As I sit in my window seat on the ice-class vessel Ultramarine, surrounded by Arctic mountains and sheets of ice, I’m struck by the uselessness of humans in the ecosystem. What is our purpose? None at all. I feel detached, as if I’m a voyeur who has landed here from another planet. It’s an incredible experience to visit the Arctic on a Quark Expeditions cruise and I’m so grateful to have gone there. At the same time, a human could come away feeling pretty darn insignificant. And getting our egos checked is a good thing for humans.

Our 10-day Arctic excursion wove through the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. At our northernmost point the north pole was still 600 miles away, but I’d never been so far north. It felt like we were on top of the world. As Jane Whitney, kayak leader extraordinaire, described her feelings for the Arctic, “It’s something that kind of gets into your soul.”

Related: Cruise through the Galapagos on a wildlife expedition

Arctic rules

The story of humans in the Norwegian Arctic is all about looting the natural world for fur, whale blubber, walrus tusks and coal. Aboriginal people never lived in this area, though plesiosaurs and iguanodons once did. The first recorded human visit was the Dutch sailor Willem Barentsz, who stopped by in June of 1596 while seeking a northeast passage to China.

“The discovery put these new lands into the maps,” said history presenter and expedition guide Federico Gargiulo in a shipboard lecture. “The chronicles of this trip talked about the abundance of marine mammals, like walruses and whales. And that started to attract people to come and try to take those resources, which were very, very abundant.” People used whale oil for lamps and soap, and baleen plates for glass frames, corset stays and umbrella ribs.

Fortunately, nowadays, there are environmental controls on visiting this area. On our first full day aboard, we watched two mandatory videos put out by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, of which Quark is a member. The videos laid down the law about how to behave onshore.

Don’t touch, take or move things. This includes building cairns. Don’t go near wildlife. If dive bombed by skuas or terns, retreat. Stay with your armed guide, who will protect you from polar bears. Leave cultural remains (anything from 1945 or earlier, often related to whaling or trapping) alone. No drones allowed; wildlife doesn’t like them. And whenever we got on or off the ship, we washed our muck boots and stepped in a pan of biosecurity foot wash to avoid transferring any seeds or organic matter where they didn’t belong.

Arctic wildlife

Tourists pay big money and endure long flights to places like the Arctic because they want to see wildlife. On our ship, people were most excited to see two iconic Arctic species: polar bears and puffins. Of course, they were also thrilled to see seals, reindeer, walruses, Arctic foxes, whales and a whole catalog of seabirds.

Our last night of the cruise we hit the polar bear jackpot. Before that, sightings had been limited to distant cream-colored blobs for all of us except those with exceptional binoculars and telephoto lenses. But at the last moment, as we were all gathered in the auditorium to watch an end-of-cruise slideshow, the announcement came over the ship loudspeaker: Polar bear on the move.

Everybody grabbed their binoculars, cameras, jackets, hats and gloves — it was only about 30 degrees Fahrenheit — and hurried to the viewing decks. Sure enough, a polar bear was swimming towards the boat! At first, I could only make out its black nose and a moving V of water behind it as I gazed through binoculars. As it got closer, I could see its black eyes and rounded ears. It turned its head back and forth, probably scenting two fat seals chilling on ice floes on the other side of Ultramarine.

Over the next two hours, we watched the polar bear glide between floating ice sheets as it tried to sneak up on the seal. We swiveled our binoculars back and forth between the bear and the seals, watching its slow-motion stalking. Several times the seals lifted their heads, smelling the polar bear. The bears are masters of catching seals on ice.

But seals outmaneuver bears in the water. In both cases, after endless stalking, the seals waited until the bears were very close to say, “See ya!” and slide off into the water. Twice thwarted, the frustrated bear hauled itself onto an ice floe and commenced a series of calisthenics, including downward bear and lying on its back, legs kicking in the air.

Our other best sighting started with a post-midnight announcement over the loudspeaker that we should get up and see a blue whale. Midnight wildlife viewing is no problem when you have 24 hours of daylight. Yes, the world’s largest mammal was right by our ship. It was incredible to see part of its long back clearing the water and witness its huge spout. The Arctic is so quiet we could hear the snuffling sound its spout made.

We saw reindeer while hiking on land, and puffins flew right over us while on a Zodiac cruise near cliffs where they breed. I especially liked stealthily approaching a walrus by kayak as it lounged on a piece of floating ice. I had no idea how large these pinnipeds are. They weigh more than a ton!

Ship amenities

Ultramarine is an extremely comfortable expedition ship with wonderful amenities. My room was huge, with big windows looking out on the Arctic. The shipboard sauna also has views, as does the gym and yoga studio. There’s an excellent library stocked with hundreds of books about places Ultramarine visits: the Arctic, Antarctica and Greenland. I especially enjoyed getting my 10,000 steps in on the fifth deck, which you can walk all the way around while looking for wildlife.

The ship has a dining room and a more casual bistro. Chef Avhier Singh had remarkable vegan awareness and presented me with a printed vegan lunch and dinner menu every day. He frequently came to my table to make sure I had enough to eat (yes, more than enough)! Meals ranged from vegan pizza pockets to soba noodles to Indonesian and Indian specialties. Ultramarine gets an A+ for variety, even for vegans. Which is not easy to do when you must get all your supplies to such a remote place.

There was also an excellent onboard shop for everything you forgot at home — from waterproof phone cases to high-powered binoculars — run by the extremely personable and professional Anna Mitieva, one of my favorite crew members.


Quark employs expedition guides who also have expertise in geology, marine biology, glaciology, history and other relevant fields. I managed to attend almost every lecture, and always learned a lot. I was especially struck by the words of Austin Hart, geology presenter and expedition guide, when talking about Earth.

“It’s not much of a human planet,” he said. “Other species existed for much longer. It’s more of a dinosaur planet. They were around for 180 million years. I don’t know if humans have 180 million years in us.”

He said if everybody on Ultramarine stood hand in hand in a line to represent the timeline of geology, the fingernails on the last person’s hand would represent the length of human history. Which was exactly how big I felt as I floated in my kayak between fantastic ice sculptures, the tops of snowy Arctic mountains disappearing into clouds above. 

Photography by Teresa Bergen