In Search of the Polar Bear in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Norway

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15655A, International


  • Search for wildlife such as the polar bear, walrus, reindeer, and arctic fox as we cruise the islands
  • Experience the wonders of the Arctic by hiking and snowshoeing onshore
  • Learn about Arctic natural history and environmental impacts from scientists and on-board naturalists


  • Comfortable twin cabins with private bath, shower, storage, and porthole
  • Delicious international cuisine and attentive crew
  • All activities -- Zodiac cruising, photography, hiking, and snowshoeing


DatesJun 12–19, 2015
Price$5,295 (12–15)
$5,595 (or fewer)
StaffKath Giel

Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

The Trip

The Arctic surrounds the North Pole with drifting ice packs and scattered continents and islands. It touches eight countries. The Arctic has an incredible diversity of wildlife and is particularly known for the amazing life and adaptation of the polar bear.

The names Spitsbergen and Svarlbad are often used interchangeably in books and articles, just to make things confusing! The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is a place where the summer’s midnight sun mirrors its torchlight off glaciers. Spitsbergen is the largest island in this archipelago. One of the last great wildernesses on earth, these areas are home to countless birds, seals, arctic fox, reindeer, walrus, whales, and the king of the arctic: the polar bear. With our expedition vessel the focus of our trip will be comfortable, exploratory arctic travel. We will spend as much time ashore as possible, combined with educational lectures on board, covering topics such as bird life, marine mammals, vegetation, and landscapes. We will have inflatable Zodiacs in which we can cruise among ice floes and search for whales, seals, and walruses. You will be fascinated by the pure wildness of a place with so much life, color, peace, and emotion.

Spitsbergen is the northernmost permanently inhabited area of the world. Approximately 60% of the Svalbard archipelago is covered by glacier, some seemingly starting at the very top of sharp peaks rising to more than 5,000 feet. Vegetation covers only 6-7% of the land with the most fertile areas found in the inner fjord regions. All of the area is covered by permafrost, with only the top meter of earth thawing in the summer. Even in this hostile environment, small plants are able to survive; over 170 have been identified.

Wildlife here is abundant and varied. Polar bear, arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer, bearded seal, common harbor seal, walrus, and several whales make their home on and around Svalbard. The reindeer here are smaller than their mainland relatives and do not form large herds. The islands are home to a variety of flora: in addition to the typical tundra vegetation of mosses and lichens, there are also 250 species of fungi, 7 species of ferns, and 164 flowering plants.

Some of the largest concentrations of birds in the North Atlantic region can be found here; up to several hundred thousand birds. Dominant species include the little auk, kittiwake, and fulmar, with other species such as Brunnich’s goose, Arctic skua, long-tailed duck, red-throated diver, barnacle goose, rock ptarmigan, both common and king eider, and purple sandpiper. While approximately 30 species nest in the Svalbard archipelago, the Svalbard ptarmigan is the only bird species that stays on here throughout winter. While this outing will not be conducted with a “birder’s only” focus, we will be able to observe many bird species and will marvel at the variety. Birders are welcome and it is likely that everyone, including non-birders, will start looking at and enjoying the rich avian life.

Some three thousand Norwegians and Russians live here in three permanent settlements, working mostly in research institutes or the coal-mining industry. The area outside of the settlements Spitsbergen and the Svalbard archipelago is still pure wilderness; vast parts being protected as nature reserves. Despite the northern position of the islands (76-81° N), the climate is relatively mild due to the influence of the Atlantic Gulf-stream. During our trip the summer temperatures will range from 32-50° F. Occasionally there will be rain and fog, but many days will have sunshine -- and many nights as well due to the midnight sun. Temperatures will be fairly consistent from day to night. Winds can be variable in direction and force. This area may be described as an “Arctic desert,” with annual rain and snowfall a mere 7-11 inches.

Since 1700, Spitsbergen has been the goal or departure point for many expeditions, both scientific and exploratory. Some of the most famous are the Andrée Balloon Expedition, Amundsen’s venture with the airship Norge and Mobile’s with the airship Italia. The presence of coal was known relatively early to hunters and whalers who visited the Svalbard archipelago and they used it for heating. Interest in its financial potential did not arise until the end of the 19th century.

