US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY (877-246-5898)  UK: 020 8133 3450  AUS: (07) 3102 4685  Everywhere Else: +1 530-562-9232

Goldring Travel Blog – Making Waves

Cruise & Travel News, Reviews, Opinions, Deals & More

Aurora Expeditions – Goldring Travel Checks It Out: Part VII (Svalbard – WOW…Again!) 

After an amazing and breathtaking visit to the small island of Jan Mayen, it was two days at sea as Aurora Expeditions’ Sylvia Earle made her way up to the Svalbard Archipelago…and Aurora’s Expedition Team nailed it!

Aurora Expeditions Up Close and Personal with a Swimming Polar Bear - photo by Golding Travel
Up Close and Personal with a Swimming Polar Bear

During our voyage there were some excellent lectures that emphasized the Expedition Team’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and – importantly – their ability to convey information in a way that was both entertaining and useful.  The other thing about the presentations – and I wish more expedition companies would do – is that the lectures were on subjects, whether historical or nature-based, before the guests encounter them.  For some reason, there is an approach of “see it and then explain it”, when “explain it so you understand it better when you see it” enriches the guest experience. Aurora Expeditions does this extremely well.

Aurora Expeditions with Goldring Travel

Upon our arrival at our first landing at the southernmost tip of Svalbard, and more specifically, Spitsbergen, I discovered another thing Aurora Expeditions seems to do well:  Heading to landing sites, only to cancel the landings. Oh, it can be so frustrating…except when the reason is due to polar bears being there!  But let me not get ahead of myself.

I was on the first zodiac off the Sylva Earle and our guide was very quiet and then said that there was a Polar Bear. There was no announcement on the ship in order to eliminate the chaos that would have ensued if every guest knew there was a polar bear and tried to race into zodiacs.  Now, this was not an “up close and personal” polar bear sitting, such as what was to come, but it was close enough to be enthralling.

Aurora Expeditions Polar Bear viewing with Goldring Travel
Polar Bear
Aurora Expeditions Polar Bear on His Back - photo by Golding Travel
Polar Bear on His Back

After watching the bear sleep and then move through the grass to the snow, only to sleep again, seemingly out of nowhere an Arctic Fox appeared. Again, not close up, but still you definitely felt, “Welcome to Svalbard and your Aurora Expedition!”

Aurora Expeditions Arctic Fox viewing with Goldring Travel
Arctic Fox

With our landing canceled and the plan usually being a landing and a zodiac cruise per day, we did a good bit of cruising both in the morning and afternoon.  It is a good way to get people to spend quality time with various members of the expedition team and get also used to being on expedition; with guests having time to figure out their physical limits. 

Aurora Expeditions Wildlife viewing with Goldring Travel

Note: On Aurora Expeditions the goal is to get you out and keep you out so that you can experience as much as possible. If you want an “Expedition Lite” experience of 1.5 hours in the morning and 1.5 hours in the afternoon, Aurora is not for you. If you are wanting 2-3 hours twice a day, including some real hiking options, Aurora Expeditions is a great choice.

But speaking of landings canceled due to polar bears, Day 4 is why you always go out even when it is cold, windy, generally miserable and the landing is canceled so you are “relegated” to a cruise due to a polar bear being in the area. High up in the snow on the other side of the island, below a steep ridge, on the island we were to explore there was a sleeping polar bear. He was so high up that you could hardly see him.  So, we went on a cruise around the area not seeing much of anything. But we did raft up the zodiacs so the historian expedition team member could give an impromptu lecture about politics, life, and whaling in the area back to the 1600s. Very cool.

As we had been out a couple of hours, everyone was getting a bit cold, and the thought of heading back to the ship entered everyone’s mind…right after a guide mentioned hot chocolate and it sounded really good.  Then another expedition member said, “Let’s just go check out that polar bear one last time”.  And then: MAGIC!

Aurora Expeditions Polar bear sighting with Goldring Travel

I had the most “up close and personal” polar bear experience I will ever have!  This young bear was confident, but really just couldn’t have cared less that we were there. But what struck me was her elegance climbing over the rocky terrain, stopping to causally invade an Eider duck’s nest for a quick snack of eggs, and then casually, but with purpose, heading down to the sea, silently slipping into the water and swimming…right towards our zodiac; seemingly staring right at me. WOW!

