Just Back From…Arctic Svalbard on Silver Cloud

When Andreas Nuessel embarked on his first Arctic cruise, aboard Silver Cloud this summer, he was expecting, he tells us, “to feel peace and freedom, to completely lose my thoughts. That was the appeal.” Indeed, on returning home, he still feels a lovely silence. “It was a good opportunity to completely switch off your professional life.”

And yet, while finding that peace, he also discovered so much more about this most remote corner of the Arctic Sea, an archipelago of islands that are part of Norway.

It was also a bucket list destination for him, he tells us. “It’s super remote with glaciers that go right to sea level. I’ve never seen a calving glacier, never thought it would make this deeper, bursting sound followed by, depending on the break, a wave in the water. And I wanted to meet a polar bear.”

In the end, Nuessel says, “it was a completely different world from what I expected. It definitely was not the geography, scenery, environment, and wildlife, that I expected. Maybe, I thought, it would be cool to see a polar bear, an Arctic fox, watch glaciers calving in front of me. These were all fully met. What surprised me about Svalbard is the feeling of being touched, of being humbled.”

Before you travel, it’s a good idea to study up on Svalbard. Nuessel tells us that Svalbard, Old Norse for “cold coast,” is an archipelago of nine main islands. If you’ve ever traveled to Norway’s Arctic Circle city of Tromso, get this: The isles of Svalbard are another almost 600 miles north. One surprise was the mountains seen there; Newton’s Peak is the tallest, at 5,633 feet.

These days, Svalbard’s major industry is tourism but it hasn’t always been so. In particular, the region was discovered as a major source of whaling, and when that faded out, mining became important.

What is the appeal of this part of the Arctic?

In Arctic Svalbard, patches of greenery coexist with blue ice. Photo by Lucia Griggi for Silversea.

It’s all about glaciers, ice, mountains and wildlife. What makes Svalbard so unique, especially in the Arctic region, is that it’s very barren. There are five species of trees — such as dwarf birches — and they are barely 5 centimeters tall. Unlike Antarctica, which has krill as part of the feeding ritual, there’s not a lot of life for wildlife to live on. What I found fascinating from a naturalistic perspective was to see how these animals could live on so little.

We learn about history, and experience glaciers, mountains, and all the best wildlife (reindeer, foxes, birds, walrus, whales, seals, and of course the polar bear). Our itinerary had all the highlights of the region we possibly can, such as ice edge and glacier experiences in zodiacs, a few hikes that incorporate some historic sites, like a whale hunting station. 

The only port where ships dock is in Longyearbyen. There’s otherwise no set itinerary. Your expedition leader, with the captain, will craft an itinerary that hits all the highlights.

How is Svalbard Different from Other Areas of the Arctic?

Arctic ice in Monacobreen Glacier, Svalbard
Monacobreen, Svalbard/Denis Elterman

An Arctic itinerary around Svalbard is almost exclusively focused on nature, wildlife, and dramatic scenery and unlike other parts of the Arctic, there is little indigenous culture. (The Arctic Council is actually made up of eight nations, including Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Canada, and the United States). 

And you can choose from itineraries that focus primarily on one or two regions of the Arctic, such as Svalbard and/or West Greenland, or pick a long itinerary that covers a broad swath of it.

It seems like polar bears represent the marquee of wildlife spotting. Why are they so fascinating?

Polar Bear, Storøya, Svalbard Archipelago
Polar bear in Svalbard

I remember something Neal Rabjohn, a polar historian and expedition guide on Silver Cloud, told us: “The polar bear is the king of the Arctic jungle. It’s an enormous creature.  It commands silence, takes your breath away, and leaves you in deference to it.  “And can you believe there are just 3,000 polar bears in the Svalbard region?

The polar bear is incredibly skittish, though. No one can predict when you will see them. They don’t hang out on the beaches. They move around and you never see them in the same place twice. Our expedition team was always up on the top deck with spotting scopes and binoculars, scanning every piece of land.

