Sailing the Arctic in Search of Polar Bears

As an animal lover and pessimist about the future of the planet, I want to see Polar Bears in the wild as soon as possible for sadly I fear the time is rapidly approaching when they will no longer exist outside of zoos.  I had a planned trip to Copenhagen and decided to spend an extra week traveling to Svalbard a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean that is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole for the sole purpose of seeing the polar bears.  The best way to see polar bears in taking a cruise, and fortunately for me there was a one week voyage on the s/v Noorderlicht that coincided perfectly with my trip.

The Noorderlicht is a 100 year-old schooner that has lived many lives, beginning in 1910 as a sailing vessel for the German Navy to its current life as a high end cruise ship.  It is operated by Oceanwide Expeditions and it is billed as an excellent vessel to see the arctic as the ship’s size allows it to travel to areas that larger ships cannot access.  I am not a cruise person, but sailing a small ship that only has 20 passengers seems like a far cry from the Love Boat and most importantly there was the promise of polar bears.


I plan on writing a more detailed post about the trip, but wanted to post this blog now so that people can avoid my costly mistake.  The Noorderlicht is marketed as a small sailboat which has the advantage of being able to navigate smaller waterways.  The should allow travelers to see wildlife in areas where few people travel. In theory this may be true, however in truth the Noorderlicht’s size is a significant disadvantage.  The average cruising speed for the Noorderlicht is 6 knots compared to a larger ship which average speeds around 20 knotsThus, using some simple math over a 24 hour period a bigger cruise ship can cover 336 more knots than our small sailboat (or roughly 380 more miles).  Going slow is an extreme disadvantage. As our trip was in the late fall, most of the polar bear population had moved to the northern most parts of Svalbard.  These areas are easily accessible by larger boats.  However, they were not accessible by the Noorderlicht.  The boat was simply too slow to travel to the areas where the polar bears were located.  Thus, despite best efforts to see a polar bear, none were spotted on out trip.  I did not find anything online about this issue, but it is a significant problem for people traveling to the arctic to see wildlife.  It should also be noted that the Noorderlicht is almost never is under sail (only one sail works), so this is more or a motor cruise and not a sailing trip, so the “romance” of sailing a ship is lost as it is engine powered.

Svalbard is amazingly beautiful.  The landscape is spectacular and I was able to see reindeer and the northern lights.  I will definitely go back to see the polar bears.  However next time I will travel on a vessel that has the size and speed required to travel the archipelago in search of the polar bears and my advice to anyone who is thinking about sailing on the Noorderlicht, if your goal is to see wildlife, you may be better suited in a larger / faster boat.

Northern Lights on the Noorderlicht
Walking an iceberg in search of Polar Bears
Svalbard Map – You need a fast boat to cover lots of territory



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