Steppes Big 5: International Polar Bear Day 2018

Steppes Big 5: International Polar Bear Day 2018

1. Less than 2% of polar bear hunts are successful

Polar bears spend about half of their life hunting for food. Their main prey being ringed or bearded seals although they will scavenge on carcasses or take small mammals, birds and eggs.

2. They are classified as marine mammals and can swim constantly for days at a time

Because they spend most of their lives on the sea ice they are the only bear species to be considered marine mammals. Their large paws are adapted for swimming, used like a paddle through the water while their hind legs are flat like a rudder. They can swim at speeds of up to 6mph and for long distances to get from one area of ice to another.

3. They are not white bears, there are 19 sub-populations and grizzly-polar bear hybrids exist

Their fur is actually transparent and only appears white as it reflects visible light. Their skin is jet black and as recently as 2006 genetic testing confirmed that hybrids of grizzly-polar bears exist. Polar bears evolved from brown bears as recently as 150,000 years ago. It is estimated there are 26,000 wild polar bears but only one of the 19 sub-populations are on the increase. They are classified as vulnerable.

4. Scientists can extract polar bear DNA just from their footprints

An innovative new technique developed by WWF and DNA specialist firm SPYGEN which isolates DNA from a polar bear’s footprint in the snow. It can even detect that it had eaten a seal.

5. Their nose is one of their greatest assets

They have such a strong sense of smell they can smell prey up to a kilometre away and sense seal breathing holes in the ice. Once the hole has been located they will wait patiently until the seals come up for air. They can even detect a seal in the water beneath a metre of compacted snow.


You can travel to the kingdom of the polar bear with us in July 2018 on our Spitsbergen Cruise.


*Facts from WWF website.


Grounded in Greenland – Exploring Tasiilaq

I have always been a firm believer that the best travel experiences start when something goes wrong. So when Air Greenland delayed my flight out of Kulusuk for two days, I relished having the additional time in Tasiilaq so I could explore further this remote region of East Greenland.


Getting to Tasiilaq from Kulusuk requires just a 10-minute flight in a bell helicopter (there is only room for a small helipad). The flight in over the coastline strewn with icebergs was spectacular, although the thud, thud, thud of the rotor made me feel like an extra in a scene from the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’. Tasiilaq is small town, but with just over 2000 inhabitants it is the largest in the Sermersooq municipality. Its brightly coloured buildings cling to the steep sides of the hills that drop down into a deep fjord which is only accessible by boat from late June to mid October.

There is a small but interesting museum to visit that charts the history of the region. Outside, three tiny canons are fired ceremonially when the first supply ship of the year arrives. A reason for celebration as Tasiilaq is iced in for up to eight or nine months each year. Next to the museum is a traditional turf hut. There is also a visitor’s centre and church but a visit to the community workshop is a must. This area is renowned for its traditional carvings and tupliaks. The community spirit, typical of Greenland, can be readily seen here where anyone from the town can come to use the tools and work their craft.

Grounded in Greenland – Exploring Tasiilaq


Explore the wilderness either on foot or by kayak or in the winter, by dog sled and skiddo. The surrounding scenery is beautiful.  During the summer explore on foot through the Valley of Flowers passing lakes that reflect the snow-capped peaks of the adjacent mountains. Alternatively, follow the coastline of the fjords keeping a look out for whales in the bay. For those looking for a more challenging walk, there are multi-day options out towards the Sermilik glacier and beyond. There are plenty of boats in the harbour which can take you out to the island of Angmagssalik through the Sermilik Fjord in search of wildlife. Nearby villages such as Tiilerilaaq can be visited where you can lunch with the locals and try some of the traditional delicacies.

Grounded in Greenland – Exploring Tasiilaq


One of my highlights, was that I was able to go kayaking in the fjord; a favourite pastime of mine. Some of the icebergs were grounded by the tide so it was safe to paddle around them. There is nothing quite like seeing icebergs from the water. The blue hues and the strange shapes carved by escaping air and the waves, are even more beautiful up close. It is even possible to dive among the bergs. I tried my hand at sea fishing too and was much more successful than normal. Although none were big enough to take back to eat, it was another good excuse to be out on the water.

Grounded in Greenland – Exploring Tasiilaq


The Greenland culture is very strong, and I was lucky enough to hear a local choir sing in Aleut, their local language. Despite not understanding the words the music made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I noticed a young drum dancer, and could see the traditions are just as important to the younger generations. The rhythm and the passion with which he played was intoxicating. The Greenlanders are a nation who are proud of their heritage and although often quite shy, if you ask, they are happy to tell you their stories.

Grounded in Greenland – Exploring Tasiilaq

So, was I annoyed with the delay? No, I had a fantastic time in Tasiilaq and when the flight did eventually arrive in Kulusk, the captain came out to apologise and promised to make it up to us. True to his word as soon as we reached cruising altitude he opened the cockpit door from where we saw the Greenland ice sheet as we flew into the setting sun. Before landing in Nuuk he flew down through the fjords, pointing out various mountains and sharing stories from local folklore. And when I asked why the flight was delayed, he explained that the end of the runway at Kulusk had been washed away. I couldn’t argue with that.


Arctic Animals – The Big 5

The Arctic covers vast tracts of wilderness and is full of interesting wildlife. Here we share our favourite ‘big five’ animals of the Arctic. Sue Grimwood, our Arctic expert has put together the biggest and the best but there are so many to choose from you could make up your own list.

Polar Bears

The mighty King of the north has to be the most iconic of all Arctic animals and the one thing most people want to see. My excitement of seeing a polar bear has never diminished despite encountering over 100 during my travels in the north. They all seem to have their own character, many are very curious and with their terrific sense of smell are always aware of your presence well before you are of theirs. Occasionally they will be white dots disappearing into the distance or a pale smudge on a snow bank but many are curious and will walk towards ships out in the sea ice or zodiacs in a bay. I have been lucky enough to encounter them while on an Arctic cruise and from zodiacs while in Spitsbergen; north of Churchill I had my first encounter while on foot, the thought of which still makes my spine tingle. I saw plenty of polar bears during my week around Wrangel Island but a recent voyage saw 230 that were feasting on a bowhead whale carcass, a scene likened more to a Welsh hillside of sheep.


Number one has to be the elusive Narwhal – my personal Holy Grail, I am yet to encounter one but I have had clients who have seen them in the Northwest Passage region and also in Eastern Greenland. Their huge tusk is actually a tooth, one of only two, and in the males, they grow through the lip up to nine meters in length. Occasionally females will grow a tusk but it is far more common in males. The tusk continues to grow throughout their lives, some have two tusks and they can grow over three meters in length. Narwhal do not leave the Arctic waters making just a short migration from the deeper waters in winter to the shallower coastal regions during the summer months. This is one of the least studied species of the Arctic region and as the ‘unicorn of the Arctic’ is one of the most iconic of its wildlife.


Walrus – my favourite, with their huge tusks that both male and females have, their Latin name translates as tooth walking seahorse a pretty good description. On land, they are awkward and skittish, they need to be approached downwind; unfortunately, as they tend to smell pretty bad; and very cautiously as they can easily be spooked which causes them to dash for the water. Once in the water they are much more comfortable. Youngsters are curious and will often come close in small herds, appearing to goad each other on to get closer before suddenly losing their bravery and dispersing with a great snort and splash. If you sit quietly in a zodiac they will normally return and the whole sequence will play out again. Adults can also be curious and the head of a big adult male with tusks nearly a meter long is mighty impressive when it is just a meter or so away from you. There are two species of Walrus the Atlantic and the Pacific and they can be found throughout the Arctic waters.

Musk Ox

Musk Ox – these small bovids have been roaming the tundra since the ice age and would have walked the planet with mammoths. With their long coats and curved horns that meet in the center to create a solid boss they look a little like Bison and have a similar protective strategy to defend their youngsters from predators, creating a circle of horns with the calves in the center. During the mating season the males will vie from a mate and this can result in them running at each other clashing the horns together in an impact that can be heard a mile away. The under hair is so fine it is prized by the locals for its warmth, Kiviut is said to be the world’s warmest wool. Musk Oxen can be found in small herds of around 10 – 20 individuals. If you want to see Musk Ox then head to the Canadian Arctic around Arctic Watch, Kangerlussuaq in Greenland or Wrangel Island in Russia’s far east.


Beluga – the white whale is a little of a misnomer as when they are born Belugas are actually quite a dark grey and it takes around eight years for them to reach maturity and turn completely white. They are known as the canaries of the sea for their noisy chattering. If you want to attract a beluga while snorkelling the best thing to do is to sing, their curiosity will often result in very close encounters. During the summer months, they can be seen in very large numbers as they come together in the bays around Churchill and in the Northwest passage region, play, molt, nurse their young, and mate. Like other Arctic adapted whale species, they have no dorsal fin and they are unique in having an unfused neck vertebrae which allows them to turn their heads up, down and side-to-side.

Have you had an encounter with any Arctic animals? We have merely scraped the surface with our list above and would love to hear about your experiences too. If you would like to enquire or speak to Sue in more depth about the experiences we offer in the Arctic please contact us on 01285 880980.  Alternatively, click through to read more about our Arctic Cruises and Arctic Wildlife.


