We embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the most remote and enchanting corners of our planet. This was our experience on Aurora Expeditions, where extraordinary adventures await aboard their purpose-built, deluxe expedition ships. For two unforgettable weeks, we enjoyed a thrilling exploration of Spitsbergen and the enchanting islands of the Svalbard Archipelago—a place that had long been on our bucket list.
Little did we know that we were about to witness the wonders of this pristine Arctic paradise. What we encountered surpassed all expectations. The awe-inspiring mountains, majestic glaciers, and serene fjords left us breathless.
But it wasn’t just the landscapes that captivated us; it was the incredible wildlife that saw during our journey. From the regal polar bears to the playful beluga whales, Every day seemed to top the previous one.
Our journey was not just about sightseeing; it was an immersive experience guided by a passionate expedition team. Their expertise enriched our understanding of the archipelago’s history, delicate ecosystems, and the fascinating array of native animals that call this region home.
What Makes an Expedition Cruise Different:
Venturing beyond the ordinary, an expedition cruise presents a world of wonders that traditional ocean or river cruises can hardly match. While we have and will continue to enjoy traditional cruise with lines like Holland America and Celebrity, the Aurora Expeditions experience was a refreshing change, our first real adventure —a chance to explore the Arctic in an utterly distinctive way. Unlike the floating resorts with thousands of passengers, an expedition cruise focuses on true destination immersion. It’s akin to the enriching experience of a river cruise, where art and culture come alive; however, on an Aurora Expeditions cruise, nature takes center stage.
As we sailed through the pristine waters, every moment was dedicated to discovering the flora, fauna, and landscapes of this captivating region. We weren’t just observers; we became a part of this wild realm. The rewards were beyond imagination—observations of ten polar bears, two mesmerizing blue whale sightings, the playful dance of beluga whales, and the graceful presence of minke and humpback whales. The Arctic fox, walrus, bearded seals, and ring seals graced us with their presence, leaving us with incredible memories.
Smaller Ship, Fewer Passengers, Bigger Experiences
Aurora Expedition’s Sylvia Earl, built to class 6 ice breaker standards, carries up to just 120 passengers. We sailed with a mere 84 fellow guests; at that capacity we were always well under Polar tourism standards of maximum 100 guests off the ship at a time. This allowed for longer zodiac cruises and landings. The attentive crew, numbering 89 strong, ensured that every moment was tailored to our journey of discovery, enriching our Arctic adventure beyond measure. The small ship’s maneuverability and ice breaking abilities allowed us to have that deep connection with the captivating wilderness that surrounded us.
Balcony State Room
Step into your own private sanctuary aboard the Aurora Expeditions cruise ship, where modern luxury meets Arctic elegance. Our spacious balcony state room provided the perfect haven after days of thrilling exploration. The thoughtful touches that truly impressed us like the heated tiles on the bathroom floor which allowed us to quickly dry any damp items after our adventures. The tasteful decor, in calming blues and greys, and the captivating photo graphic art from the polar regions continued the connection to the polar regions to the interior spaces. We even got to tour and photograph some of the unoccupied rooms as well. They do have an accessible cabin, but it would be very difficult for someone who isn’t ambulatory to do an expdition cruise. They could maybe do it if they just planned to to stay on the ship the whole time, but the zodiacs would be impossible.
The culinary journey aboard the small ship catered to every palate. The main “Gentoo” dining room welcomed us with an array of delectable international dishes for breakfast and lunch, offered buffet style that changed daily. For dinner, we indulged in a fine dining experience, with a sumptuous 4-course meals served with impeccable table service and complementary wines from around the world. We enjoyed three dinners at the “Rockhopper,” a small specialty venue that tantalized our taste buds with its limited, yet exquisite, specialty menu available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The culinary team’s passion for their craft shone through each delectable dish, and their warm, gracious service made every dining experience memorable.
Bars and Lounges
The ship featured two relaxing lounges/bars. The observation lounge on the top deck provided both a place where we could unwind from the day and enjoy whale watching experiences. Just outside the expedition lecture lounge, the reception lounge welcomed us for happy hour each day. The front of the ship housed the library, which boasted an extensive collection of books on the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as a citizen science center.