This cruise is much more than a sightseeing jaunt; it is truly an educational and exploratory adventure. A variety of optional activities, all of which are already included in the trip cost (Zodiac cruising, snowshoeing, and hiking), provide a unique opportunity for Arctic travelers seeking active adventure. Join us for truly a trip of a lifetime!


Day 1: The trip officially begins with a welcome lunch in Longyearbyen. Longyearbyen is the main settlement of Spitsbergen on the Svalbard archipelago, which was originally established as a coal-mining settlement more than 100 years ago. There are approximately 2,000 inhabitants in town. In the afternoon you may wish to visit the Svalbard Museum, which has interesting exhibits on the history of Svalbard, the mining industry, and polar exploration prior to our departure on the M/v "Ortelius." After stowing our gear in our cabins on the ship, we will watch from the decks as we sail on our way to the land of ice, snow, polar bears, glaciers, walrus, and more.

Day 2: This morning we sail to Raudfiord, a beautiful fjord area on Spitsbergen’s northern coast. Due to the geologic diversity, there are a variety of sandstones, conglomerates, and marbles, with an abundance of reddish soil. Because of the influence of the gulf stream, the tundra is very lush here and we will also see a variety of birds such as Arctic terns, common eider, and kittiwakes. We may be able to take a hike on this fragile landscape to have a closer look, walking amongst the saxifrage and Arctic poppies.

Day 3: Today we sail to Liefdefjorden, which translates as the “love fjord!” This is a stunningly beautiful place and also a good place to look for polar bears. We will also see the immense Monaco glaciers as well as calving glaciers and ice in all shapes, forms, and sizes. We might be lucky to see a fin whale. If time permits we will visit Moffen Island to look for walrus, which usually frequent this beautiful island.

Day 4: Today we sail to Hinlopen Strait. This is is the strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in Svalbard, Norway. It is 150 kilometers long, 10–60 kilometers wide, and relatively shallow. The strait is an interesting travel objective because of pack ice, which can be easy or challenging depending on the day. By sky, land, and sea, we will look for local inhabitants such as giant reindeer, polar bears, and even a few walruses along the pack ice. Birds we might see and hear include the Brunichs guillemots and the large Glaucous gulls.

Day 5: Today we sail to the barren and rocky Seven Islands, the northern part of the Svalbard archipelago. It is the northernmost land of Europe. The names of the individual islands tell quite a bit about the history. Phippsøya was named after the Englishman Phipps, who was in the area in 1773 during an attempt to reach the North Pole, as was Parry in 1827, after whom another island -- Parryøya -- is named. Ice conditions are often difficult, so we should have more interesting travel here. This is considered high-arctic environment, which is very barren with little vegetation. There are mostly lichens and mosses, which can be quite colorful and, in places, Svalbard Poppy and saxifrages. We should see colonies of seabirds, including Puffins and Ivory gulls. Herds of walrus are sometimes ashore, and polar bears are often around.

Day 6: Today we retrace our route westward, enjoying the landscape and solitude, looking for polar bear, walrus, birds, and ice, or just taking in the vastness.

Day 7: Today we sail to Prins Karls Forland, an island off the west coast of Spitsbergen. The entire island and the surrounding sea area constitutes Forlandet National Park.

This area consists of partly alpine mountains with very pointed peaks and wild glaciers, which are very spectacular and remind one of the Antarctic Peninsula. There are rock glaciers, old beach ridge series, and frost-patterned ground, which we shall see. Large numbers of Brunich’s guillemots, kittywakes, and Glaucous gulls are breeding on the steep cliffs. Reindeer and foxes are seen on the tundra and a harbor seal colony can be seen on the shore; the only one in Svalbard. Walrus, too; this is still the only area with haul-out sites on the west coast. The process of re-establishing old population numbers has still just started. Whalers and trappers have used the island and left their traces, which we should be able to observe from the boat or on shore.

Day 8: Today we arrive in Longyearbyen, reflecting on our incredible voyage.