Ice in their veins, a week at Arctic Watch Lodge

I can’t think of any family more qualified than the Weber’s to guide me through the Canadian Arctic. Richard Weber, is an unassuming character but has the accolade of having walked to the North Pole more times than anyone. Richard has been there seven times including a crossing from Russia to the pole then onto the Canadian coastline and is the first person to walk to the North pole and back without resupply.

Josee Auclair, Richard’s partner, has pioneered and led multiple women’s polar treks and expeditions to both Poles.
Richard and Josee have passed their exploring bug onto their two sons Tessum and Nansen who were brought up summering with a nomadic Inuit family in an outpost camp on Baffin Island.
Tessum visited the Arctic for the first time at six weeks old. And is the youngest person to have walked to the north pole. An athlete and ski tourer he took a degree in commerce before returning to the Arctic to devote himself to the family business.
Nansen, the youngest son, is an acclaimed photographer and has led parties from BBC Wildlife, National Geographic and Netflix utilising his intimate knowledge of the region to achieve some amazing footage.
In 2000 the Weber’s purchased Arctic Watch Lodge on the bay of Cunningham Inlet at the north of Somerset Island with the idea that they would share their passion for all things Arctic with those who wanted to visit.

I visited very early in the season before the sea ice had broken up. With such great sea ice, we had the unique opportunity to explore on foot and on fat bike. Stepping into the deep blue puddles was a weird experience as you had no depth perception and it felt like you were stepping into the abyss when in reality it was rarely more than a few inches deep. Care had to be taken though as in some places there were deep holes right through the ice kept clear by the ringed and bearded seals that frequent this area — you certainly didn’t want to step into these. With the Weber’s as our guides we knew we were in safe hands. Their years of knowledge gave us the confidence to explore and to know what areas to avoid. In one particular bay we were all keen to venture out but Josee felt it was not stable enough, less than twenty-four hours later the complete ice sheet had gone.

Not content with just their own knowledge they have employed a range of other specialist guides in an extended family. There are 17 staff, including a first rate chef to look after the 26 guests who venture this far north to stay for a week during the short summer.
Activities are offered in small groups, exploring by all terrain vehicles, on foot, by kayak and paddleboard spending time with the wildlife of the region. Beluga come here in great numbers to frolic in the shallow waters of the bay, musk ox roam the valleys inland and foxes can be found here along with snowy owls, snow geese and even occasionally wolves. Along the coastline were many ancient Thule site, summer camps and tent rings where occasional artefacts could be found including a whale bone fire stick with brass rivets that must have been traded with the early explorers, many who came to grief here or over wintered while searching for the elusive Northwest Passage.

Most excursions were a full day and an amazing packed lunch with flasks of hot soup tea and coffee along with home cooked breads, organic meats and cheeses were produced. In the evenings the chef would cook up a banquet of Canadian home produce, organic beef, fresh vegetables and always followed by a stunning pudding and a chat by the guides around the large log fire in the “great hall”. The family certainly had some stories to tell.


Ice, ice everywhere but not a bear in site

In September I headed deep into the Arctic ice pack off the coast of Spitsbergen aboard the sturdy M/V Plancius in search of polar bears. Originally built in 1976 as the MS Tyeman for oceanographic research. She has been refurbished and reconditioned to become a comfortable expedition vessel, now plying her trade in both Arctic and Antarctic Oceans taking intrepid passengers in search of wildlife and wilderness.

The captain was obviously enjoying himself as we bumped and crunched our way into the ice, with a clang and a shudder we edged our way through picking the easiest leads. I spent hours on deck watching the huge sheets of ice as they cracked and slid out of our way occasionally riding up on each other like the continental plates. The ice reduces the swell when you are deep in the pack but reaching the edge this created a mesmerising ripple effect. The disturbance of the water creates turbulence below pushing plankton to the surface attracting many birds including a good number of ivory gulls, which are normally quite rare. Delicately swooping down to the surface to snatch up the specks of food, accompanied by the nosier Kittiwakes who scrapped and squabbled amongst themselves. Fulmars were also constant companions, flying right alongside the ship often so close you felt you could reach out and touch them.

We did see the occasional seal, mainly ringed but certainly not enough of them to keep a big predator such as a polar bear well fed particularly with around only a 10% success rate. We spent over two days around 81°16.5’N / 020°06.4’E searching in vain for bears but were rewarded with beautiful vistas, fog bows and blue whale’s and despite the disappointment of not seeing a polar bear I loved every minute of it. In an area where the ice was more broken we launched the zodiacs to see the ice from a different perspective and the variations of form. This year’s sea ice was just forming in greasy patches while other pancakes were made up of multi-year ice where the distinct layers of snow fall and freeze could be seen. Amongst the sea ice were large chunks of glacial ice, mini icebergs in weird and wonderful shapes formed by wind and water erosion. Before returning to the main ship we landed on a large flat pan of ice, careful to anchor the zodiac well we gingerly climbed out onto crunchy surface to be served hot chocolate and rum, not your average afternoon.


An early triumph for Iceland at Euro 2016

Despite not being able to boast any Icelandic heritage my heart was swelling with pride last night as the Iceland players, staff, and supporters sang their national anthem at the opening game of their Euro 2016 campaign.

The sound was immense and the passion and patriotism palpable. The sense of humour, calmness and happiness of the Icelandic people also shone through. So far removed from the violent clashes between ‘supporters’ and the police, ugly scenes that have marred the tournament thus far, this was a breath of fresh Icelandic air. 30,000 fans travelled from Iceland to support their team in their first major tournament. 30,000 people equals 10% of the entire population. Staggering support.

Another statistic, if I may. There are 50,000 Icelandic males aged 20-40 so this means if you are one of these Icelandic males you have a 1 in 2000 chance of making the national team. Portugal’s population by comparison is just over 10 million. But far more importantly they count Cristiano Ronaldo among their number who wouldn’t hesitate in calling himself the world’s best player and in many ways this is a justifiable claim. Ronaldo has scored over 50 goals a season for the last 6 seasons playing for Real Madrid. Yet the Iceland players, to a man, stood tall and threw themselves in front of everything. They blocked, tackled, harried, and ultimately frustrated the Portuguese with the game ending in a deserved stalemate. For a group of players from a country with the same population as Dudley, and who as youngsters learning their trade have to train in ‘football houses’ inside over winter as the ground is often frozen solid, this is an absolute triumph.

Iceland is a fascinating, beautiful, raw country home to a people with an unbreakable spirit and a wonderful low-key sense of humour. I fell in love with the country on my first visit and had to go back again the following year. If I could I would go every summer as the landscape, fresh air, and sense of nature laid bare is awesome. Even more awesome than the national pride and togetherness on display at last night’s football match.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Iceland. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.


Iceland – A weekend away with Steppes Travel

Hard breath steams through our mouths as we step out onto the tarmac. Sheets of rain and sleet come down like shards of glass stabbing into our cheeks, our heads lower, our pace quickens as we head to the terminal building to escape the weather. Inside we instantly warm from both the blast of the heaters and the welcoming nature of the local people where most of the men seemingly stand tall as giants.

Its 2:30 but already it’s getting dark outside, with low grey skies the landscape is littered with dark volcanic rocks reminiscent of melted candle wax crowned with green moss. Through the emptiness we journey like explorers on an ancient trail where mountains dominate the skyline and plumes of steam seep from the surface of the earth. Pools of turquoise shimmer at us from the roadside while the fluorescent white light of geothermal power stations – or cloud factories as we are told – beam like beacons on the horizon. This is the land of ice and fire.

By the time we reach Reykjavik it is dark, but with the glimmer of Christmas lights hanging from chocolate box houses make this a wonderfully cosy sight. As we wrap up warm and wander the streets our guide Magnus tells us more about this fantastic land. To learn that Iceland’s network of geothermal-heated greenhouses have allowed the country to become Europe’s biggest producer of bananas is astounding. Couple that with a sheep population double that of the human population and a country that is growing by 2cm a year – give it 10 billion years and it will cover the globe – and you have yourself some invaluable pub quiz trivia.

Mornings are a surreal time as the darkness continues exactly the same as the night before. With just four hours’ worth at this time of year you can see why. Our journey today will see us scratch the surface of the golden circle, heading towards our transport we dance our way over the sheets of ice which have crusted the kerbside from the cold night.

Off we trundle through this epic land, passing more idyllic looking towns and villages which dot the valleys. We stop on an icy plateau where a waterfall more splendid than anything we have seen before crashes from a multitude of different angles, we walk closer to take a look only to be fended off by the icicles of water vapour that are frozen instantly and blown towards us in a wintry gale.

We continue into the wilderness, our chariots mounted on enormous wheels to cope with the shoulder deep snow. We drive to a cabin at the base of a mountain where snowmobiles and bright orange winter suits are waiting to be donned. Our local guide could not be more Viking if he tried, with a thick set ginger beard and a personality to match, standing tall towering close to 7ft, he briefed us on our latest Icelandic adventure. Off we went in a procession of orange and red, brightly lit headlamps and the hum of the snowmobile engine out into the snowy white fields, passing glaciers and mountains, out once again into the beautiful Icelandic wilderness.

