Polar Opposites - Arctic and Antarctic Expeditions

While you can cruise to both Polar Regions, they are vastly different experiences. We'll examine the similarities and the differences.

"Polar opposites" is more than a catchy phrase. Earth's Polar Regions are polar opposites in ways I never realized. We know about the reversed seasons and water draining in opposite directions; but there is much more:

The Arctic region (in the north) is a vast ocean with hardly any land mass within the Arctic Circle (66 1/3 degrees latitude) - just an ice cap a few meters thick but covering 193,000 square miles. Antarctica (in the south) is a solid land mass that nearly fills the Antarctic Circle, but it is surrounded by vast oceans with no surrounding land nearby.

The poles (top and bottom of the world) are at the 90th parallel, while both Polar Circles begin at the 66-1/3 parallel. You can cross into the "polar circle" in either hemisphere by cruise ship, but just barely in Antarctica before you hit land. Therefore you can cruise far deeper into the Arctic region. You can actually cruise right up to the North Pole (see below).

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Arctic Circle demarcation statue   humpback whales wave goodbye   celebrating crossing the arctic circle
Prince Albert Anchored at North Cape Norway   A typical skiff expedition   The Expedition Team

Still, cruises to Antarctica are far more popular by about ten to one. It is only in the last few years that Arctic cruises have become popular at all and Antarctic cruises have lessened due to new restrictions on large ships landing in the Antarctic region. Ships that burn bunker fuels (most large cruise ships) are not allowed in the Antarctic region and no landings of more than 100 guests plus staff are allowed. So most Antarctic expedition cruises are done on small vessels, 1500 to 4000-tons, carrying about 100 cruisers.

While the Arctic has flying seabirds, roaming polar bears, reindeer, musk ox and arctic foxes populating the vast ice fields in Greenland, Spitsbergen and the Canadian arctic; the predominant birds in Antarctica and the sub-arctic islands are the millions of flightless penguin living in various colonies on icy terra firma with no land predators.

There are two basic reasons to go to either polar region; the natural beauty and the distinct wildlife. But the two polar regions, the Arctic and the Antarctic, are extremely different in both respects. Ultimately, the polar differences will challenge you to visit one or the other, or possibly both. Those who become obsessed with both are said to have a "bi-polar disorder." That's a joke, of course, courtesy of Chuck Cross, one of the owners of the award winning polar expedition agency PolarCruises.com.

The one thing they have in common is that both are extremely cold as the combination of polar wind and water can make for a potentially deadly combination. But no one has died on a contemporary polar cruise - because they are well prepared and guided by people like Chuck Cross.

More Differences between the Arctic and Antarctic

In Antarctica the continental land mass stops you from cruising much farther than 65 degrees south - to reach Peterman Island just barely within the Antarctic Circle. This is roughly equal to the North Cape of Norway.

In the Arctic you can easily cruise to about the 82nd parallel before you hit the permanent Arctic polar ice cap at the peak of summer. Naturally, both ice packs vary a great deal. The Arctic is warmed by the same ocean currents that warm Europe, but Antarctica is a land mass that has no ocean warming currents - so it tends to remain frigid cold even at the outermost regions.

Ice is generally formed by fresh water, but the Arctic ice pack is sea water which is generally softer. While the ice pack may extend for 190,000 square miles it tends to remain only six to twelve feet thick and can even form cracks all the way to the North Pole. In Antarctica the land mass is almost entirely covered in permanent fresh water ice with a large sea water ice pack surrounding it. Both ice packs vary in size constantly.

It is very difficult to reach the South Pole except by air while the North Pole has been reached in a number of different ways including submarine (breaking through the ice from below), dog sled and nuclear ice breakers cutting all the way to the pole.

The first ice-breaker to ever reach the North Pole was the Russian nuclear-powered Arktika, Aug. 17, 1977. Non-nuclear vessels achieved the same feat in 1991. In 2005 the U.S. submarine Charlotte broke through the ice from below and surfaced at the North Pole. In July, 2007, a swimmer went for a one kilometer swim in a temporary crack in the ice floe at the North Pole. The depth of the ocean at the North Pole is 13,980 feet (over 2-1/2 miles deep) yet in August of 2007 a Russian submersible expedition descended to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted the Russian flag on the floor of the ocean precisely at the North Pole.

Arctic Cruising - Getting Started

Many of us have been on an Alaska cruise - but in fact most Alaska cruises don't even come close to the Arctic Circle which begins just above the Bering Strait - almost 1000 miles north of Juneau. While an Alaska adventure is thrilling with its glaciers and brown and black bears, cruising deep into the Arctic Circle is a vastly different experience. It is almost like taking a regular Alaska cruise and doubling it. The glaciers and the bears (polar bears, which only live in the Arctic) are twice as big, the climate is twice as cold and the terrain is twice as starkly beautiful.