At the back of the ship, we enjoyed the outdoor bar during our unforgettable picnic night, along with a soothing hot tub to melt away the day’s excitement. For warm weather cruises the ship also has a pool that was not in use during this arctic cruise
And now, we delve into the heart of what made our expedition cruise an extraordinary odyssey. The perfect fusion of the captivating Svalbard Archipelago and the exceptional expedition team provided us an unparalleled adventure. From the awe-inspiring landscapes to the enthralling wildlife encounters, each moment was a testament to the profound connection we forged with this pristine corner of the world. The expedition team’s passion and expertise heightened our understanding. As we share these cherished experiences, the magic of the Arctic beckons, inviting you to embark on your own extraordinary expedition.
The journey to our embarkation point in Longyearbyen was an adventure in itself, taking us to one of the most remote corners of the world. Our travel route began in Phoenix, and after a series of flights, including a stopover at JFK and Helsinki, we arrived in Oslo two days ahead of our expedition. This strategic cushion allowed us to prepare for any unforeseen delays. From Oslo, our next stop was Tromso, where we disembarked the plane and went through passport control, only to reboard the same plane minutes later. The reason being that Longyearbyen lies outside the Schengen area of Europe.
Beginning the Aurora Experience
Once in Longyearbyen, Aurora picked us up at the airport and delivered us to the Raddison hotel where our cruise included a 1-night stay and a full day tour the next day before embarking.
On embarkation day we had a tour that included a visit to the Polar Bear warning sign, a visit to a husky camp, and a briefing on polar bears. Then our tour stopped at the famous Svalbard Museum. We got a preview of the animals in the museum. As I look back, we saw almost all the animals featured in the museum during the cruise, including the Polar Bears, Ringed Seals, Eider Ducks, Arctic Fox, and more. We also visited the Norwegian Lutheran Church and the entrance to the World Seed Bank, that uses the natural cool temperature of the arctic earth so store seeds for the survival of the entire world.
The zodiac cruises were probably my favorite part of the trip. I thought it might be a little unsteady getting in and out, but as it turned out, this was very easy. We even embarked on to the ship via the Zodiacs on embarkation day. The port of Longyearbyen only has one slip so the different ships who are in port each day take turns provisioning and loading luggage at the dock, by the time we got back from our day tour, our ship was at anchor which meant boarding via Zodiacs. It was so much easier than I thought it would be.
The Expedition Team
The heart and soul of our Arctic expedition lay in the remarkable Expedition Team from Aurora Expeditions. This diverse and accomplished group of experts in history, marine biology, exploration, botany, photography, and beyond formed the backbone of our immersive experience. Hailing from various corners of the globe—Australia, the United States, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and Argentina—the team’s international perspectives enriched our journey in unimaginable ways. Their extensive training in arctic safety and polar bear safety equipped them to navigate the region’s challenges and share its wonders with us confidently.
Among the team members was the legendary Howard Whelan, an American born Australian whose lifetime of outdoor expertise included being a cameraman on the first Australian ascent of Mount Everest and leading scientific expeditions in remote parts of Australia. He filmed locations all over Antarctica as part of the pre-animation work for the movie Happy Feet. A pivotal figure at Aurora Expeditions for over 20 years, Howard’s passion for the Arctic shone through in his daily wake-up announcements, rousing us with infectious enthusiasm for the day’s adventures. And yes I said wake up announcements that went something like this “Good Morning Everyone”, it is about 7 am, we’ll be starting breakfast at 7:30 and then putting zodiacs in the water at about 9 am and then we’ll be calling you down to the mud room at about 9:00 am.” As we geared up in the mudroom, donning waterproof pants, expedition jackets, and muck boots, we knew we were in the best of hands—a team of dedicated professionals devoted to turning our expedition dreams into breathtaking reality. Their knowledge, expertise, and infectious energy transformed the Arctic into a classroom of discovery and left an indelible mark on our hearts.