Travel to Iceland for a long weekend as our Steppes Travel team did in December 2015 or combine with Spitsbergen and Greenland for holiday beyond the ordinary in the Arctic Circle. Call us on 01258 787 419 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Big 5 Bear Facts

To celebrate Bear Appreciation Week, we bring you our favourite 5 bear facts. We’ve even added some jokes that make us giggle. Share your facts with us on Twitter or Facebook or test us on our bear knowledge.

1. Grizzly bears give birth in their sleep and can run up to 35 mph (not whilst asleep).

2. Brown bears tend to be fussy eaters and only eat the most nutritious parts of the salmon (eggs/brains/ skin) and disregard the remainder of the body unless they are desperate for food. This behaviour is referred to as “high-grading”.

3. Polar bears do not have white fur but hollow clear hairs that reflect the white surroundings.

4. A Sun bear is the smallest of all bears, residing in the tropical forests of Asia. Surprisingly despite its size, its tongue can be up to 25 cm long.

5. If you eat a polar bear liver, you’ll die. Humans can’t handle that much vitamin A.


Our favourite bear jokes.

Q. What would bears be without ears?

A. Bees.

Q. What do you call a bear with no teeth?

A. A gummy bear.

A grizzly bear walks into a bar and says to the bartender “can I have a gin……..and tonic please?” The bartender says “why the big pause?” And the bear says “Because I”m a bear!”

If you would love to see bears in the wild and learn more about them, join one of our bear wildlife group tours. Call our Travel Experts on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more information.


Disengage in Iceland

I like to be in control and know what I am doing. It has served me well in my many travels around the world yet on arrival in Iceland I was denied this basic tenet. I found it difficult to let go. Well, at first, for I quickly realised that I was in more than capable hands.

The gleaming motor yacht awaiting us at Reykjavik harbour was testament of the calibre and class of the hands in which I had blindly put my faith. As we slipped our moorings and powered out in the harbour I was handed a chilled glass of Chablis and given a selection of mouth-watering nibbles that further emphasised the taste and tenor of my hosts. This was an outfit that more than understood exclusivity.

After a short cruise, that hinted beautifully at the opportunities of whale watching given more time, we disembarked at the private island of …….to be met by our next mode of transport, a helicopter. To say that Iceland is a spectacularly beautiful island is bordering on understatement. So varied and extreme is its scenery that there are many ways from which to enjoy it, nevertheless, helicopter has to be paramount. It was invigorating, exhilarating to fly in a helicopter but to do so over such dramatic scenery was a sheer delight. To fly over the tear in the crust that separates the American tectonic plate from the European tectonic plate was very special.

We landed in the central highlands and were taken to a most unusual house. It is not fair for me to say much about it but it is not for everyone.

From there we ticked off some of the main highlights of Iceland. I sound casual and dismissive about them but they are far from everyday phenomenon. I suppose that my lack of enthusiasm was clouded by the weather and for the first time of the day we had to share the sights with other tourists. When I say share I am only talking about a handful of tourists and none of the trappings of tourism that so pollute other sights around the world.

The day ended with a most relaxing spa session at the Blue Lagoon.

Yesterday had ended with arguably Iceland’s most visited site; today was all about a region the Central Highlands – where few dare to tread. When I say tread I am not referring to walking but rather the size of the tyres on the vehicle which pulled up outside our boutique hotel. My initial response was how ridiculous but hours later I was more than appreciative of their size as they had

Disengagement is the art of enjoying Iceland.

It is a harsh and difficult country, the only natural inhabitant of this incredible island is the Arctic fox.

Understanding of nature, the weather and elements is part of the national psyche. This is a country in which they say that if you don’t like the weather wait five minutes and it will change. One has to understand that you do not visit Iceland for the weather, in fact the opposite, the weather is not great yet this in it very self brings opportunities. Not necessarily for the better but it will be different. An umbrella is seen as being an affront to their make up.

Here Vulcanology is not the preserve of universities but forms part of the primary school curriculum. This is a country which has the largest glacier in Europe, a glacier that is the size of Denmark.

The road twists and turns taking the path of least resistance with each twist a new and equally dramatic scene – this is a photographer’s paradise, a geographic smorgasbord that

Rendered speechless by the extravagant scenery. Below Hevla the volcanic aftermath a black, desolate but weirdly beautiful reminder of the regularity – every ten years, which in the timeframe of geology is impressive t say the least –

Humans have an apologetic role and two-thirds of them have retreated to Reykjavik

“I’m always surprised by how many people have been to the moon,” remarked my laid back and dry guide, Anton. I laughed with him but then I tried to think of how else to describe this most unusual landscape. It is so different and so surreal that it is not surprising that most of us revert to the outlandish, have to describe it as being something not of this earth.

Icelandic humour is dry, ironic and playful – I like it – and perhaps summed up by a joke Anton told. It was of an Icelandic farmer visiting a farmer in Texas. True to type the Texan farmer was boasting of the size of his farm and that in one day it would not be possible to drive the whole extent of his farm. The Icelandic farmer retorts, “Yes, I had a car like that once.”

Famed for its women, strong men and hard drinking – a dangerous cocktail – there is much more to this magical island than stereotypes. Yes I was impressed by the sheer natural beauty of the country but what really impressed me was the insightful and interesting service and guidance that we received throughout.

This intriguing land of geysers and volcanoes, which has also carved a reputation for chic bars and cutting-edge cuisine, is now at its most affordable.  The collapse of the Icelandic kroner make it a great time to discover Reykjavik, the most northerly capital in the world, as well as the natural wonders of this charismatic island.

At first glance, Reykjavik is quaint and quirky – you would not associate the motley collection of gaily-coloured tin-roofed buildings with a capital city. It is laid-back and welcoming, not dissimilar to its people who are more akin to Brits than Scandinavians. The Vikings scooped up Celtic women en route to Iceland and their descendants are, as a result, more ironic and less inscrutable than other Nordics.

But like its people there is more to Reykjavik than meets the eye. In terms of accommodation, the Hotel Borg is an art deco jewel with elegance and service. For something a little more hip, try the ultra contemporary 101 Hotel, my base for my stay.

In spite of whale and whale and puffin being a menu staple, seriously good food is on offer.   Take for example, the Seafood Cellar, one of the many fusion restaurants in the city and reputedly one of the finest restaurants in Scandinavia, which specialises in an idiosyncratic take on all things fishy.

Reykjavik is relatively straightforward, the interior less so, especially given that I wanted to avoid the coach tours, wanted something a little more private. The gleaming motor yacht awaiting me at Reykjavik harbour dispelled any doubts. As we slipped our moorings, I was handed a chilled glass of Chablis and given a selection of mouth-watering nibbles that further emphasised the taste and tenor of our team on the ground. This was an outfit that more than understood exclusivity.

After a short cruise that hinted at the opportunities of whale watching, we disembarked to be met by our next mode of transport, a helicopter. To say that Iceland is spectacularly beautiful is bordering on understatement. So varied and extreme is its scenery that there are many ways from which to enjoy it, nevertheless, helicopter has to be paramount. It was invigorating, exhilarating to fly in a helicopter but to do so over such dramatic scenery was a sheer delight, not least over the tear in the crust that separates the American from the European tectonic plate. (For the more adventurous you can actually dive between the plates at Silfra Thignvelir.)

We arrived at Geyser to see Mother Earth in full action, her heart pulsating, her chambers rumbling below. In yellow ochre pools of steaming water, the earth breathes slowly before exploding high into the sky. Nearby the waterfall at Gullfoss is impressive, the ice blue glacial waters thundering over the black rocks below.

From arguably Iceland’s most visited site – the Geyser – to a region where few dare to tread, the Central Highlands. When I say tread I am not referring to walking but rather the size of the tyres on the Super Jeep which pulled up outside the 101 hotel. My initial response was how ridiculous but hours later I was more than appreciative of their size as they had allowed us to access some truly magnificent scenery that rendered me speechless.

Everywhere you looked was a geographic smorgasbord of contrasting colours. An artist’s mixing pallet with the added effect of cauldrons of steam seeping from the crevasses. Ribbons of lime green moss streamed down the volcano sides as pockets of white glaciers nestled between the black lava.

We continued into the interior to Hekla, Iceland’s most active volcano. The volcanic aftermath was black and desolate but a weirdly beautiful reminder of the regularity – every ten years, which in the timeframe of geology is impressive – with which the volcano erupts.

Their banks may have hammered our pension funds,  but Icelanders are giving something back this year — at least to visitors. This fascinating land of geysers and volcanoes, which has also carved an urban reputation for hot clubs, cool bars and cutting-edge design is now at its most affordable in a decade.

Devaluation — theirs — plus low-cost flights make this a great time to discover Reykjavik, the most northerly capital in the world, as well as the natural wonders of the nearby Golden Triangle.

Not that you would identify this motley collection of gaily-coloured tin-roofed buildings as a capital at first sight.

Reykjavik today is almost as tiny, laid-back and villagey as when I was sent to knock on the door of the parliament 20-odd years ago and ask if the president could come out for a chat.

She did, and that ad hoc newspaper interview was a salutary introduction to the accessibility and friendliness of these people who are more akin to Brits than Scandinavians.