In fact, polar bears can be so scarce, if it’s dinner time and you hear an announcement on the public address system — grab your parka and camera and get out on deck.

And in fact, you did get to spot a polar bear! What was that like?

Suddenly, we were alerted by the expedition team about a sighting, and then — there he was. Peaceful. Look at that face (for them we are not the first thing in the feeding line but if they were hungry….) The face was so sweet, nice and friendly. He was not growling.

Then he rolled around like a dog, went to sleep on this tiny island. He took a look at us, and crossed over to the other side of the island, swam, walked along the shore, played around with squid and then, he finally made his way across a passage of water to the mainland.

After nearly 45 minutes, the bear disappeared from view. We sat on our Zodiac in silence, fully humbled and packed with impressions that were have been different for each of us. Partly it’s because the polar bear is what everyone is most excited about and, for me, seeing one in real life, not in a zoo, was powerful. Seeing him in his natural environment, just a big wow.

It was a magical moment.

What’s it like to travel to a place as remote as Svalbard?

Flying in to Arctic Svalbard. Photo by Andreas Nuessel for Silversea.

As far away as Svalbard feels in reality, it’s a relatively easy trip. We all fly to Oslo, where we overnight at a hotel there, and then board Silversea’s charter flight for the 2:45 hour trip to Longyearbyen. That city, which is home to about 2,000 residents, has the region’s only commercial airport. In our case, our flight was on a Titan Airways Boeing 757, and we were offered beverages and a hot three course meal. The best part? The approach to Longyearbyen, after nearly three hours of sea vistas.

What was life like onboard Silver Cloud?

Dining outdoors at the Grill, where you cook your own steaks and lambchops on volcanic stone.

One of my favorite meals onboard Silver Cloud was dinner at the alfresco Grill, where I cooked a filet mignon on a hot stone. You’re sitting there under heaters, and you have this incredible view, and delicious smells, the mingling of the pure air with just a hint of the smoke of the filet. And the parka Silversea provides you came in quite handy there.

Another feature of the cruise I enjoyed was the daily expedition briefings. We learn about what to expect on the day’s adventures and what’s also important is keeping us safe. There’s a sanity check of gear (some of which we brought with us, like our boots or hiking sticks), and other pieces, like the red parka, that is a gift from Silversea.

You’re divided into smaller groups. There are two rounds of excursions daily (and an additional kayaking option), and the expedition guides are the heart and soul, the entertainment, the shore excursion experts, the cruise director, they are the touch point. They represent all manner of specialties — geologists, birders, glacier specialists, animal experts, flora and fauna….

And even as you’ll spend some rugged days exploring, it’s nice to be welcomed back onboard with a catering Zodiac, where guides are handing out hot chocolate (with or without your favorite libation). I always felt pampered — the butler ran a hot bath before I got back from a chilly hike, a hot stone massage, sipping coffee on the balcony. Silver Cloud, with its heartwarming colors, gives you the feeling that you’re coming home, not in a fancy, bling-bling way; it’s a coziness that counteracts with being outside in the remotest wilderness.

My favorite onboard memory of all? Sitting in the whirlpool on the pool deck, it’s 3:30 a.m.  and yet there’s daylight, and we’re all drinking a glass of Champagne and enjoying the perspective, not laughing, not talking, just listening, humbly.

Tell us about the Zodiacs.

Zodiacs, rubber boats with a huge motor, were our taxi, plane and bus when it came to landings. There are 23 onboard our ship, and between eight – 12 people ride each Zodiac. You sit on the edge, and everyone is arranged just so to make sure there’s a proper balance.

With the wind and waves, the Zodiac is manned by our expedition guides.

In the wild, what were the standout moments, discoveries?

Spotting a walrus in Arctic Svalbard. Photo by Andreas Nuessel for Silversea.