The terrain I am referring to is in Greenland, Arctic Canada and the most popular Polar destination; Svalbard. While it might seem like the easiest way to reach the deep Arctic for Americans would be through Alaska or Canada, in fact the most popular route by far is to cruise to Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard archipelago at the 80th parallel 500 miles due north of the North Cape of Norway.

The Arctic ice cap grows enough during the winter to nearly seal the pass between Norway and Svalbard and cut off the Russian port of Murmansk. In fact, this was a vital sea lane during World War II used to get military supplies to the Russian allies. Keeping this sea lane open year round is vital to the Russians, which is precisely why that nation has built the world's best ice breakers including seven nuclear powered ones.

Svalbard is a severe and unforgiving place. A few thousand people live there in the summer, but the winter population dwindles to a few hundred. At various times there have been permanent hunting and mining ventures there, but that has all ceased and only tourism remains.

I was lucky enough to visit Svalbard in 2007. This was my first expedition cruise and there is a lot to know before anyone takes such a journey. Svalbard is a stark terrain that is so cold the ice never melts. There is very little plant life, mostly a lichen carpet. There are many small but sharp mountains, but the usual hazy skies tend to blend the fog, snow and clouds all together. Chuck points out that the climate in Spitsbergen, the centralized main island of the Svalbard Archipelago can be almost pleasant for a month or two in summer, with blooming wildflowers, but this is a short-term setting.

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Svalbard - Ice floe to the horizon in every direction   bergy bit with polar bear prints   Beautiful Svalbard ;-) when we finally get to see it

The glaciers in Svalbard are huge, three or four times the size of Alaska glaciers and fronted by several hundreds of feet of ice sheets atop the sea water but only about a foot deep. Unlike Alaska, the climate is so cold the glaciers remain more densely snow white with far less calving action than Alaska glaciers.

But when they do calve watch out. Just last week there was news of a lawsuit for a ship that was watching a Svalbard glacier from about 1500 feet away. A huge slice of glacier calved off into the ice pack sheet and created a small "tsunami" in the otherwise quiet bay. When the single swell finally hit the small ship it washed over the deck carrying sharp shards of ice. Several people on deck were knocked over and cut by the shards of ice. They were airlifted to the only town in Svalbard, Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen. One man had a cracked skull. This is a highly unusual occurance, naturally.

One other note about Svalbard. it is possible to fly to the main city there, Longyearbyen, and catch a seven to 10-day cruise. I highly recommend this as sailing from Norway means two full days of cold and possibly rough seas. The only island on the way, Bear Island, is so stark it is uninhabited and ships do not stop there. We did take a skiff adventure towards the island, however, and saw the dramatic scenery up close.

And this is a rare but emblematic Arctic episode - it is a tough environment and you must be prepared. The same is true of the Antarctic.

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sea water tunnel in bear island   Cormorants take off   monumental rock at Bear Island

But you don't have to stop at the land masses. Chuck Cross has actually "cruised to the North Pole" on a nuclear-powered Russian ice breaker. This is a cruise that you can book yourself, sailing in July 2011, proving that nuclear-powered cruise ships do exist. Another cruise that is becoming more popular is the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada. While the receding ice pack has made this option newly feasible, the truth is that these waters are largely uncharted. Two ships have grounded in this region in the last two weeks, including a cruise ship, the Clipper Adventurer which hit uncharted rock in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, about halfway through the trip. Passengers were rescued but the ship is still stuck two weeks later.

The lesson to be learned here is that while the bragging rights of doing something so unusual are compelling, there is danger in not taking the proven routes. Chuck says it is likely the ship had forward looking sonar to warn it the ridge was there, but they may have had it off since the submerged ridge was not expected to be there. Experts say that only about 10% of Arctic waters are charted. This was not the first ship, the German Hanseatic also ran aground in 1996.

This is also the reason why ships generally do not cruise through the Bering Strait to Russian waters. "It's generally shallow water and lots of pack ice up there," said Chuck. Although the cruise ship "the World" of Residensea did cruise up there last year and reported seeing hundreds of Polar bears.

Antarctic Cruising - Sights and Wildlife

Antarctica is different. You must fly into Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, and then sail two full days through the infamous Drake's Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. Drake's Passage can be one of the roughest stretches of sea in the world, but it can also be mild depending on the weather, especially during the summer tourist season December - February.

Most Antarctic cruises are ten days, which means six days of sightseeing bracketed by traversing Drake's Passage each way. If you are rich you can arrange to fly past Drake's passage in a small plane, which might be faster but not necessarily any smoother.

The cruises then schedule landings on various islands and the Antarctic Peninsula which is part of the actual continent. There are generally two landings every day; morning and afternoon. The sights include incredible mountains, glaciers, ice packs, icebergs and of course the wildlife.