The Vikings who arrived 1,000 years ago scooped up Celtic women on their way west and their descendants are, as a result, warmer, funnier and less inscrutable than other Nordics.

Their wild and woolly heritage — which Icelanders have only recently begun exploiting — is quite fascinating and worth checking out while in the capital.

Lifelike figures star in audio-guided vignettes of how this young civilisation was formed at the Saga Museum in Perlan, a striking exhibition space at the top of the town.

Above the museum is a revolving restaurant aimed at the fine dining crowd, while the casual café has a scenic terrace which offers fabulous city views.

The bright buildings and coloured rooftops of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik make it resemble a town built from the Lego bricks made by the Danes, who once ruled the island

In the heart of town, an old Viking long-house was recently discovered during excavations, and a picture of life circa 1,000 has been engagingly mounted on the site at the Reykjavik Settlement Exhibition.

But having explored the past, there is much to be seen during a weekend break of what today’s Iceland has to offer the tourist.

Fashion and design shopping tempt at every turn, notably on the main shopping street Laugavegur and the more exclusive Skolavordurstigur which leads up to Hallgrimskirkja, the distinctive, tall, white modernist church which is the city’s main landmark. Check out Spaksmannsspyarir, Steinunn and the more affordable E-Label on Laugavegur and Galleri 21 on the stroll up to the church.

Down by the harbour, Gaga has wonderful one-off garments and some enviable sweater pins. In the unpromisingly-named Iceland Gift Shop nearby, M-Design’s wonderful long Icelandic wool cardigans are on sale at the best price in town.  It’s worth noting that 15 percent VAT refunds on purchases over about £20 are available instantly at the tourist office.

Tempting cafés everywhere provide an opportunity to rest the feet, and seriously good food is also on offer.   Sjavarkjallarinn, aka the Seafood Cellar, beneath the tourist office is one of the finest restaurants in Scandinavia, dispensing a quirky modern take on all things fishy, including  sushi as you’ve never experienced it before.

Less pricey is the Fish Company across the road, a good place to try the creamy seafood soup which is a Reykjavik speciality, though not every version is for the observant.

It would be hard to find a more central and comfy perch than the Hotel Borg, an art deco jewel with astonishingly good service and an excellent buffet breakfast served with elegance.   There is also a pukka design hotel in town, The 101, a little more hip and cutting-edged.

Don’t leave town without spending a couple of hours at the Blue Lagoon, the largest and most luxurious of Iceland’s many natural hot springs.  The Lagoon also fields a full-service spa, an enticing shop and formal restaurant, since many visitors linger into the evening.   The Lagoon is more than halfway to the airport, and many bus companies offer the chance to make a visit the last — or even first — stop in Reykjavik.

It is really worth spending an extra day or two to get a glimpse of Iceland’s natural glories, and the most popular trip is the so-called Golden Triangle. This takes in Geysir, named for the eponymous spouting hot spring, Gullfoss, a thunderingly magnificent waterfall, and the breathtakingly beautiful Thingvellir National Park.

The park — the site of Iceland’s first parliament, formed by the clan chieftains who instigated law-making gatherings here in the 10th century — is integral to Iceland’s history.  But what attracts visitors is the thrilling geography: the massive rift valley marking the point where North America separated from Europe, and views of the distant brooding Skjaldbreidur volcano.

After marvelling at the shifting earth, the smouldering lava cone, the bubbling hot springs and the rushing water — a microcosm of the wonders to be found all over Iceland — wind down by getting up close and personal with another of the country’s magnificent legacies — the beautiful horses which have stayed true to their breed since being introduced 1,000 years ago.

Although they can be seen roaming freely in the countryside, the family horse display near Geysir allows visitors to learn about their special attributes as they’re put through their paces in an arena, and then after, to pet their beautiful noses in the stables.

Coach tours covering all these high points in a single day are available at the drop of a hat, but it’s worth driving yourself, or taking a private guided tour, to get the most out of the experience and be able to spend as long as you want in each place.

Jon Baldur’s Isafold tours in rugged, four-wheel drive vehicles offer the chance to get off-road in this magnificent terrain and go for some extra thrills. Fording rivers and driving on the glaciers of Iceland’s south coast are both on offer.



A Close Encounter With Bob

Do you know that a polar bears tongue is blue/black?

I do, because I just looked into a polar bears throat, just a foot from my head.

You know as a child at the zoo you have that desire to poke your face up against the wire and do everything your parents tell you not to and try to make the animals look at you?

Well Bob, our friendly polar bear, obviously had the same urges, having laid down a few meters from the wire of the compound vying for us to give him attention.

He had his back to us in that quintessential legs stretched behind polar bear pose, every so often raising his head to turn and look back at us and sniff the air. After an hour most people had gone back into the warmth of the lodge and I admit I had thoughts to myself that I would follow them shortly, so I crouched by the fence for those last few shots.

With just 2 of us out there Bob got up and walked right up to the fence and mouthed the wire right in front of us. The adrenaline was pumping but he didn’t seem aggressive, just curious, continuing to mouth at the wire pushing his nose right through and even managing a dainty burp.

It is an emotional moment when a wild animal makes the initiative to connect, we were definitely the exhibit in the zoo and he was the curious child, checking to see where his boundaries were. An encounter that will be etched in memory forever. It’s a shame that the weather has come in again and we may not get to leave today, however I have never been so pleased to have a flight delay, leaving us to have such an incredibly lucky close encounter with Bob.

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Now is the time to see the Northern Lights

A double peak ‘Solar Max’ is expected in late 2013 and again in 2015 so if you have always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights, now could be the time to plan your trip and see some of the most spectacular aurora displays.

A Solar Maximum is a period when sunspot activity is at its greatest levels and this tends to happen approximately every 11 years. A sunspot is a dark patch appearing from time to time on the sun’s surface. These cooler areas appear dark by contrast with the surroundings and are prone to eruption which cause solar flares across the surface of the sun. These flares release charged particles into the solar system, which are the catalysts of the northern lights.

During a time of Solar Maximum sunspots are more prevalent which can result in some of the most frequent, dramatic and stunning Northern Light skies. We can help with travel to a number of destinations where the Northern Lights can be seen including Iceland, Spitsbergen & Canada.

We are also excited to announce a new tour by Luxury Train between Moscow and St Petersburg, over the Christmas and New Year period, when you can see the Northern Lights in the Russian Arctic.

For further advice or information contact our specialists on 01285 651010.


Big 5 wow moments in Greenland

1. That first moment you hear over the ship’s intercom, “right folks, if you’d like to make your way portside, we’ve spotted a polar bear eating his kill on the sea ice”. You squeal at whoever you’re with before rushing as fast as you can through the ship to where everyone is lined up along the edge watching a polar bear just a few metres away. Here you remain for 2 hours which feels like 10 minutes.

2. The moment you’re sat quietly on the side of a zodiac next to a 4 storey high glacier, when the booming crunch of an iceberg calving hits your ears and a bus sized chunk of ice slides off into the sea before your eyes, creating a big slow wave that lifts the zodiac and gently puts it back down again. It’s nature at work like nothing else you’ve ever witnessed.

3. The moment you’re sat in the ship’s bar late at night moored off the north coast of Iceland on the last night of your voyage and a crew member strolls in nonchalantly stating “you can see a bit of aurora up there”. Eyes widen momentarily before you grab hat, coat and gloves and practically run up to the flying bridge where you lie on your back watching the lights dance until they fade away.

4. The moment a fluffy little Arctic fox trots across the tundra and through the middle of your group, passing about 2 feet in front of you gazing inquisitively around in search of food. He loops you a few times before wondering off and another two appear; bright white against the green shrubby tundra.

5. The moment you’ve been hiking up a hill, iPod in, picking and eating blueberries all the way up, and suddenly you reach the top of a ridge and spot a mother and baby musk ox staring at you, backed by the ice capped mountain range and still lake down in a valley. Incredible.

To hear more about our trip or for further advice about planning your own cruise in the Arctic, please contact our specialists on 01285 880 980.


A weekend in Iceland – Ice and Fire

This was my first visit to Iceland and with much anticipation and excitement of spending 3 nights discovering the Infamous Land of Fire and Ice; I set off from London Heathrow on a short three hour flight to Reykjavik, the capital.

Seeing the Northern Lights, is high on my “To do list” and for the next two winters, they are promising to be more spectacular than ever and whilst never guaranteed, are likely to be more frequent and more vivid than usual. I just hoped that luck would be on my aside this trip and I would get to see them!

As I travelled during the winter months, Iceland only gets 5 hours of daylight, with the sun not rising before 10:30 and at best, just hovering temptingly above the horizon before it starts to set again around 3:30pm. I landed in Reykjavik, greeted by our ground agent, in a sleek black Mercedes; and then whisked off in style to the city, just 40 minutes away. My hotel for the night was the 101 hotel, a design hotel located in the fashionable 101 district where you can find a plethora of restaurants, bars and shops on your doorstep.

The next morning my guide met me at 10am to start my tour, accompanied by a huge 4×4 super jeep, the best type of vehicle to use once you enter the interior, as the driving becomes more rugged. Driving in Iceland is actually very easy as they only have two main roads and most traffic is centred in Reykjavik, so once you get out of the city, the roads are pretty much your own – a perfect self-drive holiday.