Getting There

Our ship departs from Longyearbyen in the northern part of Norway. You can fly to Longyearbyen from Oslo, Norway on SAS or Norwegian Air Shuttle. From the Longyearbyen airport, you will be met by the ship transport and driven to the town. The ship departs from the port in downtown Longyearbyen at 4 p.m. on Friday, June 12, 2015. The leader can assist you with recommendations regarding pre-trip activities and reservations if you arrive early. Please do not make non-refundable travel arrangements until notified to do so by the trip leader.

Accommodations and Food

Our ship, the M/v "Ortelius" was built in Poland in 1989 and originally named "Marina Svetaeva" after a famous Russian poet. M/v Ortelius served as a special purpose vessel for the Russian Academy of Science. The ship has the highest ice-class notation and is therefore very suitable to navigate in solid one-year sea ice or multi-year pack ice if encountered.

M/v "Ortelius" can accommodate 106 passengers in 48 passenger cabins each with private toilet and shower. We will be accommodated in comfortable twin rooms that have a porthole, desk, closet, and flat screen. The vessel offers two restaurants, a bar/lecture room, and large open deck spaces, which allow opportunities to enjoy the scenery and wildlife. She is also equipped with nine Zodiacs for our cruising journeys. The ship is comfortable and nicely decorated, but not a luxury vessel. The voyage is primarily meant to be exploratory and educational, with as much time spent ashore as possible. M/v "Ortelius" is manned by 20 nautical crew, 19 hotel staff (6 chefs, 1 hotel manager, 1 steward-barman and 11 stewards / cabin cleaners), 6 expedition staff (1 expedition leader and 5 guides-lecturers) and 1 doctor. Delicious fresh international cuisine, prepared by first-rate chefs and served by cheerful waiters and waitresses, is served in the dining room. Many dietary requirements can be accommodated. There is 24/7 access to hot drinks and snacks. The doctor on board is equipped to take care of any illnesses or medical concerns.

Trip Difficulty

Participants must be in good health and have a spirit of adventure to truly enjoy this trip. We will need to climb up and down short, but steep, steps between decks on the ship and to get in and out of our inflatable Zodiac landing craft. Most of our shore stops will be "wet landings" during which you will need to step out of the Zodiacs into calf-deep water on gravely or rocky shores. For these landings you will be wearing knee-high rubber boots and offered a helping hand. The terrain onshore can be on gravel, rocks, mud, uneven terrain, beaches, or snow/ice. Walking sticks are advised. Amenities onboard are very cozy, warm, and comfortable, but there will not be the fitness room, gift shop, casino, or hair salon usually found on big passenger ships. We will be cruising, but the M/v "Ortelius" is not a "cruise ship." 

During the Arctic summer, our temperatures will range in the 30s, with it unlikely to freeze. Occasionally there may be rain and fog or even a little snow, but we will have 24/7 sunshine. Winds can be variable.

Equipment and Clothing

No specialized equipment is needed for this outing. A variety of layered, warm, and waterproof clothing is needed. Comfortable casual clothing is appropriate on the ship. You will be provided with a pair of knee-high rubber boots. The boots are a necessity for our "wet landings" when we go ashore and for walking in wet, muddy, or snowy/icy areas. If you wish to participate in the snowshoeing and hiking activities, hiking boots are necessary and the leader will communicate those specifications to you. There will be many excellent opportunities for photography, so those interested should be sure to bring camera equipment. A good pair of binoculars will aid in wildlife observation. The trip leader will provide a detailed clothing and equipment list for trip members.



There are many books the Arctic, ranging from histories of the great explorers to scientific treatises to novels and journals. Below are some favorites, and browsing in a bookstore or online will net you many more.

  • Bruemmer, Fred, World of the Polar Bear.
  • Chervov, Yu I, The Living Tundra.
  • DeRocher, Andrew, Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior.
  • Freuchen, P. and Salomonson, F.,The Arctic Year.
  • Lopez, Barry, Arctic Dreams. (Not written about the Spitsbergen area, but good reading)
  • Milliman, Lawrence, Last Places: A Journey to the North.
  • Pielou, E. C., A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic.
  • Rosing, Norbert, The World of the Polar Bear.
  • Sale, Richard, A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife.
  • Umbreit. Andreas, Spitsbergen (4th) Bradt Travel Guide.