Planned excursions might include Neko Harbour, Wilhelmina Bay and the southerly Petermann Island to see Weddell, crabeater and elephant seals, skuas and some very large colonies of the Adélie penguin. Half Moon Island houses a breeding colony of chinstrap penguins with fur seals and blue-eyed shags. Humpback and Minke whales as well as orca (killer whales) are also a possibility.

There are about 250 different landing sites in Antarctica, but each one is limited to just about a dozen visits each season. It is up to the expedition leaders to request landings, but they get whatever they are assigned by the organizations affiliated with IAATO to oversee tourism and protect the environment. The result is that each cruise itinerary will be different, and so using a firm like Chuck's Polar Cruises becomes a very valuable asset in helping you pick the expedition that is right for you. Chucks sells a dozen different polar expedition vessels and knows the differences.

One of the main differences between the two regions, and a main determining factor for your choice of expedition is the indigenous wildlife. The wildlife in Antarctica also includes flying birds and sea mammals including orca (killer whales), but the predominant life form is penguins. There are millions of them and they are nearly fearless. Penguins are the ambassadors of the Antarctic. By the time most people arrive they have already read encyclopedias about them. Chuck says the best thing about penguins is that with no natural land predators so they are virtually unafraid of people. When landing on the various colonial islands visitors are likely to be surrounded by thousands of penguins. Environmental regulations say humans must stay 20 feet away from penguins, "but the penguins don't read the rulebooks" Chuck says.

Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands are the only places on earth where penguins live, except for a rare warm water species in the Galapagos Islands (west of Peru). You do not find penguins in the Arctic. Most penguin species live on the islands around Antarctica, not on the mainland.

The adelie penguin live on the continent near the Ross Sea and even close to McMurdo Base. Emperor penguins, the tallest and heaviest penguin species, do live on the Antarctic continent and were depicted in the documentary "March of the Penguins." They can actually reach four feet tall and close to 100 pounds. Although there used to be as many as 400,000 birds in the colony from the movie a declining ice pack has dwindled the population to fewer than 3,000 breeding pairs according various sources. They are especially sensitive to climate changes; warmer or colder. Fortunately, other colonies of Emperor penguins, possibly hundreds of thousands, have been sighted by Google Earth.

There are also a more whales in Antarctica than in the Arctic but you are not as likely to see them as you will on a simple cruise to the Alaska inside passage. Although Chuck says he has seen whales on nearly every trip he has made to Antarctica the experiences are not always up close and extensive. It varies greatly - you might see some or you might not.

Arctic Cruising - Sightseeing and Wildlife

The Arctic is well populated by polar bears, reindeer, musk ox, hundreds of species of flying sea birds, arctic foxes, sea lions, walrus and some whales. Chuck says there are hundreds of whales to be seen near the Denmark Strait on the way to West Greenland. But when I asked Chuck the main reason to go to the Arctic he said "Polar bears." Indeed, during my cruise to Svalbard the quest to see a Polar bear became an obsession. Most cruises to the Arctic sight from a few bears to several dozen - sometimes very close - but hopefully not too close. They are the very curious predators and will approach people and vessels.

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walruses in Svalbard ice   walruses

In Svalbard expedition cruises must hire experienced bear guides who carry rifles to prevent close polar bear encounters. It is illegal to shoot a polar bear in Svalbard for sport, but it is also illegal to travel in the wild without a gun for protection from polar bears. They are dangerous carnivores that will attack human beings, although whether they actually like the way we taste is debatable.

Oh, we heard the jokes; "You don't have to worry about outrunning a polar bear as long as you can outrun the person next to you," but in fact it is a very serious topic. Our "bear guides" whose job was to carry a gun at all times, told us that you cannot shoot the heart because the bear will still have enough strength to tear you apart. You have to aim for the head and hope for instant annihilation.

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Prince Albert II in Svalbard ice   bear guide looking for bear   growler hornsund inlet svalbard

If a bear is shot in Svalbard there is a lot of explaining to do, but as long as it was done to protect human life, by a licensed bear guide, there is no problem.

Now, Chuck likes to point out that in most cases a warning shot or a flare is all that is needed to keep an approaching bear at bay; and that there have been cases of domesticated Polar bears, such as a pair of cubs born on a Russian ice breaker that virtually had the run of the ship - until they got too big. Chuck's wife was just aboard the same ship I traveled to Svalbard upon two years ago, but her luck was much better than ours. She saw dozens of polar bears, some of them so close she had to back up to get a picture (she was safely aboard her small ship). We saw but one bear on our trip and he was several hundred yards away. Chuck advises going later in the season, July or August. We were there in early June.

Expedition Cruise Dress and Preparedness

If you are now thinking about a Polar expedition cruise do not skip this part. It is extremely important to have the right waterproof clothing. Most important, you should wear these clothes every time you leave the ship because you never know when you might encounter conditions where you get soaked. Please heed the following advice very carefully.