After just an hour we came to our first stop, Thingvellir National Park, a site of historical, cultural and geological importance. It was here that the first Parliament was established. Within the park you can find the largest natural lake in Iceland and a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic ridge. You can actually see where the two tectonic plates are moving apart from one another, slowly splitting the country in two.

If you are feeling particularly brave, you can dive down between the ridges as the water remains at a constant 3 degrees. Stepping out of the super jeep at minus 15 degrees, with frozen paths all around me, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the sheer beauty of the area. A photographer’s paradise, even for amateurs such as myself!

We then continued on to the Gulfoss and Geysir district to see the famous hot springs and geysers, followed by the impressive Gulfoss waterfall. There is free reign to wander around the hot springs, touching the boiling water if you dare. Strokkur, which is the second biggest geyser, will erupt tons of water and steam into the air every couple of minutes, an absolute thrill to see, if a tad smelly!

Other highlights over the two days were the beautiful waterfalls (one of which you can walk behind) and an off road excursion over one of glaciers. You can get a real taste for what it must be like to be in the Arctic, surrounded by nothing but snow, ice and mountains, yet only an hour’s drive back to the main road to Reykjavik.

My hotel for the night was at Ranga Lodge, the best place to stay to see the Northern Lights in all their glory – as there is no light pollution. I also tried one of the Icelandic delicacies here, reindeer Carpaccio, which was extremely tasty along with the Icelandic staple – vodka! The lodge has a Northern lights ranger who will knock on your door during the night if the lights make an appearance, so there is no danger of missing them but unfortunately for me, better luck next time!

The real beauty of Iceland is that there is something for everyone. Diving, kayaking, whale watching, fishing, golf, spa resorts, the list of activities is endless. All of that combined with the picturesque scenery, makes it a perfect destination for a city break or longer stay.


Pro Canibus

The air is charged with the sound of howling huskies. My foot quivers on the snow brake. The dogs in front of me strain against their harnesses.

It’s not a moment for misgivings or second thoughts: either you hold tight as you release the brake and the dogs snap forward, or you’re left behind as the sled races out into the open. I choose to hold on; this time at least.

Already charged with adrenaline, I’m prepared for the rush of euphoria that accompanies our first leaps across the snow, but I wasn’t expecting the silence. One moment, the orchestrated chaos of nose-to-the-sky howls; the next, it’s utterly hushed except for the crunch of snow beneath the runners.

We had flown into the sparkling whiteness of Svalbard, blissfully unaware of how far north we were coming: there were gasps on the plane when we realised that the distance from Oslo to Longyearbyen was almost twice that from London to Oslo. We were well within the Arctic Circle and thus the archipelago seemed deserving of its name – Svalbard means cold shores.

Whilst we received a frosty reception in terms of temperature – it was -10 – that of the inhabitants of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, was far from so. Longyearbyen is a strange but likeable place where all roads come to an abrupt end. The road signs here don’t warn against anything as tame as sprinting deer; no, they depict the unmistakable silhouette of a polar bear – a reminder of who rules the roost in Svalbard.

This is a place where the cute but fearsome predators outnumber the 2,500 residents, and while they occasionally wander close by, sightings are actually rare. But that doesn’t stop most locals from slinging a gun over their shoulder whenever they venture beyond the town.

Hence few raised eyebrows were raised the next morning when we met our two guides. Softly spoken but controlling, Kristen radiates a calm energy that transmits palpably to her dogs, which visibly adore her. Therese is phlegmatic and controlled but with a dry sense of humour and great smile. Both carry rifles. One smokes a pipe.

We pull on our snowsuits and over-sized boots and waddle out to meet the dogs. They are a mixture of traditional white huskies with piercing blue eyes with smaller, black Norwegian huskies. The dogs are adorable, bright-eyed, sleek-coated and frisky. They snarl at each other but are pushovers with people.

We are given a briefing. It all seems rather straightforward. Father Christmas-style sleds are dragged out, teams are allocated and a bundle of harnesses handed out. I approach my lead dog, Oscar, remembering the etiquette and order in which you must go to your dogs. And then my mind goes blank. I’m confronted by a jumble of straps and indecision. Back to Kristen to ask for help. I have to join the queue of my similarly confused colleagues. The huskies meanwhile run in circles around their huts, barking, yelping, howling in anticipation. It’s chaos.

After what feels like an age, the dogs are paired and matched to their sleds – each of us drives our own sled, pulled by six dogs – and we’re ready to roll. They are making even more of a racquet now, straining on the ropes. Finally, we get the signal from Kirsten, I raise my foot, the sled hurtles forward, the canine chorus abates, and we’re off.

Silence. We fly out of the gate and suddenly I get it. It’s the most amazing feeling, gliding through this fairytale land where everything is pure and white and glittery. The world looks like it’s been frozen forever.

Kristen stops after a few hundred yards. Not fully paying attention, nor fully aware of our stopping distances we end up stopping alongside each other incurring her wrath. Another fetish ticked. Suddenly a team of dogs shoot past the line minus anyone at the helm. Their rider follows, head hung low in the walk of shame. Much laughter and a lesson learned.

We travel in single file, with Kristen up ahead, dead cool, listening to her iPod. For the rest of us, the world is silent, as if someone’s pressed the mute button. It is utterly, unnervingly still too. There’s no breeze, nothing.

I try to synchronize my movements with hers as we lean into turns and she calls out commands: “Gee!” (go right) and “Haw!” (left). But my dogs seem unresponsive to my commands. I put aside any aspirations of dog sledding greatness and settle instead for enjoying the spectacular and staggering scenery that surrounds us on all sides.

Tails waving and tongues lolling, the huskies settle into a steady pace. Their running styles are very different: Oscar a little off centre, Luna crab-like, Thor straight as a die, Tusker a staccato trot, Shadow almost a gallop and Siko at best ungainly. One of the joys is getting to know the personalities of the dogs. Like humans, they’re all different. Some are wild extroverts others shy. Some like to lead, others prefer positions in the pack.

As the sun is setting (it will not get fully dark) we descend with some trepidation onto the sea ice. Kristen has put the fear of God into us about the difficulty of stopping on ice. One boot floats above the snow brake, poised to punch its metal teeth into the ice in case of a tangle. Thankfully the dogs ignore the occasional seal enjoying the last of the sun by their seal hole; having sighted the tall masts of the Noordelicht, a two masted schooner frozen in the sea ice, they are intent on getting home.

We’ve arrived. We’ve survived. We’re knackered. Standing on the back of a sled for hours is surprisingly tiring. But chores come first. We have to unharness the dogs and then chain them up in teams. Much to our collective surprise they sleep outside.

“Do the dogs not get cold?”
“No they are hardy and can easily survive these temperatures. In fact you might have seen some of them rolling in the snow whenever we stopped. That was because they found it too hot and were using the snow to cool down.”
“What about polar bears?”
“If the dogs smell or sight a polar bear they make a huge racquet. Normally this will scare a bear away but we will always come out just to check on them.”

Even more impressed by the dogs it was time to reward them with some food. Blocks of frozen meat cut with a chainsaw and then seal blubber to follow. Whilst this is a high energy diet it does have its consequences on the dogs’ bowels and hence throughout the day they defecate. Kirsten had warned us that “You need to go slower when they poop” but all of us seemed to have at least one dog that was royalty and insisted on stopping when the need arose.

The Noorderlicht is a warm refuge. The cabins are small and cosy – just right, anything more would seem out of place on this surreal adventure. Dinner is wholesome, conversation is fun and amusing as we reflect on the day “Formula One start”, “White silence”, “Stunning scenery”, “Amazing Light”, “Dog shit”.

The next day we wake to glorious sunshine further embellishing the fantasy. Same routine: the dogs go bonkers, barking for 45 minutes until we finally set off. A day driving the sleds has made us more confident, but no more adept. But it doesn’t seem to matter as the sun is so brilliant, the scenery uplifting and invigorating, the blue of the glacier that we go to visit dazzling.

We see a phalanx of snowmobiles, headlights on, their black shapes look ominous and menacing against the backdrop of white, as if from the set of Mad Max. They seem ugly and vulgar in comparison to the character of travel by dog sled. We all take the moral high ground against snow mobiles although once back in Longyearbyen resolve crumbles and we head out on snowmobiles to discover that whilst they are comparatively short on personality they are long on adrenaline.

We didn’t see a polar bear – lots of snow and rock bears however. Perhaps this is unsurprising when you consider that there are only a few thousand bears and Svalbard is half the size of the UK. Whilst it would have been thrilling to see a bear it is not disappointing not to have done so; the privilege is spending time in such a dazzlingly pristine and staggering wilderness. To make it all the more special I was able to do so with some great friends.

And thus whilst I will miss the lurch of the sled and the thrill of being pulled into that soundless, white world, it will remain with me forever.


Polar Bears in the Canadian Arctic

Churchill is a tiny town along the Hudson Bay, remote and inaccessible by car since no road has ever been built. This remoteness is not to everybody’s liking and it takes a strong mind and an adventurous spirit to decide a move to Churchill is a good idea.