Exploring Svalbard with Aurora Expeditions offered us three distinctive ways to immerse ourselves in this remarkable Arctic wonderland. Wildlife watching from the ship was an absolute delight, with the expedition crew ensuring we had ample time to marvel at nature’s grandeur. Witnessing two magnificent blue whales up close was a highlight, as was observing polar bears in their natural habitat—majestic creatures feeding on the ice, emblematic of the Arctic’s untamed beauty.
While some of these pictures are a little gory, this is a polar bear doing what they do as apex predators. Hunt and eat blubber on the sea ice.
While sharing my polar bear pictures and video this is good time to share what we learned about the biggest threat to the survival of the Polar bear species. We hear a lot about how global warming is threatening their habitat as sea ice has been retreating over the last couple of decades, but they may be able to adapt to that change. However, the bigger threat to them is still legal hunting and poaching. Some countries still allow their native populations to hunt and kill polar bears, and in other countries where it is completely illegal to hunt polar bears, enforcement is nonexistent. The result is that because of hunting abut 5% of the polar bear population is killed every year and a due to their reproductive cycles, they can only replace themselves at a rate of about 4% a year. Doing simple math, that means at least 1% decline in the population every year.
In addition to viewing the wildlife like the polar bears from the ship, landing via the Zodiacs gave us additional opportunities to view both the flora and fauna of the area. While we never encountered a polar bear on land, did have amazing encounters with Arctic foxes, walruses, and reindeer, and learned about the rich history of Svalbard, where trappers once pursued fortune through fur trading. The iconic “Texas Bar” left a lasting impression, a unique outpost that continues to serve local adventurers with its well-stocked bar and warm shelter. We had the freedom to choose from various expedition activities, either joining the long walks, medium walks, or beachcomber experiences, depending on our energy levels and interests. Safety was paramount, with vigilant polar bear guides and their deterrent flares and rifles ensuring our protection. (Pictures below are courtesy or fellow passenger Micheal Hirsch who had a professional grade camera and lens set up.)
The Zodiac cruises took us even closer to the wildlife and breathtaking scenery, surpassing our expectations with each outing. Encountering beluga whales and navigating through glacial ice and sea ice was an unforgettable experience, as were the encounters with nesting sea birds amidst dramatic cliffs and waterfalls. The Zodiacs also presented opportunities to witness mesmerizing jellyfish in the open waters, adding to the enchantment of the Arctic’s marine life. The excitement peaked when the expedition team spotted a polar bear on the sea ice, and the Zodiacs swiftly brought us within a safe viewing distance, allowing everyone to marvel at this young bear’s independent journey.
For those seeking a more immersive adventure, Aurora Expeditions offered a Kayak program, a nominal additional charge that ran throughout the cruise. While some guests enjoyed the Zodiac scenic cruises, kayakers paddled alongside, relishing a unique perspective on the Arctic environment. On landing days, the kayakers also joined the explorations via the Zodiacs, ensuring everyone had the chance to uncover the wonders of Svalbard up close and personal.
Throughout our expedition, we felt the allure of Svalbard’s untamed wilderness, and every encounter added to the grand tapestry of this Arctic paradise. Aurora Expeditions not only revealed the Arctic’s breathtaking beauty but also opened our eyes to the importance of preserving and respecting this delicate ecosystem for generations to come. The memories we forged on this remarkable journey will forever hold a cherished place in our hearts, a testament to the incredible experiences an expedition cruise offers beyond the ordinary.
Most Memorable Day
July 3rd was undoubtedly one of the most unforgettable days during our expedition cruise. The day started with a captivating encounter with a polar bear in the morning, leaving us in awe of the Arctic’s apex predator.
Later in the early evening, we arrived at the Nordauslandet polar ice cap—a sight like no other. This smooth, unmoving glacier, adorned with cascading waterfalls from the melting ice, created a surreal landscape.
The Zodiacs were deployed, allowing us to explore this mesmerizing icy realm up close. The expedition leader then made an exciting announcement: polar plunges awaited us upon our return. Though I had intended to be brave, I found myself hesitant at the last moment. Fortunately, Claire, a fellow passenger, encouraged me to take the plunge, stating that I’d regret it if I didn’t. Watching Ronny, a local from Longyearbyen, dive headfirst, I summoned the courage to join in. It turned out to be one of the most invigorating and memorable experiences of my life, and I’m incredibly grateful to Claire for pushing me to do it. The image of the polar ice cap in the background added an ethereal touch to the moment.