  • Stillwell, Nigel, Spitsbergen Explorer Map by Ocean Explorer Map.


  • To The Arctic. MacGillivray, Greg, director. Focus on climate change
  • National Geographic: Masters of the Arctic Ice. Focus on mammals.



The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club, both at home and abroad.

The Norwegian parliament has determined that Svalbard is among the best managed wilderness areas in the world. A specific set of regulations governs tourism in Svalbard. More than 50% of the island’s area has been designated as national parks, nature preserves, bird reserves, or plant sanctuaries. In these areas it is not permitted to dump refuse, remove plants or fossils, use off-road vehicles, hunt or trap, land helicopters, or construct buildings. The nature reserves have been established to protect an untouched arctic environment and allow natural ecological processes to proceed unaffected by human activity. Such areas have great intrinsic value and they are important as reference areas for scientific research. Consequently, the regulations are stricter in the nature reserves than in the national parks. All traffic on sea or land can be forbidden in the nature reserves when deemed necessary for the protection of plant or animal life.

Fifteen bird reserves are all along the western coast of Svalbard. Almost all the bird reserves are on islets and rocks. Their purpose is to protect the most important breeding grounds for eider ducks, barnacle geese, and brent geese. These species prefer breeding sites on rocks and islands, which are not surrounded by ice in summer and which are thus inaccessible to predators such as foxes. In three plant sanctuaries, for the protection of rare and endemic species, access is permitted, but picking or damaging plants is not.

Throughout our journey we will be observing and learning about this fragile arctic landscape. Our planet’s arctic and Antarctic regions can be harsh and desolate, but at the same time are extremely fragile and susceptible to damage. These regions of the globe are especially vulnerable to damage from the direct impact of visitors, those who would exploit natural resources, and from air and water pollution generated many thousands of miles away. We will see how human impact is affecting Svalbard’s tough yet delicate environment and we will learn about how these lands and northern waters are being managed to protect this high arctic wilderness. We will witness (and optionally help clean up) some beaches littered with trash that has floated in from as far away as Russia. Additionally we will learn about airborne pollutants arriving from as far away as the United States, which that are being imbedded into the ice and animals, thus entering the food chain.

And finally, the Arctic now faces an uncertain future due to climate change, mining, shipping, oil and gas development, and overfishing in key areas. In the last half-century, average temperatures in the region have increased 4 degrees Fahrenheit—four times the global average. The polar ice cap has shrunk nearly 40% since 2005. Permafrost has receded by nearly 10%. As ice cover decreases, seals and walruses move further offshore, beyond reach of Native communities relying on them for food. Polar bears struggle to survive, hunting on land as their sea ice habitat disappears. The Arctic Ocean’s entire underwater ecosystem is being disrupted as warmer water moves steadily north. Against the backdrop of climate change, is an ever-increasing demand for oil. Alaska’s Arctic has the nation’s largest oil fields, which are steadily expanding their footprint across the tundra and offshore.

We will be discussing these topics and more on our journey.



Kath Giel first joined the Sierra Club as a teenager, hiking and gorge scrambling in the Sierra Nevada with the Club. She has been leading Sierra Club trips for over twelve years. Kath takes great pleasure facilitating travel adventures for enthusiastic travelers to remote destinations including Antarctica, Madagascar, and Borneo. A passionate traveler and natural historian, Kath’s interest in the Arctic and Antarctic extremes brings a true passion to this trip. She is excited to show you the far north and share observations and comparisons with the far south.

Associate Leader:

Aurora Roberts is an avid hiker who enjoys hiking and exploring the outdoors. Aurora became an Outings leader after participating in National and International Outings. She is an environmental advocate who likes to promote learning through travel.

Why international travel? It raises the environmental awareness of those who visit foreign countries when they see and learn for themselves how other countries have been impacted by their good or poor environmental practices. We learn quickly how our country can benefit from this knowledge. It is a way to promote not only a good environment for our country but the global environment as well.

Aurora has also lead other international trips including Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Croatia, Jordan, Peru, and soon to Japan as well as National Outings in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and coastal California. She spends a lot of her time reading, walking her dog, and writing. Her attention to detail, patience, and flexibility will ensure that you have a wonderful experience.

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