July 15, 2024

Eurocean 2004

Life is an adventure

Polar Bear Sightings and Climate Change Lessons Aboard a Norway Expedition Cruise from Remote Svalbard, Norway

Polar Bear Sightings and Climate Change Lessons Aboard a Norway Expedition Cruise from Remote Svalbard, Norway

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 mother polar bear near a whale carcass in Forlandsundet

Chase Teron

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.