My time on Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine is coming to an end, but even though this is a longer journey, I’m not happy about it. Quark’s ship and expedition team have exceeded my expectations…and there is still more to come.
I had heard that Disko Bay, Greenland was a “must-see”, so I was – because it is me – a bit skeptical. But it was truly one of the highlights…and lowlights…of my expedition.
On our way there, three fin whales were spotted. It is fairly rare to see these whales – the second largest, so it was a bit of excitement for me. But it also was a time for me to reflect on how fortunate I am to be able to see and be taken in by so much of nature. Heck, in just the past couple of months, I have seen a blue whale and fin whales…along with so much else!
That said – and along those lines – my first day in Disko Bay was, honestly, not a good one. Helicopter issues again. Passengers, by group, were flown to a hilltop above a glacier and given 45 minutes or so to walk around and observe a glacier from above. Those in the latter two groups, which included me, were given zodiac rides in front of the glacier. All the sounds you appreciate in nature and the solitude of the ice – waiting to hear the crack and boom of the glacier calving or the crackle of ancient ice releasing its trapped air – were constantly interrupted by the sound of helicopters shuttling guests. I didn’t take my afternoon flight and landing.
I have had concerns about helicopters for years and have written about it. More important than the obvious noise pollution as to humans, nobody really knows what the effect of sound and energy waves are on whales and other animals – and they can hear and sense them far beyond our ranges…and rely upon them for communication and socialization. Until we know, doing no harm is far more important than something that may enhance, but doesn’t really form, the emotional and substantive experience for the expedition guests.
The next day in Disko Bay had to be better, right? Well, it started out with my first real disappointment. Due to the amount of ice, we would not be able to land in Ilulissat, Greenland. The bridge and expedition team was fantastic at keeping us informed even though, as time went on, it was just the reaffirmance that we weren’t going to make it. But then a path through the ice was found. We were heading to shore!
Ilulissat is the first “real” town (population 1,500) we have visited with shops, cafes, a museum, etc., supported by a robust commercial fishing fleet (mostly cod and halibut) – and at least one ship with a whaling harpoon on its bow…which made we ponder what is the line when it comes to acceptable cultural whaling…and tourism.
But the real gem of this place is the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which runs from the Greenland Ice Cap to the sea. It moves at up to an amazing 40 meters a day. And for me, the combination of the beauty and tranquility of the tundra, in its fall colors, adjacent to it with the power and starkness of the ice made it one of the most breathtaking places I have been anywhere in the world.
What made it fun was one of the local dogs deciding I was his temporary person and, thus, my escort. He kept looking back to be sure I was coming – seemingly frustrated when I took a moment to soak in where I was – and stayed with me while I was at the rocky overlook. After I left, he found me and escorted me back…until he met someone better (the Quark representative’s wife; definitely a better choice) and then someone who he thought had a snack. So much for loyalty! LOL
After the shuttle dropped me off back in town, I saw a number of the passengers change from “expedition folks” to “cruise passengers”; aggressive, rude, pushy, etc. It was disheartening to see it. Truth be told, the number of disgruntled passengers on this expedition was shocking. And when they found out I was a travel writer, they apparently thought it was important for me to know of, and validate, their complaints; something I repeatedly told them I could not do – providing them with logic, reasoning, and perspective…and then avoidance. There are just some people that are happy in their misery…and that should remain their problem; not mine!
To be sure, there were some wonderful guests onboard. Two Canadian women that have traveled together for years, knowing each other since college, were a savior at times. But my absolute favorite was Stanley, an 89-year-old former traveling photographer, that puttered his way into enjoying everything he possibly could. We had many a chat and meals together. And unlike some others, he was aware of his physical limitations and made sure he was safe and not an imposition on anyone.
I do not believe this expedition had the normal Quark guest, and that was noted by a number onboard. Many onboard had booked different expeditions up to almost three years ago but have been frustrated since and needed to vent. Some were “box checkers” and were frustrated that their expected boxes (whatever they were) weren’t checked. Those were the same folks that would say they had been to X, Y & Z, but would never relate a story about what they did there. Others simply had – as I have seen elsewhere – lost social skills during covid. And yet others booked this expedition directly with Quark, allegedly being experts, and rather than admitting they booked more of a unique cultural expedition than a wildlife one, had to blame someone other than themselves for the dearth of polar bears and walrus. End of rant!