That’s probably why polar bears outnumber humans in Churchill, and while this makes Churchill an amazing place to visit for polar bear safaris, it also makes it a hot-bed for human-wildlife conflict. This is no joking matter when the wildlife in question is the world’s largest carnivore that is likely not to have eaten for over 3 months.

At the beginning of November, clients Annemiek Van Gijn and Carsten Gerlach from the Netherlands, witnessed first-hand the manner in which “problem bears” are dealt with in Churchill. “Problem bears” are Churchill’s bad boys, who regularly enter the town in search of food (anything from the contents of a rubbish bin to a drunken resident on his way home from the local) and are no longer deterred by the sound of gun-shots emitted by Churchill’s Polar Bear Alert.

These 400kg miscreants are darted and put into captivity where they are encouraged to consider the consequences of their anti-social behavior. In reality, their time inside is easy porridge with a regular supply of seal blubber and constant care and attention.

Once the sea ice has reformed and is thick enough for a helicopter to land, the polar bears are released in a procedure that takes skill and bravery. The bears are sedated and placed in a heavy duty harness which is winched up into the air by a helicopter. The helicopter slowly makes its way out across the tundra into the frozen wilderness, hundreds of miles away from the residents of Churchill where the polar bear will be gently landed and given an anti-sedative to wake it up.

This is an expensive but effective antidote to human-polar bear conflict and research data shows that those bears who do time and are relocated, learn their lesson and never return to Churchill.

Both the photos shown above were taken by Annemiek on her trip to Churchill. For more information about Polar Bear holidays to the Canadian Arctic, please contact our specialists on 01285 880 980.


Heading Home from Iceland

19 Aug

This morning we had a landing in the little village of Ittoqqortoormiit; it was strange to see other people after two weeks of just the people onboard!

The village was very thought-provoking; it’s so incredibly remote and the people so self-sufficient. A boat comes twice a year to bring food for the community and that’s all their outside help so other than that they hunt whales, seals, polar bears, etc. They have a quota that they’re allowed to hunt; after all it’s not their fault others have come in and decimated the populations of these animals, they should be allowed to maintain their traditions.

There’s a brilliant little museum which is basically just a photo gallery of the people and their way of life. It was lovely to wander around and get an insight into their life. We watched the release of their twice daily weather balloon and saw feeding time at the Greenland Dog base, from where they go dog sledding in the winter when the sea has frozen over. It’s so cut off from life as I know it.

Back onboard we set sail straight away for Iceland and then home. The ship seems so much like home now that I’m really quite emotional about leaving her.

I’m trying not to sound too cheesy but the people onboard have really become family over the last two weeks, I’ve made some incredible new friends who I’m sure I’ll stay in touch with and visit in the future.

After watching a movie in the lecture room I’m now having a beer and waiting for dinner. Tomorrow will be a full day at sea and we’re going to watch a slide show for which everyone on board has contributed their three favourite photos from the trip. We’ll also probably have some lectures and we’ll pack and begin to say our farewells. This really has been a total trip of a lifetime in every sense and I’m genuinely devastated it’s nearly over!


Polar Bears and Fin Whales in the Greenland Sea

10 Aug

I wish I could photograph or somehow capture for you the exhilaration I’m feeling at this moment. I’m lying on my bunk enjoying the sway of choppy seas as we cross the sea between Spitsbergen and Greenland. The reason I’m so excited is that, after an absolutely brilliant day spotting my first polar bear and the sight of a massive glacier calving, I’m told that in a couple of hours we will be reaching a part of the sea where some large swell has stirred up a load of nutrients in the water and where it is just possible that we might see blue whales.

This would be a lifelong dream fulfilled so I’m trying desperately hard not to get my hopes up too high, as nature is of course wonderfully
unpredictable and beats only to its own drum, but am failing. I am so excited I can hardly contain myself. All the other passengers have gone for a couple of hours sleep before the exhibition leader will intercom us to come up to the bridge if there’s anything to see, but I couldn’t sleep if I tried, despite my anti-seasickness pill induced drowsy state! Up to wait in the bridge I think…

11 Aug

It’s 10 o’clock in the evening, just watched a film down in the lecture room because we’re on at “at sea” day and then wandered to the bar for a drink.

Was just stood out on deck on the port side having a chat when I saw a blow in the distance! I kept watching intently and it happened two more times! I was so excited! I ran up to the bridge where everyone had congregated because the naturalist, who’d been keeping watch, had announced on the intercom that they could see a fin whale. As we watched it surfaced several more times to blow about 100 metres from the ship. Absolutely incredible!

The fin whale is the second largest whale on the planet and this one was about 20 metres long, practically black in colour. Fin whales surface three to five times before going under for about three minutes. The ship stopped while we watched as he looped the boat a few times, the staff are incredibly skilled at predicting where they’ll next surface. My first whale!!! A lifelong ambition achieved. Certainly brightened up a long day at sea!

13 Aug

After our three days at sea crossing between Spitsbergen and Greenland I’ve been so content today spending hours out on the bow just watching the ice floes drift by. As far as the eye could see in all directions we’ve been surrounded with ice in varying shades of aquamarine blue. However, when at about 9pm there came an announcement from the bridge that they’d spotted a polar bear on the ice, I’ve never seen a bar empty quicker in my life! We all rushed to the bow and there he was straight ahead of us eating. When he’d finished he rolled around for a while and had a stretch, quite clearly showing off for the cameras, and the only attention he paid to us was to stand up and put his nose in the air a few times to have a sniff despite the fact that our able crew had managed to get us within about 40 feet of him.

He walked over to the edge of his piece of ice and the corner broke off, sending him into the water, we all stifled chuckles as we were trying to be quiet for him. He clambered out again onto another piece and shook himself off like a gigantic white dog. As he migrated around to the port the side of the ship and looked to be close to swimming off, another bigger one appeared right next to us on the starboard side, again within about 40 feet. He also put on a show for us, most enjoyably of all putting his chin and chest on the floor and pushing himself along with his back legs! It was absolutely amazing all silently watching him while he just went about being magnificent for us!

He eventually swam off into the sunset, the boat began to pick up speed and we sat back down in the bar to compare photos, when about 5 minutes later we all rushed out to the stern to see yet another polar bear! It’s so thrilling how quietly and slowly our little ship can approach them so that you’re practically within jumping distance, it was the most incredible encounter.

With just an hour and a half to wait until the midnight sun we stayed up looking at photos and playing cards until heading up to the highest deck to look at the hands down most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. Gorgeous colours in the sky reflecting on the perfectly calm sea between the thousands upon thousands of chunks and slabs of sea ice. Every day on this trip seems to bring a more spectacular view.

Including one bear we saw through binoculars lounging on a patch of snow on a cliff in Spitsbergen, that brings the count up to four.

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Spitsbergen, Greenland & Iceland adventure

It’s the first full day of my expeditionary voyage of the  Arctic and what an incredible day! We were told at our briefing after breakfast that there were two walruses on the beach, which was really good news as we’d been told this was probably our only chance of seeing them on the trip. We all got into all our thermal and waterproof gear, made our way to the bow, down the gangplank and into the zodiacs and were off towards the shore.

We landed a way away from them so we could approach them slowly to not scare them away. We trudged through the gravelly sand for a few minutes before seeing two big brown humps getting larger. As we got closer one of the massive humps lifted an enormous tusked head and sleepily gazed at us for a few seconds. An incredible moment; we all froze in our tracks, but he seemed to almost immediately decide we weren’t worth bothering with and put his head back down. As we crept round them we saw there was a third smaller one behind them. The three of them were companionably snuggled together having a snooze.

I sat down on a gravelly ridge about 30 feet away from them and just watched. They were so huge close up, bigger than you’d expect and so incredible to watch, even while sleeping! The bigger one did keep lifting his head and having a glance around, just to check everyone was behaving, but they really didn’t seem at all bothered that we were there, which was wonderful. The two larger ones shifted around a bit, and the largest one put his flipper around the smaller one; everyone instinctively went “awwwwwww” but even then, the noise didn’t faze them one bit. I’d forgotten since my last wildlife based trip all the reasons it’s so incredible to see animals in the wild rather than in a zoo. Seeing them in their natural habitat is so exhilarating.

As we were sat watching, the ship’s naturalist said that there were Minky whales in view from the beach back towards the ship. Everyone scanned the water until we saw a back rise and fall back down into the depths.

Back to the boat for a hot creamy mushroom soup and an afternoon nap in the warmth and then off again for a walk across the boggy tundra. We were quickly rewarded for our efforts by the sight of two gorgeous little Arctic foxes, one white and one grey. They’re so small and cute with big bushy tails and one ran right past about 3 feet in front of us, they’re not shy in the slightest! We also saw a couple of herds of reindeer, much smaller than I had envisaged and again really cute! Everything’s woolly and sweet here! It’s so amazing how close you can get to everything.

Back onboard now and about to enjoy the captain’s welcome drinks before dinner. What a fantastic first day!

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Wildlife of the Northwest Passage

While the history of the 300 year search for the Northwest Passage which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is well documented, travellers in search of a polar adventure may be less aware of the huge variety and numbers of wildlife to be enjoyed during a voyage through the Canadian High Arctic.

According to Aaron Lawton, a Northwest Passage Expedition leader, it is possible to be truly inundated and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of marine mammals, polar bears and birdlife that appear during such a voyage.

