The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, while Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean — and that difference radically alters the environment in both places. For travelers considering their first (or next) icy adventure, there’s a lot to consider.
Though the polar regions are both blanketed in ice and difficult to reach from major population centers, they are remarkably different. There are a variety of expedition cruises, of which our very own Santa Barbara Travel Bureau advisors have personally experienced in order to best assist their clients.
Each continent has its own starring wildlife: penguins in Antarctica and polar bears in Greenland. While penguin sightings are common, polar bears can be hard to find. They love sea ice and typically stay in North and East Greenland. Even if you don’t see any polar bears, you could come across a group of some 50 humpback whales.
Beyond that, mammalian wildlife is sparse: Some spot musk oxen in Kangerlussuaq and reindeer deep in Neria Fjord. On a lucky day, an arctic fox or hare might make a brief appearance, but seabird sightings are plentiful and binoculars (which many exhibition ships provide) are a must.
In Antarctica, wildlife gathers in larger numbers. Besides penguins, whales and seals thrive in the Southern Ocean’s frigid waters, and seabirds often trail cruise ships.
Bird-Watching, polar plunges and an active volcano
Two Norwegian territories extend the country’s Arctic reach: the Svalbard archipelago and the small island of Jan Mayen. Most of Svalbard’s islands lie around 600 miles north of mainland Europe with the exception of Bear Island, just 280 miles north of mainland Norway. Despite its name, no polar bear has been spotted here since 2004, but avian enthusiasts will appreciate the adorable puffins, as well as pink-footed geese and barnacle geese, that nest on the island’s massive cliffs and sea-cave-carved coastline. As exhibition cruise onboard naturalists might point out, the two geese are easy to tell apart: The former have a pink streak on their black beaks to match their feet, while the latter sport white heads and bellies with black necks and plumage.
The Norwegian government has granted special permission to some exhibition cruises to land on Jan Mayen, which sits between northern Norway and Greenland roughly 375 miles north of Iceland. At 34 miles long (about twice the size of Washington, D.C.), Jan Mayen is dominated by Mount Beerenberg, an active, glacier-covered volcano that has shaped the island’s landscape into black sand, green moss, and hardened lava bombs (masses of molten rock ejected during eruptions).
Jump from luxury cruising to kayaking the Arctic’s icy waters.
While anchored or during a kayaking excursion, travelers should keep their eyes peeled for minke whales. Their stomachs are white, while the rest of their 26- to 33-foot-long bodies are black and dark gray. Taking the polar plunge – walking into the icy Arctic Ocean from the shores of Jan Mayen – will earn cruisers a certificate and a great story at future dinner parties.
Iceland: Unique Landscapes and Quiet Coastal Towns
Expedition team spends months (even years) researching and choosing new ports, which include many of the spots on these Arctic voyages. “Our objective is for guests to have an authentic, enrichment-based, and spontaneous experience,” says Robert Simpson, Silversea’s Cruises vice president of expedition product development. “We rely on our extensive team to deliver these experiences, whether on guided treks or hikes, out in the Zodiacs, or while making connections on shore with local communities.”
On Arctic cruises, this translates to hiking across a 4,000-year-old lava field called Berserkjahraun during a stop in Stykkishólmur during a 16-night, round-trip-from-Reykjavík cruise along eastern Greenland and western Iceland. The locals here also offer a guided tour of the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Farm to showcase their traditional process of fermenting shark meat – it takes six weeks to remove the ammonia and allow the meat to cure, putrefy, and decay. Adventurous eaters can taste the resulting Icelandic delicacy, called hákarl,whichpairs well with a shot of Brennivín, a caraway-spiced liquor nicknamed“Black Death.”
To see more of what life is like on Iceland’s wild and remote northwestern coast, travelers can join a round-trip from Reykjavík voyage around Iceland, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands. During a stop on Iceland’s Vigur Island, home to one of Europe’s smallest post offices, cruisers can learn how farmers harvest the extra-soft down of eider ducks.
Scoresby Sund, prime viewing for pristine ice and (possibly) northern lights.
Although the Arctic sun doesn’t set from late May to late July, the night sky reappears in late summer and fall. Cruisers hoping to spot the northern lights should book a 16-night, round-trip-from-Reykjavík cruise that includes three days in Scoresby Sund – the area’s geomagnetic activity makes it one of the best spots in the world to witness this natural phenomenon.
Fjord-hopping along Greenland’s east coast.
Greenland: Inuit Culture and Calving Glaciers
Straddling the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, Greenland is the world’s largest island (excluding Australia) – roughly three times the size of Texas – and it’s part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Exploring this massive destination often means choosing a side, literally.
Expect more civilization but less wildlife in western Greenland compared to the country’s more remote east coast. Western Greenland is home to the Ilulissat Icefjord, one of the world’s most active calving glaciers, while the world’s largest national park (Northeast Greenland National Park) and largest fjord system (Scoresby Sund) line the east coast.
The majority of Greenland’s residents are Inuit, and most exhibition excursions include the opportunity to learn how they subsist in this isolated environment. Santa Barbara Travel Bureau recommends a ten-night, Kangerlussuaq, Greenland-to-Pond Inlet, Canada sailing which includes a stop in Nuuk, home to a third of Greenland’s 55,000 people (and the country’s only traffic lights). Seven days later, the ship docks in the northern port town of Upernavik, population 1,000, for a walking tour down quiet streets lined with the primary-colored homes popular up and down Greenland’s west coast, before a visit to the local art museum.