. Enormous icebergs. It's overwhelming. Everywhere you look, it's the most dramatic scenery you've ever seen."
Without exception, passengers said that a previous trip south inspired them to book the Arctic. The majority not only had visited Antarctica with A&K but had been on the same Ponant ship, Le Boreal, piloted by the same captain, Etienne Garcia.
The captain and ship notwithstanding, they soon discovered there are many more differences than similarities between Antarctica and the Arctic. That's largely a result of a simple but profound geographic fact: One is a continent surrounded by water, the other is water surrounded by continents. Tourists can get far closer to the North Pole than they can to its polar opposite. This Arctic voyage sailed north of 80 degrees, whereas most Antarctic trips seldom get beyond 65 degrees south. But one discovers that being that much closer to a pole does not necessarily mean it is colder, icier or more extreme.
Le Boreal circumnavigated Spitsbergen, a very large Norwegian island in the Svalbard archipelago above the Arctic Circle. Much of the scenery was reminiscent of Alpine or Rockies glades above the tree line (what vegetation we saw was close to the ground, with lichen and moss predominating in some locales). Most icebergs we encountered hardly looked capable of sinking a Zodiac, never mind the Titanic. With temperatures on the eight-day trip ranging from about 30 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, it was only when we reached the pack ice, a border that stops all but icebreakers from traveling farther north, that the scenery matched preconceived notions of what the Arctic is supposed to look like.
But it is precisely the unexpected scenery and the unpredictability of what will be seen on any given day that gives a trip to the Arctic its cachet. One sees Antarctica on a cruise; one sees the Arctic on an expedition. Plan A, B and C
"Antarctica is easy," Capt. Garcia said. "You will always see penguins. You have a rookery, it's the same place every year. And if for some reason you can't get there, there is another place you can go. But here, it is challenging. Who knows where the animals are? Every voyage is different. You sail with humility, every time, with open eyes. Nothing is clear.
"And to meet the king of the Arctic, the polar bear, to see it close, even once, is the gift of the voyage."
Garcia admitted "there's a certain pressure" to find wildlife that will satisfy passengers, and each day he conferred frequently with expedition leader Aaron Russ to revise the following day's course.
("We don't have a program for tomorrow, but we have a plan," Russ once told passengers, explaining why he couldn't give exact details about the next day's activities. "We have plan A and then B. And C, also," Garcia later told me.)
As captain, he said, "you must be very involved. We are a team. [Russ] may decide where to go, and I'll have no objection as long as it's safe, but I might say, 'I'm not comfortable with this place, let's find another.'"
Safety concerns extend beyond navigation to the very bears passengers want to see. Prior to any guest landings on excursions, staff goes ashore to secure a perimeter with rifle-bearing sentries. Visibility must be good at the site; there can be no fog that would compromise the ability of sentries to see bears approaching, either by land or sea. 200 passengers, 200 experiences
Not only are no two sailings in the Arctic alike, but passenger experience can vary greatly even on the same trip. The 200 passengers aboard Le Boreal ventured out in Zodiacs on excursions in two groupings, and the Zodiacs don't travel as a herd. The staffer aboard each of the inflatable crafts has some degree of discretion as regards pacing and route, so the cumulative experience will be different for each passenger.
In this regard, it's more similar to an extended safari than a cruise. And this trip's primary polar bear encounter was a good case in point:
The first group that went out saw a female bear drag a seal carcass up a small promontory, feast on it, then begin a nap.
We in the second group watched the napping bear, feeling no small amount of envy of the first group. But suddenly a guide spotted a second bear swimming directly toward the napping bear, cutting a path right through the Zodiacs. (Click here or on the bear images to see more photos from Arnie's polar bear encounter.)
Potential drama ensued. The first bear spotted the second and moved away from the carcass, positioning herself behind where the newcomer, a younger male, would walk ashore. The male came out of the water, shook like a dog and headed toward the carcass, with the female following at a careful distance behind. The male climbed up to the carcass and looked down at the female, who was now standing just below him. They stared at each other.
"Watch for the charge," our guide said.
But in the end, the female, who had perhaps eaten her fill, decided not to charge, and walked a short distance away. She started to eat snow as the male tore at the carcass.
In the end, on that particular day, it was the first group that ultimately envied the second.
The possibility of seeing polar bears is certainly the most heavily promoted feature of the trip, but seeing them was one highlight among many. We saw four blue whales, the largest animal on Earth, on the day we hit the sea ice; it was an encounter we had been told was the remotest possibility, as they had never before been seen on an A&K Arctic trip.
