Why you should visit the Arctic in May

American nature photographer Edwin Way Teale wrote, “The world's favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.”

It’s that promise of possibilities that excites travelers about visiting the Arctic in spring, especially the month of May, when the frozen north awakens from its cold-induced slumber and erupts in a season robust with change, rebirth and renewal.

Quark Expeditions passengers observe a polar bear hunting for food along the ice floes. Photo: David Merron

First off, there’s the weather. The days lengthen after the long dark winter as the sun rises higher in the sky, making for more sunlight which is ideal for photographers. May is typically a dry month with little precipitation so there’s less chance of a spring rain on your daily off-ship adventure excursions. The summer solstice (June 21) is still a month or more away so full days of sunlight are yet to come. Visitors will still be able to photograph snow-covered landscapes, especially in Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian Arctic.

Guests arriving on Arctic voyages in May will be able to see polar bears early in the season because of  the abundant  sea ice. The huge mammals (marine mammals, in fact) can be observed prowling along the floe edge hunting for food (seals, typically) where there’s open water. 

“Sinaaq” is the Inuktitut word for the floe edge, where the open sea meets the frozen sea. It’s also called the “line of Life.” It’s where the Arctic marine mammals are commonly observed. Walruses, whales, seals and polar bears converge along the edges where ice meets water.

Walruses are equally comfortable in the water or perched on the ice. Photo: David Merron 

While the temperatures have melted much of the snow in May, there still remains snow-covered
landscapes to be photographed. Photo: Grange Productions 

Travelers can witness the magic of this “line of life” in various regions within the Arctic in May, especially in Spitsbergen.

Whale watching offers unique possibilities at this time of year. The breaking up of the sea ice opens up passageways for the elusive narwhal who instinctively swim toward the estuaries and bays for summer feeding and breeding. 

Other majestic creatures are also on the move at this time, namely polar bears. 

A polar bear catches a meal at the edge of the sea ice. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Travelers should be mindful to to look up during a May voyage in the Arctic to witness the mass migration of bird life. Expedition guests will see flocks of birds arriving by the thousands. Ornithologists explain that Arctic terns, for instance, are typically in nursing mode in June – which means May is the time they arrive, nest, socialize and feed. Visitors will also keep their eyes peeled for fulmars and Brünnich’s guillemots high on the cliffs. Quark Expeditions' guides  will encourage guests to also watch for reindeer while hiking during shore landings.

May marks the mass migration of birds returning to the towering cliffs of Svalbard as they
get ready to nest and breed. Photo: Sam Crimmin

Another advantage of exploring the Arctic in May: your ship will be one of the very few expedition vessels in the region. Quark Expeditions’ ships follow routes that are free of other travelers. In short, you’ll have the place to yourself. Read my blog on Escape the Crowds in the Arctic: Remote Spitsbergen.

For more information, check out the variety of Arctic voyages offered in May.



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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