Almost all land access is made in rubber boats called Zodiacs; small expedition ships generally do not use covered tenders for sightseeing. Please note that it is very important that you get specific instructions on what to buy for protective clothing and the following is just a general guide, not an official list for clothing. You need rubber boots that fit over your shoes (many ships provide them but you need to verify this, the best are Wellington-style), waterproof pants that fit over your regular pants and boot tops, a waterproof parka with attached hood and waterproof gloves. Be careful when buying gloves because many look waterproof but they are not. Ideally, you should have something to cover your mouth and nose and sunglasses for your eyes. Yes, you thought I was kidding about these conditions but I am not. What you will experience with anything less can be extremely uncomfortable.

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Prince Albert Anchored at Fair Isle, Shetland Islands   Fully Dressed: Parka, Overpants, Rubber Boots   Prince Albert II in Svalbard ice

I interviewed Chuck for 90 minutes and he told me he never takes any client on an polar expedition without speaking to them personally first, just as we spoke, about the importance of having the right gear. Sadly, Svalbard was my first expedition cruise and no one had prepared us and we suffered as a result. We were not alone; we saw many passengers who had not been adequately prepared.

"The general rule of these voyages is that you have to ready for anything at any time," Chuck said. "I try to get my guests awake by 7:00, eating at 8:00 and on their first expedition at 9:00 a.m. Each day generally has two expeditions, before and after lunch. You never know when you will sight a whale or walrus, and if you do you must be there immediately. They won't wait around for you."

My interview with Chuck Cross:

How do Polar cruises differ from average cruises?

Chuck: The biggest difference is our smaller vessels, from 1500 to 4000-gross tons. Generally we limit our cruises to 100 passengers plus guides - the maximum number we can land in any Antarctic region according to IAATO rules.

I see cruises to Antarctica offered on major cruise lines like Holland America and Oceania Cruises. Are those worthwhile?

Chuck: We refer to those as sightseeing cruises. The Antarctic Treaty Org. has many rules to preserve the region, with one prohibiting large ships from making landfall. Only small ship expeditions like ours can get you close to the natural wildlife. For example; another rule dictates how far humans must remain from various species. For penguins it is 20 feet, but penguins don't read the rules. With no land predators and they'll greet you like just another penguin, a tall one in a red parka.

What vessels do you recommend for an Antarctica cruise?

Chuck: The sights are the same, but the vessels are entirely different, so we try to match the traveler to the ship. The Polar Star has bunk bed rooms sharing a common bathroom - obviously for adventure travelers. Cruises start at $5260 per person.

At the luxury end are the National Geographic Explorer [5] and the Silversea Prince Albert II [6] which both start over $10,000 for an 11 to 13-day cruise. The latter has gourmet cuisine and granite Jacuzzi tubs. The owner's suite is as much as $77,395.

What sights will be seen?

Chuck: Antarctica cruises all start in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost airport in the world. It takes two days to sail Drake's Passage each way, which can be bumpy at times, but not always. Once in Antarctica we see incredible mountains, glaciers, ice packs, icebergs and of course the wildlife.

I had an excellent seven-day whale watching cruise with American Safari Cruises in Alaska a few years ago. Do you recommend Antarctica for whale watching?

Chuck: We see whales on every cruise but the sightings vary so we don't focus on that. Our goal is making landings to see penguins, seals and even killer whales in action if we're lucky.

What about the Arctic Circle in the North. How is it different and what cruises do you recommend?

Chuck: We offer every kind of polar voyage that exists, but I recommend Svalbard, the frozen Arctic Archipelago 500 miles above Norway at almost 80 degrees north. It is much deeper into the Polar region than you will ever get in Antarctica. Very cold at times but also seasonal, the dozens of islands have Polar bears, foxes, walruses, reindeer. We also go to Iceland, Greenland and Canada's Northwest Passage.

What is the biggest attraction?

Polar bears. We usually see anywhere from a few to dozens of them. It is hit and miss, but the best chances to sight them come in July and August as the pack ice is starting to break up.

What about Alaska?

Chuck: We don't go there. Juneau is 1000 miles below the Arctic Circle which starts at the Bering Strait. There isn't much to see farther north in Prudhoe Bay and the Russian side is largely blocked by ice.

What is your most memorable Polar expedition cruise?

Chuck: I just took a Russian nuclear-powered ice breaker literally all the way to the North Pole. We are going again in 2011. It starts at $22,690 for a 15-day sailing.

Any last words?

Chuck: There is so much to know; the environment, history, geology. Every expedition has highly degreed naturalists, historians and capable guides. The conditions are harsh and you must be prepared. I speak to everyone I book personally to make sure they bring the proper clothes. They are essential to having a great experience.

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