Escape the Crowds in the Arctic: Remote Spitsbergen

September 16, 2020 Doug O'Neill

Looking to escape the crowds? Join a polar expedition and enjoy the splendid
isolation of the Arctic. Photo: David Merron 

It’s a clear-sky Arctic afternoon as our Zodiac ferries a group of only eight guests (including me) from the 128-passenger Ocean Adventurer to the shores of Van Keulenfjorden, a 30 km-long fjord on the west coast of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Our guide deftly lands our watercraft on the shoreline known as Bellsund, which was one of the first fjords to be used by whalers in the early 17th century. With the exception of flocks of Brunnich guillemots and skuas, there’s no movement, not that I observe at first.

Not far from our landing spot is an ancient, weathered grey building and a few other remnants of the Bamsebu whaling station, built in the 1930s. Down near the shore are a couple overturned boats, their original colors faded white over time. The site that next grabs my attention is the pile of bleached whalebones next to one of the weather-beaten out buildings, a testament to the robust whaling industry that once thrived here.

You, a handful of fellow travellers, your guide and that's it. On an Arctic expedition, guests have the polar wilderness to themselves.
Photo: Grange Productions 

This photo, taken  at the former whaling station of Bamsebu, Bellsund, shows our ship, Ocean Adventurer,  in the distance.
There's no other sign of civilization as far as the eye can see.  Photo: Doug O'Neill 

Within minutes of climbing out of the Zodiac I’m meandering solo along the shore: the place is blessedly empty and free of chatter. There are no other ‘tour companies’ to compete with. There are no crowds.

A Quark Expeditions guest enjoys a solitary walk at Bamsebu, Bellsund, in Spitsbergen.  Photo: Doug O'Neill 

Viewing historic landmarks and Arctic artefacts without any crowds or lineups is one of the perks of an Arctic expedition. Photo: Doug O'Neill 

Apart from the bird life, small herds of reindeer, sly Arctic foxes and the occasional polar bear—which, accordingly to wildlife experts,  swim across the water in search of food—nothing else lives here. We’re free to roam about on our own or in small groups—staying within the safety perimeters marked by our rifle-toting guides who position themselves at various points on high ground as they make sure we’re all safe.  

Hiking up a muddied trail, I turn around and look back at our ship in the distance. The tableau is the stuff of postcards: snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and tundra. I breathe it all in—until I hear one of the most surprising sounds of the trip: the hooves of six or seven reindeer unexpectedly cantering past me, making a beeline to a patch of grass on the other side of the trail. It’s one of those rare nature moments you don’t expect to have all to yourself.

A pile of whalebones lies undisturbed at a long-abandoned whaling station in Spitsbergen . Photo: Doug O'Neill 

Reindeers are among the creatures guests encounter during shore landings at Bamsebu, Bellsund. Photo: David Merron 

After walking solo for about an hour and a half, during which I feel like I’ve got an Arctic paradise all to myself, I hike back to the shore where our group reconvenes by our Zodiac. Everyone is excitedly sharing photos and exchanging favourite moments of the shore-landing. Three people photographed an arctic fox. The birders in our group were amazed at the number of Guillemots they caught on camera. Okay, I’ll admit it, I boasted about my audience-of-one reindeer encounter.

There’s been a wonderful camaraderie on this trip, nurtured by our collective enthusiasm for nature experiences—and of course our shared desire to experience the remote Arctic. As much as I’ve loved meeting the other guests on board, I’ve not once felt I was in a crowd. And at various moments during the 7-day Spitsbergen Highlights: Expedition in Brief voyage, I’ve been keenly aware that I’ve escaped the quick pace of my regular life.

The fact that there are fewer than 128 guests on Ocean Adventurer (you’ll never find more than 199 on any Quark Expeditions vessel) means that there are plenty of spaces onboard to hang out with a few people—or just on your own: in the lounge, in the library, outside on the deck on a comfortable love seat watching for whales.

A Quark Expeditions guest quietly contemplates the staggering beauty of the Norwegian Arctic. Photo: Grange Productions 

The off-ship adventure options have been similarly unbusy. Guests on our hiking outings were divvied up into manageable groups. And our afternoon kayaking outing among the water and ice?  There were only nine of us. 

I remember sitting in the kayak that afternoon, the whistling Arctic wind broken only sporadically by a guide calling out the name of a bird or to point out a walrus lazing on a nearby floating chunk of ice. Scanning the horizons all I saw were ice-capped peaks, glacier, sculpted ice, rugged shorelines and our lone ship dwarfed by the backdrop of a snow-capped mountain. The call of a skua, the gentle dip of my paddle in the water and the murmur of fellow guests skipping quietly over the surface of the water…no other sounds.

Unlike other trips I’ve taken throughout my travels, not once on this voyage did I encounter passengers from another expedition or tour company. No unsightly huddles of travelers competing for space or photo ops.

If escaping the crowds is your thing, I suggest you head for the remote Arctic where, if you’re lucky, the only “crowd” you’ll encounter will be a pack of seven reindeer on a hillside in the middle of the afternoon.   

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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