Aurora Expeditions Polar bear walking sighted by Goldring Travel

Aurora Expeditions Polar bear swimming by Goldring Travel

It also showed me that a truly experienced expedition team will push limits, but will always err on the side of caution. Watching that bear nimbly and quickly cover so much ground, I truly appreciated that if she had decided instead to head over the ridge and we were hiking, there is no way we could have escaped her if she charged. A serious lesson learned! 

Just writing about it gives me chills. But it also reminds me that “Put the camera down” comes into play. No matter how amazing the photographs may be, none of them can capture the emotion, the sounds, the smells, the power of that moment.  And showing them to your friends will only result in that famous phrase being uttered, “It was so much better being there. I can’t really explain it.

In fact, it is moments like this that make even those a bit skeptical about heading to the cold of the Arctic – especially in the summer when everyone is thinking of “warm” – thrilled they decided to come. You will remember moments like this far longer than the cocktails on the beach!

Aurora Expeditions Arctic mountains view with Goldring Travel

That first evening in Spitsbergen we were blessed with a Humpback Whale lunge feeding (when it swims below the surface and literally lunges vertically out of the water capturing krill and other small plankton).  While I was watching this beautiful and powerful show from my balcony, I looked to the side and saw a very tall blow from a Fin Whale.  The humpback stayed for over an hour; or should I say the ship stayed with her.  (June is not prime whale-watching time, so this was really quite a surprise.)

Aurora Expeditions Humpback Whale sighting with Goldring Travel

Aurora Expeditions Humpback Whale baleen with Goldring Travel

Aurora Expeditions Humpback Whale baleen viewing with Goldring Travel

Not a bad first day, to say the least.

While I enjoyed watching and photographing the local birdlife, the highlight of Day 2’s zodiac cruise was Walrus, hauled out on a beach.  I love walrus…and this was not the closest we got! Yes, Aurora Expeditions’ team never sat back; always looking for even better experiences.

Aurora Expeditions Walrus viewing with Goldring Travel

On Day 4 (ya think Day 4 was Epic?!) there was a huge walrus resting on a small iceberg. With the sun low on the horizon (it never sets this time of year) the colors were magnificent. 

Aurora Expeditions Walrus photo with Goldring Travel

As I mentioned earlier, hiking is an integral part of an Aurora Expedition.  While they integrate both history and nature, my personal bias is toward nature. I truly appreciate the hardship of living in this area and that even today there are small wooden shelters that are overwintered in, sauntering through tundra with small flowers fighting for their existence just above the permafrost and reindeer grazing on the moss-like vegetation, coupled with breathtaking landscapes, grabs me.  Our short 1.5-hour hike on Day 2 served up just that!

Aurora Expeditions Whalers' Shed with Beluga Whale Bones - photo by Golding Travel
Whalers’ Shed with Beluga Whale Bones

After the hike we returned to the ship, only to see in the distance a mother polar bear and older cub sleeping in the snow…and then having a wrestling match. Very cute!

A morning in a fjord with a glacier front right by the ship and a zodiac cruise to a colony of Dovekie (Little Auks) and then a single Beluga Whale fishing by the glacier front before starting our voyage up into the ice north of Spitsbergen.

Aurora Expeditions Aurora Expeditions Cruise Ship on water - photo by Golding Travel

Aurora Expeditions Dovekies (Little Auks) - photo by Golding Travel
Dovekies (Little Auks)

And, of course, are the birds. I do love watching birds. Eider Ducks, Barnacle Geese, Arctic Skua, Glaucous Gulls, Arctic Terns, Guillemot, Kittiwakes, Fulmar, Dovekie (Little Auks), and more.

Aurora Expeditions Eider Duck viewing - photo by Golding Travel
Eider Duck
Aurora Expeditions Arctic Tern viewing - photo by Golding Travel
Arctic Tern
Aurora Expeditions Barnacle Goose sighting - photo by Golding Travel
Barnacle Goose

When we reached the ice, Sylvia Earle – with her X-bow – pushed the ice to the side and I spent hours in the Observation Lounge on Deck 8 watching the ever-changing ice.  For me, it was all about quietly contemplating the ice.

Aurora Expeditions beautiful arctic sea view - photo by Golding Travel

Aurora Expeditions beautiful arctic sea views - photo by Golding Travel

Aurora Expeditions arctic sea views - photo by Golding Travel

In fact, I was so enthralled with the ice that I quickly grabbed my dinner from the fun Deck BBQ and left most everyone else to the dancing and party on Deck 7 aft. (Everyone had a great time, for sure!)