Lawton says: “One memorable day at Beechey Island last summer saw three polar bears; two white morph adult gyrfalcons taking turns feeding their chick; three beluga whales swimming along the shoreline; a bearded seal poking its head up from time to time; hundreds of harp seals, thousands of fulmars, kittiwakes, thick-billed murres and even a few black guillemots! Plus, about a dozen Arctic hare were easily visible even from the ship’s anchorage.”

This bombardment of wildlife sightings is by no means an isolated experience as passengers on board the impressive ice-strengthened Akademik Ioffe will discover. Using zodiacs (inflatable boats) with the quietest of motors, travelling upwind of a polar bear, it is possible to safely get within metres of these beautiful creatures as they stroll along the shoreline. And, with a real chance of seeing pods of beluga or bowhead whales, a raft of ringed, harp or bearded seals, a herd of walrus and staggering numbers of birds, many with chicks in various stages of fledging – it is certain to be a wildlife experience to remember.

Travelling along one of the most legendary shipping routes in the world also provides a fascinating opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a host of courageous polar explorers, including the ill-fated Sir John Franklin and Roald Amundsen, the first to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage.

Today’s adventurer will travel in much greater comfort than the remarkable polar explorers who went before them. Facilities on board include a bar and lounge, a library and media room, plus a theatre-style presentation room, gift-shop and wellness centre with massage, sauna and hot tub, as well as a dining room serving sumptuous meals throughout the voyage.

Additional highlights of the 14-night trip, which travels between Kangerlussuaq in Greenland and Coppermine in Canada, include majestic, steep-sided fjords and massive tabular icebergs; the chance to visit remote Inuit communities and meet traditional Greenlandic kayakers; and the opportunity to participate in hiking, kayaking, photographic and birding expeditions in the company of expert guides.

There is a choice of two voyages through the Northwest Passage this summer.


Northern Lights

With next year being touted as being a great year in which to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), here’s a taster of just how extraordinary a natural phenomenon it is.

The above photo was taken just outside the town of Alta in North Norway on Tuesday evening by our local agent, Trygve, who specialises in ‘Hunting the Aurora’ safaris 3 evenings a week through the winter months and has an impressive 80% success rate when it comes to sightings.

If you fancy Aurora hunting yourself, be quick as availability for January and February next year is going fast. For more details on holidays to the Arctic, please contact the Voyages team on 01285 880 980.


80 Degrees North

I have to admit, when I think of a holiday I think sun, sea and sand, never had I thought of Russian expeditionary ships and long johns! Nor had I thought that a holiday to the Arctic could offer all three and more! So when the opportunity arose to travel to Spitsbergen to see Polar bears and icebergs I jumped at the chance, but felt apprehensive of what was to come…

Leaving Oslo in the dark we flew north, unsure what to expect, but when the pilot announced we had crossed the Arctic Circle, I already felt like an intrepid explorer! I awoke to the most spectacular view of fluffy white clouds, a splattering of islands and ice, and a feeling that we had entered the land of Phillip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’. I spent the last hour of the flight with my nose pressed firmly against the window not wanting to miss a second of the staggering landscape below, and hoping to see my first glimpse of our destination, Spitsbergen. I wasn’t disappointed; the airport sits dramatically between two towering, snow capped hills on the edge of the island. Landing at around midnight, we were greeted with bright sunshine and our first glimpse of Arctic wildlife… a bird … my knowledge of birdlife was rather limited to say the least!

My diary entry for the day of embarkation starts with a scribbled list of wildlife… all spelt incorrectly… but 3 of which were names of birds (my knowledge of birds had already improved – well I’d remembered a few names at least!) They included Puffins, Reindeer, seals, Fulmers and Skuas (apparently these take their name from a word that in some languages means pirate, as they are known to steal fish from other birds in mid air – almost an expert now!).

Longyearbyen is a small transit town, with colourful houses set amongst dramatic arctic scenery, its residents are hugely friendly and the Polar museum is well worth a visit; for me it was all about the famous Polar Bear sign! A great photo for any album.

Embarkation was very exciting, we all gathered on the jetty and put on our lifejackets for the first time, a routine we would all become well practiced at throughout the week. Group by group we lined up to learn the sailor’s grip and the routine of step, sit, shuffle, shuffle which we would use each time we got into the zodiacs. One unlucky passenger managed to set off their life jacket much to their shock and the group’s amusement… they weren’t to be the last!

Onboard the ship was warm and welcoming, our bags were already in our cabins and we had time to explore the ship and settle in. At dinner time everyone headed to sample the delights of the fantastic chefs and the chatter of introductions filled the air. What a fascinating group, people from all walks of life, photographers, birders, those who had been to all corners of the world and those who were starting a journey of a lifetime. The ships guides and resident experts sat amongst us and everyone was happy to share stories and advice for anyone who asked.

And so began our adventure. Each day the boat took us to a new destination while we ate or slept and then we explored the Arctic wilderness by zodiac or on foot.

We visited Ny Alesund, the most Northerly settlement on earth, and posted our post cards from 79 degrees north. Back on the water we were surrounded by hundreds of pearly white belugas whales in our zodiacs. Sitting in silence watching these curious animals rubbing their stomachs on the rocks and listening to the sound of them expelling air from their blow holes has to be one of the most privileged moments of my life.

A visit to a glacier provided a very different experience, the sheer scale of it was difficult to comprehend, the intense blue coloured ice running through the glacier created striking shapes on its snout, while birds circled above us. There was so much to see, and there was a wonderful snap and crackle sound created by air escaping from the ice. We even tasted some ice plucked from the sea, salty on the outside and cool and so fresh on the inside!

Bear! Polar Bear!! One of my diary entries. Our first polar bear was spotted just as the group were disembarking at an old whaling site. Everyone got back into the zodiacs and we floated alongside the bear as he swam from one island to another. I had not realised just how huge and powerful these beautiful creatures were as his body rose from the water. We watched the male bear as he covered ground at a staggering pace, causing reindeer to flee his path. We left him to continue his journey as our guides were careful that our presence should not alter his behaviour. *“I am so lucky to be here”* is written so many times in my journal!

We were lucky enough to see Polar bears on a couple of other days; one sighting was of a mother and her two cubs. We followed them, watching the mother searching for bird eggs as she was dive bombed by protective skuas. We continued with her as she set off across the water and delighted as the two cubs hesitated before throwing themselves into the icy water. What a fantastic day, the boat was electric with the thrill of all that we had seen and dinner was filled with stories and the sharing of photos taken that day.

A polar desert visit provided such a stark contrast to the surrounding. At the walrus haul out we all approached quietly, getting closer and closer until the very distinctive smell of the walrus hit us! They move around continuously, grunting and pushing their way into the warmth of the middle of the pile up. More approached by sea, ducking under the kayakers in playful curiosity and then dragging themselves up the beach with surprising ease. A definite highlight for the group and the chance to get some great photos.

The packed days all too soon come to an end and we disembarked back into Longyearbyen for the flights home. What a privilege that I have had the chance to experience this beautiful frozen landscape… next stop Antarctica!

For more information on holidays to Spitsbergen, please contact my colleague Sue, who has firsthand experience of most of the boats we offer, on 01285 880 981.


Wrangelling polar bears in the Russian Arctic

Wrangel Island features on very few map & its neighbour Herald island fewer still. Each summer as the Arctic ice retracts a chunk of ice gets hooked on pregnant mothers an ideal location to den. The ice eventually disappears leaving the bears stranded on the islands for the short summer living off their fat reserves and making the most of any opportunities that come along.

During our 5 days of voyaging around both Wrangel and Herald Islands we were joined by 3 researchers who live and work there during the summer. This gave us an even greater insight into this amazing destination and their intimate knowledge of the region allowed us the greatest opportunities to explore.

In Russia guides do not carry firearms, they carry flares, a long stick and a very enlightened attitude. “We arrive on equal terms, if you carry a gun you ultimately have the upper hand” my guide told me, “we watch the bears and their reactions, if they are relaxed then so are we”. As bears congregate in such large numbers they are quite tolerant of each other and if shown respect are equally tolerant of humans. I was certainly under no illusion that the polar bears if given an opportunity would take it, they have great curiosity but are also cautious hunters.

The first time we landed with bears in sight and then actively walked towards them I was acutely aware of this, but with careful observation we got to a point where both bears and human could get a good look at each other and neither was disturbed, (around 400 meters). When nervous the bears would initially yawn and then lip smack, a sign that we were too close so we would back away.

One landing saw us at the foot of a steep scree slope where 5 bears could be seen at various heights and distances. A group of around 10 of us headed up across the tundra to the right of the scree hoping to see Arctic fox, Lemming, snowy owl and Musk Ox during our proposed four hour walk. A zodiac patrolled up and down close to the beach keeping an eye out for any bears. We had stopped to watch an Arctic fox when the radio crackled “there is a sleeping bear up on the rocks which will come into view as you head over the rise”. Sure enough a large male bear was stretched out in the sun, we watched him for a while but didn’t want to disturb him so headed further inland, Musk Ox had been sighted and we wanted to see if we could get a closer look.