Likewise, the naturalists had indicated that beluga whale populations had likely migrated south of where we were sailing, but on the second morning at sea, we saw a pod of 110 of the white giants, very close to the ship.
Two Arctic foxes were seen (by one group, but not the other). Similarly, passengers had to be at the right place at the right time to get a close look at a ring seal on the day we sailed adjacent to pack ice.
I had been lucky, seeing all of these highlights. But I was disappointed that some passengers had spotted puffins flying around the ship at various points in the sailing though, try as I might, I hadn't. Patricia Silva, the onboard ornithologist, told me late in the sailing that we had by that point moved far south of their nesting grounds, and the likelihood of seeing one diminished with each nautical mile we steamed.
But on the very last excursion of the very last day, I was lucky enough to see a pair in the water, very close to our Zodiac. Ice closing in
The day we went along the sea ice offered a bit of drama. The captain used instruments to closely monitor the movement of the ice as we crossed the top of the island. We were at the northernmost point of the trip when the ice began to drift south surprisingly quickly, and there was a danger that our route forward would be cut off. We raced for the gap in the ice and made it through; we later found out that a ship two hours behind us had had to turn back. If we had been two hours behind, the trip would have ended profoundly differently, missing several important stops on the east side of the island.
Bob Simpson, A&K's vice president of product operations and small-ship cruising, was onboard and said that the unpredictability of the Arctic was why he loved it more than the Antarctic.
"In the Antarctic, the wildlife is far more abundant. It's very predictable, very defined. There are so many things you can guarantee that you can't here.
"The wildlife [in the Arctic] doesn't stay in the same place year after year after year. That's what's intriguing. And mysterious. Antarctica hits you over the head like a hammer; the Arctic steeps in."
Simpson is right about that. We made landfall several times to see scenery that was beautiful but whose features were often subtle. We walked over green, spongy tundra that my wife likened to walking on a spinach souffle. The glaciers were impressive, though something less than what is seen on the fringes of Antarctica. And whereas A&K has a unique arrangement that allows guests to visit Palmer Station, an active research facility in Antarctica, we saw only long-abandoned research outposts in the Arctic: small, uncomfortable-looking shacks, sheds and bunkhouses. Qualifying clients
Cynthia French, director of VIP and vacation services with Gant Travel Management of McLean, Va., has been to Antarctica four times, escorting groups, but this was her first visit to the Arctic.
"We've been here not quite a week, and it takes that amount of time to appreciate the stillness here," she said. "Everything is on a smaller scale. You really have to look at the little plants and flowers, the mosses and the mushrooms. It's got a lot of beauty, but I think the Arctic is just more subtle.
"Climate change is much more apparent here," she added. "There's still so much ice down there [that] you think, 'How could it all be melting?' But when we were at the Monacobreen glacier three days ago, I asked where the seals were and was told they were all up north, so far north, they rarely see them anymore."
Three of her four trips south had been with A&K, she said, and she was impressed with the stability of Le Boreal, its food and the educational aspects. As for qualifying clients, she said she would not put someone on an Arctic trip if they had not already been to Antarctica.
"This is not a starter trip," she said. "It's more for someone who has been to a lot of places and knows how to travel and what to look for. And then, make sure they know it's more subtle [than Antarctica]. You really have to relax into it, be patient and look for detail."
Indeed, although there were many exciting highlights during the nine-day voyage, the Arctic is ultimately a cumulative experience. And as French pointed out, a big part of the experience is a deepening understanding of the impact that climate change is having on the planet. The onboard lectures were first-rate, delivered by scientists who not only were experts in geology, marine life, climate and natural history but were excellent communicators. We would see evidence of complex changes that are occurring and later hear about how climate change had affected the very animals and landscape we had just seen.
Simpson said he thought there was a connection between concern about climate change and a rise of interest in both the Arctic and Antarctica.
A&K has chartered Le Boreal for a trip Simpson believes will appeal to those who have already journeyed to both poles. "Our Northwest Passage trip will likely be 75% to 80% filled with past Boreal passengers," he said. "Within a week of the release of the brochure [in July], 130 of the 200 cabins had been booked."
The final word on Arctic vs. Antarctic came from Garcia (who will also be guiding the Northwest Passage trip).
He wouldn't commit to preferring either the Arctic or Antarctica. "I love both," he said.
For Antarctica, he cited the "density of wildlife that you don't have in the Arctic."
The virtues of the Arctic? "Emotion and ambience. It's like a privilege to be here, every time." Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.