The first real nature sighting we had got our cruise off to a good start: we spotted walruses! They were super lazy, lying on the beach in the sun (some of them in the water cooling down as the air temp was about 32 degrees F, 0 degrees C). It was peaceful to see them lying there in small groups of 10 or so. Their tusks give them a goofy look, really, like no animal you’ve ever seen. Other experiences that stick with me include the day when our Zodiac maneuvered around glaciers and the sound of the disappearing  oxygen out of the glacier ice — making a click-click-click sound that reminded me of popcorn popping — was magic.

The itinerary is not set in stone. Longyearbyen was our one definitive port of call, where cruises begin and end. Beyond that, the captain and expedition leader of each ship decided from day to day where we’ll anchor. And they connect with other cruise lines and they all work together, so when Silver Cloud is going to one particular spot, another line will reverse its schedule to avoid other ships (and vice versa). It’s a very fair way of helping each other in such a remote, otherworldly place.

On our last day, we made a wet landing at an old Beluga whale hunting site. We had been told to walk at our own pace, and on this day, I craved silence. I sat on a rock, completely losing time, while I absorbed the fjord around us and enjoyed the fresh air. Reindeers scooted around me. For 60 minutes, I found just that sense of self that had drawn me to the Arctic in the first place.

You may wonder why I haven’t really gone into detail about the wildlife. It was that there simply were so many to watch.

You mentioned a wonderful, magical day. Tell us about it.

Approaching the ice edge in Arctic Svalbard. Photo by Andreas Nuessel for Silversea.

I awoke early, 5:30 a.m., and headed to my balcony to check out the weather. It was very foggy and I saw the end of the world. Truly! We’re at the famous ice edge, where the open sea meets different kinds of ice, depending on the location. If the wind is right, it comes from the south, pushed toward the north, and you find water and ice together. Within this fog, we slowly approached this surreal looking edge you have the feeling that there is a gigantic waterfall. It’s an optical illusion. However it’s very spooky and Ied immediately the score of “Pirates of the Caribbean” in my mind.

What is the “polar plunge”?

The polar plunge in Arctic. Photo by Andreas Nuessel for Silversea.

The famous polar plunge — in which the intrepid jump off the side of Silver Cloud and swim (for a very short time, the water’s almost at freezing temperature) — is an Arctic hallmark experience. Everyone with a decent health condition and the will to sign a waiver has the once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a dip in the open Arctic.

On our sailing, 80 out of 200 guests made the leap. Our captain sailed to a very calm area. Full disclosure: I didn’t take the dip but a pal did. He reported that his brain didn’t let him feel the cold and at the moment helping hands were already pulling him back on the platform, where the entire ship applauded him. He started to feel the cold just at the point where he received a warm towel and a little glass of spirit to warm him up.  

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to Arctic cruise travelers?

Arctic mountains, Svalbard

There is so much impressive scenery. You’ll encounter a lifelong series of memories that you can’t always catch with a camera. You catch them with your heart.

Andreas’ Helpful Hints

  • Prepare to truly disconnect as Wi-Fi in the Arctic is a challenge. Although Silver Cloud is equipped with high end satellite systems, we were simply too far in the North and there are only a few satellites around. I learned that even if you had a connection, you’d better hope that no little hill will insert itself between the onboard system and the satellite. Wi-Fi is complementary, by the way. I found that the WhatsApp (app) was somewhat easier to connect with than laptops.
  • If you have Biorhythm issues you should take some sleeping masks with you. That’s because of the midnight sun. It truly doesn’t get all that dark at night; 3:30 a.m. feels the same as 3:30 p.m. I loved my butler Bek for noticing my fight around sleeping and giving me eye shades out of his own personal stock.  
  • Which is better — an expensive camera apparatus or a smart phone? For me, my iPhone was quite sufficient to capture impressions via photos and videos but it’s really about your own personal preference. There are professional photographers onboard, by the way, to help you learn as you’re exploring.
  • The fellowship among travelers, expedition leaders and crew was so warm and generous. We all shared our photos and videos; I have never received as many AirDrops as I did on this trip!
  • And finally? The best camera you have is the one that’s handy in case of an unexpected wildlife sighting.