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On an Expedition Cruise off Remote Norway, Zodiac Tours of Ice Floes and Some of the World's Most Vulnerable Terrain

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 11/25/2022 Sarah Khan

On the fifth day of my arctic cruise, my shipmates and I are hovering somewhere around the 80th parallel when the ship's captain booms over the loudspeaker with the announcement we've been aching to hear all week: “Polar bear sighting on the starboard side!” Finally. We erupt in cheers, and I race to the deck to squint through my binoculars at a mother and cub lumbering playfully along the shore. Having the privilege of spying these two creatures going about their daily routines is the kind of goosebumps moment that I know well from years of safari-going in Africa and Asia.

I'm here in Svalbard, Norway, aboard Atlas Ocean Voyages' sleek World Navigator, a ship that marries the action of an expedition ship and the ease of a luxury sailing. The brand launched just last year with inaugural sailings to the Mediterranean and Antarctica, quickly earning a reputation for its deep-access itineraries to remote corners of the globe, utilizing some of the most environmentally sound vessels on the water today. Atlas's ships don't rely on heavy fuels, and their positioning systems are designed to have minimal impact on the natural environment. After a successful year exploring the reaches of Antarctica, Atlas ventured above the Arctic Circle, a few degrees shy of the North Pole. My expedition starts in Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost town. In fact, just about everything here comes with a directional honorific: the world's northernmost fuel center. The northernmost brewery. Northernmost post office. But when we venture even farther north, the region's remoteness truly comes into focus. I fling open my blackout curtains each morning to increasingly surreal views: craggy peaks ringed by halos of mist; glacier walls that unfurl for miles. There's an otherworldly quality to floating on top of the world, surrounded by nothing but ice floes.

On the lookout for polar bears during a Zodiac ride © Chase Teron On the lookout for polar bears during a Zodiac ride

Well, not quite nothing. On the World Navigator, I feel like I've crashed a convention of the world's most interesting people. My companions include retired spies, military officers, oceanographers, diplomats, and archaeologists—a fellowship of peripatetic overachievers who have traveled to nearly every country (and perhaps even played a role in forming a few of them). When the expedition team asks how many of us have been to Antarctica, nearly every hand shoots into the air.

Many of these curious sailors have been drawn to Svalbard because it is a hot spot of climate change—temperatures here have been rising nearly four times faster than the rest of the Earth. “The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate,” says Ed Sobey, PhD, a former research scientist who specialized in polar oceanography, during one of his daily talks on the region's history, terrain, and wildlife. I listen from a couch in the Dome, the ship's Deck 7 observation lounge, where the panoramic windows double as teaching assistants, as he gestures to moraines and crevasses in the glaciers. “You all need to carry the message home. We're at a tipping point.”

A recently calved iceberg in Kongsfjorden © Chase Teron A recently calved iceberg in Kongsfjorden A mother polar bear near a whale carcass in Forlandsundet © Chase Teron A mother polar bear near a whale carcass in Forlandsundet

Twice-daily Zodiac sailings take us to some of the world's most vulnerable terrain. Even on the bumpiest rides, when water lashes our faces, or on the gloomiest days, so gray and misty that water, sky, and ice all blur together into a monochromatic canvas, these excursions are exhilarating. One sailing skirts the Bråsvellbreen glacier, where we watch neon turquoise waters pool along the top of the towering wall of ice before thundering down in waterfalls. “It's melting right there, before our eyes,” says Karin, a fellow passenger. On one evening sail, when the sky is a luminous silver and the water a pristine periwinkle studded with marble mounds of ice, we slow down to watch a lone walrus on a floe. As he preens for our cameras, our expedition guide, Juan Berenstein, draws our attention to the blood streaking his shoulder. “Maybe it was a bite from a polar bear?” he speculates.

In the former Swedish Arctic research station of Kinnvika, we encounter something even rarer than polar bears: people. “It's an odd sort of place,” Björn Svantesson tells me outside his spartan wooden cabin. He's part of a trio of Swedish conservationists dispatched to this abandoned outpost to restore a scattering of prefab huts, including a sauna (“the northernmost sauna in the world, I think”). “There's something about the untouched nature, the wildlife. It feels like a privilege to be in such a remote place,” he says.

Back on board, conditions are considerably more cosseting than in Svantesson's cabin. I may love the unexpected thrills of an expedition cruise, but I also like the multi-course meals and multi-jet showers. Done up with 1940s Art Deco flair, the World Navigator has 98 rooms and suites with cloud-like beds and plush robes, as well as caviar, miso-glazed cod, and an alfresco ice cream stand. But there is one thing this opulent ship can't guarantee so far north: the internet. My aimless scrolling is easily replaced by fellow cruisers sharing tales about CIA missions in Iraq or a curious encounter with a young Michael Jackson.

The unpredictability of a sailing like this means embracing every change of plan: jumping off a massage table when you hear a rumor of a polar-bear sighting or casting aside plans to curl up with a book when the cruise director announces a polar plunge. Adventurers in these parts have long had an affinity for diving into the unknown, and, caught up in the excitement, I join the rest of my bathrobed cruise mates in the gangway to slide into the Arctic Sea. When I emerge from the glacial waters, frosty but exhilarated, a plush towel and a steaming cup of hot chocolate are waiting for me. Not a bad dose of adventure.

Atlas Ocean Voyages eight-night Longyearbyen trip starts at $10,999 per person, based on double occupancy.

This article appeared in the December 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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