As we continued we could see a mother with her cub tracking alongside a small river, we watched for 5 minutes before she clocked us, sniffing the air she eyed us cautiously then continued up the river with the youngster in tow. The large male roused himself and loped down from his lofty lookout, he skirted around the base of cliff where two other single bears could be seen in the distance. We continued our walk and managed to creep to within 40 meters of the munching Musk Ox, listening to their snorts in the crisp air. This is a walk I will certainly remember for a long time to come.

The Russian Arctic is truly beguiling, with friendly Chuckchi Eskimos, ancient villages to explore and the remnants of many cold war bases. There are towering cliffs that are home to huge numbers of nesting sea birds, often with walrus haul outs at the bases. On land you can encounter picas, ground squirrel and lemming along with reindeer and Musk Ox. Our bear count was 105 – which was 103 polar bears and 2 brown bears on the Chukotka coast. Truly a destination of wilderness and wildlife.

For more information about cruises to the Russian Arctic or polar bear holidays, please contact me, Sue on 01285 880 980.

Polar Bears from the inside out

For anyone with the vaguest interest in Polar Bears then don’t miss the up- coming Thursday nights Inside Nature’s Giants at 9pm on Channel 4.

The scientists collect blood and fresh tissue samples and collaborate with local people, who are permitted to hunt a small quota of bears. The hunting is strictly controlled, using traditional methods and avoiding mothers with cubs. The Inside Nature’s Giants experts join the expedition to carry out an anatomical dissection to explore some of the mysteries of the polar bear.

There will be ethical challenges to all animal lovers who watch, as an animal is hunted; this is an emotive issue and veterinary scientist Mark Evans is obviously upset by his first encounter with a freshly-hunted polar bear.

Having met many of the team at the Cheltenham Science Festival I was impressed by the attention to detail and how well they avoided making the series purely voyeuristic. I am sure this new series will be an equally well balanced approach.

I have been lucky enough to see polar bears in Canada, Greenland and Spitsbergen and with a bit more luck I will be seeing more in a few months when I visit Wrangel Island in Russia’s Far East, renowned as the polar bear maternity ward of the world.


Close Encounters

I have been lucky enough to have had many close encounters with wildlife getting within a few feet of many great predators including both tigers & lions but nothing quite prepared me for my recent polar bear encounter in Spitsbergen.

I have heard it said many times that polar bears are the only animal that actively hunts humans and was aware that visiting bear country in the Arctic means travelling with an armed guide.

What I wasn’t quite so prepared for was during a zodiac cruise seeing a large male polar bear sleeping high on a ridge, on hearing our zodiac he got up and sauntered down to the beach where he settled back down for a further nap – apparently. However watching closely you could see he had settled himself down carefully pushing his back paws deep into the sand behind him. Resting his head on his front paws but never quite closing his eyes, fidgeting and opening them to check where we were. He hung his front paw down over the rocks which made him look so gentle and peaceful. He was quite clearly trying to lull us into a false sense of security, enticing us to get closer for that ultimate photograph. From his perfect position a lunging jump into a zodiac was an easy meal option. I was glad of my camera’s long lens which gave me a great view well outside his striking distance along with a guide who was well aware of the bear tricks.

This was just one of the many highlights of an amazing Spitsbergen voyageon which we saw plenty of polar bears, literally tons of walrus, arctic foxes, huge bird nesting cliffs & friendly reindeer set to a backdrop of mountains, tundra and calving glaciers.


Taking the Polar Plunge

As a regular morning swimmer the opportunity to take a dip in the Arctic above 79°off the coast of Spitsbergen was too good to be true.

What I was hoping for was an elegant entrance, a quick lap, jovial “come in the waters lovely” and an exit like a bond girl. What I achieved was in fact was a very good impression of a walrus. The glacial chill took my breath away so the only sound I could emit was a couple of gasps for breath followed by a snort. I did manage a grin for to the frankly over-dressed passengers in a passing zodiac before my exit which was a stumbling dash across the pebbles to grab a towel and scramble back into my nice warm fleece. Yes I would of course do it again.Photographic evidence has been censored so the photo is of an amused local.

The polar plunge is an “option” on most of the expedition voyages we offer to the Arctic, Antarctica or the North Pole so don’t forget to pack your togs.

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Polar Cruise to Spitsbergen

“Bear sighting, 600 yards to starboard’ It was one of those moments that instantly becomes permanently etched on one’s memory”

We were only two days into our Spitsbergen Cruise aggressively shouldering our way through thick pack ice only 600 odd miles from The North Pole, when the ship’s tannoy crackled into life: ‘Bear sighting, 600 yards to starboard’. It was one of those moments that instantly becomes permanently etched on one’s memory. The reverberation of hastened footsteps rang out across the ship as breakfasts were hastily abandoned and the cabins emptied as we scrambled for our first sighting of the main driving force that had propelled us all north into Spitsbergen’s icy wastes: The White Bear.

Widely distributed across the Arctic region, it’s Spitsbergen or Svalbard as the Norwegians call it, that rightly in our opinion lays claim to being the best place to see polar bears in their Arctic wilderness environment. Estimated to number over 3,000, that’s more bears than people, sightings as a result are near guaranteed. Combined with its renown as the most wildlife-rich part of the whole Arctic, eye-popping glaciers and relatively easily access via Oslo from London, Spitsbergen’s allure is compelling and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

This was my first foray into polar waters, but I quickly got to grips with the informal routine aboard our expeditionary ice strengthened ship. A ship I discovered offers undoubtedly the best platform for exploration and wildlife sightings in Arctic waters, with more than enough opportunity to get off the boat to do daily landings by zodiac, which is lots of fun, and walks on the tundra for even the most inactive landlubber.

That first polar bear sighting remains the high point of an extraordinary trip sprinkled with many other highlights – from watching immense glaciers carving, to a ringside seat to the sounds and smell of a large walrus ‘haul-out’ – and undoubtedly I returned home with a touch of ‘polar fever’ for this extraordinary region.

For more information please do not hesitate to ring the voyages team on 01285 880981. For more information on our range of Arctic cruises, including Cruises to Spitsbergen, Greenland, The North Pole, Russian and Canadian Arctic can be found in the Cruises and Voyages section.


What is all the fuss about ash?

Everyone by now is aware that the volcanic eruption has grounded all flights out of the UK, but what is all the fuss about, what can a little ash do?

Some airlines are putting pressure on NATS to allow flights into the UK and who can blame them when they are losing millions per day. However NATS are not taking the risk and this whole situation boils down to the epic British Airways Flight 9 in 1982.

Unbeknown to the pilots and ground control, BA Flight 9 flew through the ash cloud of an erupting volcano, South West of Jakarta in Indonesia. Subsequently, sulphurous smoke filled the cabin and all four engines failed.

So here’s a little geology lesson for you… volcanic rock melts at approximately 1300oC, the temperature in a jet engine exceeds 2000oC. You can probably guess the rest, but a jet engine filled with molten lava definitely spells trouble.

Though they wouldn’t have thought it at the time, Flight 9 had a lucky break when their engines failed. Molten rock deposits had stopped the intake of air and the engines flamed out, however as the engines cooled slightly the deposits clinging to the inside broke off, re-enabling full airflow. Despite never having been tried before on a Boeing 747, the pilot chanced a full engine restart – with success.

Landing was the next issue. If you have ever seen anything sand blasted you will understand that flying at nearly 1000km/h through tiny rock particles is going to do some damage, in this case the cockpit window was scratched to a whiteout. Pilots had to land using a 2” strip of clear glass, which somehow had avoided destruction. The ground crew in Jakarta saw on touch down a Boeing 747 stripped to its bare metal by volcanic ash.

It was a lucky escape for Flight 9 and the crew were justly awarded the Queens Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air. Despite the heroics, it was an event that was vowed never to be repeated. So despite the frustration, cost and inconvenience of the current volcanic eruption in Iceland, it is certainly worth considering the consequences if a wrong decision was made.


Spitsbergen in February

With insulated snow suit, boots, balaclava and crash helmet our small posse left the Trappers Hotel in Longyearbyen at 9.30am as the early rays of the sun we would never see, lit the horizon. A day of exhilaration on skidoos, 60 miles, through a landscape of barren mountains starkly white in the bluish light. Hugging valley floors, twisting through gullies, across frozen lakes, steep climbs up onto glaciers and then the descent. By 3.30 it was dark again. Our destination – Isfjord Radio station, adorned with tall masts, it once the only means of communication with the mainland but
now transformed into a surprisingly comfortable hotel.

A slightly longer coastal route, hoping for a sight of the elusive polar bear, took us back to Longyearbyen for another night at the Trappers Hotel and dinner in Spitsbergen’s answer to The Ivy. Did I have my camera as the Northern Lights made their appearance? No, but perhaps my mesmerisation would have put paid to a decent photograph anyway. Truly, spectacularly, unashamedly, beautiful. No adjective really does this spectacle the credit it deserves. Worth going all the way to Spitsbergen just for that.

Could dog sledding come close to the experience? Nearly. After a morning of mushing guiding my six dogs along a valley floor – (well truthfully they simply follow the sledge in front!) I don’t really care if I never see another skidoo, but two or three days with the dogs would be sensational.

I genuinely long to go back and explore further.