Aurora Expeditions Dinner Food and cuisine - photo by Golding Travel

Aurora Expeditions Fun deck dinner & cuisine - photo by Golding Travel

One of the most thought-provoking afternoons for me was not the polar bear or the walrus or even the ever-changing is.  It was an afternoon really taking in the Fast Ice (ice which is fast to or attached to the land).  We landed by literally driving the zodiacs onto the ice and hanging out for a bit.

Aurora Expeditions Hanging Out on Fast Ice - photo by Golding Travel
Hanging Out on Fast Ice

We then head deep into a fjord where a bearded seal was interesting, as were the others resting on the ice in the distance,

Aurora Expeditions Bearded Seal sighting - photo by Golding Travel
Bearded Seal

but nothing compared to incomprehensible miles deep of fast ice ending at a distant glacier.  There are no photographs that can capture it.

Aurora Expeditions vast desolation of arctic glacier - photo by Golding Travel
Ya See: This photograph simply can’t capture the vastness, quietness, desolation, etc. of the view. The glacier in the rear is many miles away!

I began to think about sealers in their wooden rowboats struggling on the ice with its enormity, its silence, its cold, and its unforgiving power; especially when not – as now – summer.  It must have been so desolate and dangerous that even thinking of the beauty of the area couldn’t have been more than a fleeting thought as survival had to be front and center.

Lightening the mood was our expedition team member, who was well experienced in the ice, but not from a ship. She was as excited as a kid in a candy shop, bubbling with enthusiasm, but also explaining what we were seeing, assisting with a few of my zodiac mates’ photography endeavors, and being ever-respectful of the wildlife.

Arctic Glacier viewing with Aurora Expeditions - photo by Golding Travel

Underscoring the power of the ice was another morning just sitting in front of a 7-kilometer-long glacier.  After another of the wonderful expedition team members explained why the glacial ice is so blue, we just took it all in.  And then there was an enormous calving. And then another even larger one. And then a huge BOOM – which sounded like a rifle being shot right next to your ear – and another calving. So cool. So impressive. So humbling.

And then, with all of nature’s power being shown, we then sat sitting silently listening to bubbles bursting from ice that could be over one thousand years old. We just took in the moment.

Aurora Expeditions Arctic sea view - photo by Golding Travel

Our last landing wasn’t the most memorable from the standpoint of natural beauty or wildlife, but for the Aurora Expedition Team.  I spoke with our somewhat eccentric, but brilliant, highly experienced, and lovable Expedition Leader, as I have been doing whenever I got the chance. And then when I decided to take the “medium hike” rather than the “long hike”,  I then had a nice long chat with my guide that let me off for a quick landing in Jan Mayen (where I got in trouble…of course!) and then returned to the landing area having another long chat with our local Svalbard resident and history expert. (She too is new to ship expeditions, but has spent the past seven years living in Svalbard guiding dogsled tours among other things.)

Why was this so memorable? I mean I had been with these folks for almost two weeks.  It is because these people are the ones that made this an incredible and personal experience; and not just for me. There is a huge difference between competent and exceptional. Aurora Expedition’s team is exceptional.

I have said that cruise and expedition lines always promote their ship, but in the end, it is the expedition experience that the guests will remember. It takes more than having an expedition team, but a talented, experienced, enthusiastic team that makes it happen and brings their love of the varied interests and experiences to the guests. There are different styles of expedition teams, but the style matters less than the confident engagement and “making things happen” beyond putting you in a position to have an incredible experience with a polar bear.  It is the addition of a special warmth and charm that just brings it home.

Aurora Expeditions – no matter how wonderful Sylvia Earle is – and she is in so many ways – has an Expedition Team that is one of the best I have encountered…and definitely the one that will safely push boundaries to bring you that extraordinary expedition that is even better than the one you envision.

Next up: Reflections.

Interested in a Luxury Journey by Cruise, Expedition, or Land?

Contact Goldring Travel For Truly Expert Advice!

Email: eric@goldringtravel.com 

US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY or (530) 562-9232

UK: 020 8133 3450

AUS: (07) 3102 4685

WhatsApp: +1 732-693-8797

Facebook: Goldring Travel

Play Video
Waves We’ve Made

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,505 other followers



Click one of our contacts below to chat on WhatsApp