Prior to arrival, we were told of a Greenlandic tradition of Kaffemik; essentially a traditional open house where coffee and cakes are shared with the entire community. What a great way to spend time with the locals! Even better, a soccer match had been arranged (apparently a Quark tradition when visiting).
Upon arrival, we were given a small color-coded card that matched a colored sign on one of the local residences (ironically, none of the colors actually matched the color of the houses!). We were then free to wander about and visit the assigned house for kaffemik at our leisure.
I chose to wander about first, before all the yellow parkas overwhelmed this small area. It was another beautiful place. But with a cemetery that held far more in number than the current residents, it was a reminder to me that life is hard in these small, remote, fishing, communities. But it showed a deep cultural connection for the people to it.
I then visited my assigned home for kaffemik. A friendly woman invited me to sit at her dining table for coffee, while her nine-year-old son pretended I wasn’t there as he watched cartoons. And then he started bouncing around the sofa…and then started blowing bubbles. I could have been anywhere in the world! She explained she has four children, and when they finish Grade 8, they are sent away to essentially a boarding school and only return at Christmas, so it is hard for her.
I saw many ribbons and trophies hanging on the wall. She explained they were her son’s from soccer and table tennis. As I was leaving, her 16-year-old son walked out of the bedroom. I asked him if he was going to be in the soccer match. He responded yes, with a gleam in his eyes. Oh, the Quark team was in trouble!
As I departed my kaffemik visit, one of my favorite expedition team members, Sylvia, asked me if I wanted to walk with her. We wound up investigating a tidal pool together, finding a lion’s mane jellyfish, copepods, mussels, barnacles, giant kelp…
and a musk ox foot!
So while I never did see that elusive musk ox, on this expedition, I accumulated a footprint, some hair, a skull, a dinner, and a foot. Almost a whole musk ox! (Sometimes, the sum of the parts does not equal the whole, but I probably will fondly remember my quest more than if it was a successful journey.)
And then it was “Game On!” Sylvia and I took up prime seating. It was decided there would be mixed teams and the competition was incredibly friendly but fierce. The only player that was more impressive than that 16-year-old boy was a young girl – smaller than about anyone else – who, with her oversized jersey and floppy shirt sleeves below – was fearless. What a warm and engaged, rather than merely observational, way to bring the expedition to a close.
But that was not the end of the journey, as I still needed to get home…but only after a final very late night out with the expedition team and the Inuit chefs.
Because we had to wait for the charter flight to arrive in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and Quark needed to get the ship ready for the new guests, it was out of the suite by 9:00 AM, then wait around until 1:30 PM for the zodiac and bus transfer to the airport. On the way to the zodiac, the complaints continued with a woman complaining that Quark did not tell her to bring small denomination bills for shopping. Seriously!
After checking in, we had to wait in the airport for the late arriving charter flight, and then finally, eight hours after I left my suite (and starting to feel totally sober), we were on our four-hour flight (including a stopover on Baffin Island for fuel and a new crew). Then – after collecting our luggage – we took an hour bus ride to the Sheraton Airport Hotel in Toronto, Canada; arriving at about 11:30 PM.
I was up the next morning at 5:30 AM for my 9:00 AM flight after being cautioned about how bad the Toronto Airport was. Well, when you have Global Entry (and you must have the card that most people don’t travel with, not your passport) and TSA Pre-Check, it cuts the passport control and security times by a huge amount. So I found myself sitting in the Air Canada lounge (Star Alliance Gold or better status matters) for over two hours before my flight boarded. I would love to have had more sleeping time, but my flights were on time and my luggage wasn’t lost, so I cannot complain!
This was, alas, a true Culinary & Cultural Expedition. It was, in most ways, far more and far different than I expected. And that is why I love to travel!
Next up: The Ultramarine & Reflections.