Following the exhilarating polar plunges, our group of around 34 plungers dried off and headed up to the top deck, where the program promised an evening of dancing, donning party hats, enjoying a delightful barbecue, and savoring mulled wine. The atmosphere was jubilant as we basked in the joy of our shared adventures and the beautiful weather that embraced us that day.
As we lingered at the ice cap for another hour, we were treated to a remarkable encounter with a group of walruses gracefully passing by on an ice floe. It was a truly magical conclusion to an extraordinary day filled with wonder, camaraderie, and unforgettable moments. The Nordauslandet ice cap and its surrounding festivities created lasting memories that will forever be etched in our hearts, a testament to the sheer delight and adventure Aurora Expeditions offered us throughout our Arctic journey.
Most of our polar bear pictures were taken from the observation deck of the ship. We took some just with our cell phones, and then some like these better ones were taken with my 60X zoom point and shoot camera that I purchased just for this trip. Ashore, we also had to keep a good distance between ourselves and the walrus, hence a zoom camera was a great aid in getting better pictures. I would highly recommend investing in some sort of zoom camera for this type of distant wildlife photography. The differences in the quality between the quality of the pictures and video from the zoom camera is quite a step up from the cell phones. Many fellow passengers who are either professional or serious hobbyist photographers had high tech cameras with long lenses. This set up provide for the sharpest and most stunning pictures. With his permission, I am able to share some of the images that fellow passenger Michael Hirsh took with his professional level camera. If you are a serious photographer, these are types of images you can expect during this type of expedition cruise.
Our Cell Phone Pictures:
My $350 Semi Automatic Zoom Lens Camera
Photos Taken with Professional Level Equipment:
In summary, an Aurora Expedition cruise offers an unparalleled adventure for those seeking to step outside their comfort zone and embark on a life-changing journey. As I experienced firsthand, witnessing the breathtaking beauty of the Svalbard Archipelago and encountering its incredible wildlife transformed my perspective on the world. This sentiment rang true for all of us on board, including a 15-year-old passenger with special needs, who was not only amazed by the landscape, flora and fauna, but also found solace and joy in the kindness and acceptance of the expedition’s crew and fellow guests.
Throughout the two-week expedition, we were constantly amazed by the sights and experiences that unfolded before us, from observing majestic polar bears feeding on ice to exploring dramatic cliffs and glaciers during Zodiac cruises. The expedition team’s expertise and dedication made all of this possible, and we were deeply grateful for their efforts.
If you’re ready to embark on a life-changing cruise that immerses you in the wonders of the natural world, consider an Aurora Expedition. Contact our travel agency, and together, we’ll create a personalized itinerary that caters to your adventurous spirit, turning your dream vacation into an unforgettable reality. Don’t miss the chance to explore the extraordinary, for these are the experiences that leave an indelible mark on our hearts and minds.
Experience this for Yourself
If the allure of an Aurora Expedition and the remarkable experiences we’ve shared here has sparked your sense of adventure, we invite you to consider embarking on this extraordinary journey yourself. At our travel agency, we specialize in crafting dream vacation experiences tailored to each individual client. Whether you seek once-in-a-lifetime itineraries, onboard group programs, expeditions, or luxury travel, we are committed to providing you with unique and unforgettable adventures.
To explore the possibility of an Aurora Expedition or any other type of cruise for your next adventure vacation, we encourage you to reach out to Suzanne Klasen at our agency number, 520-310-0396. Suzanne is a seasoned travel expert, eager to assist you in finding the perfect itinerary that aligns with your interests and preferences.
Stay updated with the latest offers and information by following us on Facebook and subscribing to our YouTube channel. There, you’ll discover more exciting travel options and insights into the wonders that await you on your next voyage. So, why wait? Let us help you turn your travel dreams into reality and embark on an extraordinary adventure that will leave you with cherished memories for a lifetime. Contact us today to begin planning your next unforgettable journey.