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Arctic Cruises Compared: Around Spitsbergen vs. North Spitsbergen

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Around Spitsbergen or North Spitsbergen – which cruise is for you? The most distinguishing feature of these cruises is the areas they visit.

Around Spitsbergen or North Spitsbergen – which cruise is for you?

Svalbard, in particular Spitsbergen, was Oceanwide’s first polar expedition cruise destination. So it’s perhaps only natural that we offer so many different trip programs in that area. Among the most unique, however, are our Around Spitsbergen and North Spitsbergen cruises.

Photo by Andrew Peacock.

As their trip titles suggest, the most distinguishing feature of these cruises is the areas they visit. Our Around Spitsbergen cruise makes a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, enabling us to visit a wide range of landing sites. Our North Spitsbergen cruise, alternatively, focuses chiefly on the northernmost shores of the island, one of the best places in the Arctic for viewing polar bears.

Photo by Andrew Peacock.

But even within each program, there are many variations. Some of the trips emphasize birding or bears, others take place during the Arctic spring or summer, and still others employ our sailing ship, Rembrandt van Rijn, as opposed to our larger motor vessels. This makes a direct comparison virtually impossible, and it certainly doesn’t make choosing between the two any easier.

Photo by Peter Tadin.

To keep it as simple as possible, then, in this article we’re going to stick to comparing the main difference between these programs: the areas they visit, which can impact everything from the activities you can partake in to the wildlife you’re likely to see.

Photo by Marcel Paul.

Around Spitsbergen

Most of our Around Spitsbergen cruises, like most of our North Spitsbergen cruises, focus on polar bears and pack ice – two of the things Svalbard is best at.

Photo by Markus Eichenberger.

Around Spitsbergen trips give you more variety of landscape, ranging from tundra to moonscape-like landings and peaks. Locations we visit can include the 5-km-long (3.1 miles) face of Monaco Glacier, which we often sail along; the Seven Islands and Nordaustlandet, where you might see polar bears and get just 870 km (540 miles) from the geographic North Pole; and the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, where thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots nest alongside other species.

Photo by Geert Kroes.

We also aim to visit select areas of Barentsøya, though some of the landing sites here (such as Freemansundet) are not always possible for landings due to polar bears. One of the spots in this area, Sundneset, is actually a favorite among some of our staff, offering spectacular tundra scenery and hiking options to great viewpoints. There is also excellent bird life in this location, and we can sometimes see an old trapper’s hut.

Photo by Gérard Bodineau.

Along the Hornsund area of southern Spitsbergen, the Around Spitsbergen trip offers views of spire-like peaks. The mountain of Hornsundtind in particular rises to 1,431 meters (4,695 feet), and Bautaen is a perfect illustration of why early Dutch explorers chose for this island the name of Spitsbergen, meaning “pointed mountains.” There are 14 large glaciers in this area as well as the chance for spotting seals, beluga whales, and polar bears.

Photo by Johanna van der Span.

Finally, Bell Sund is another prized spot in our Around Spitsbergen itinerary, being one of the largest fjord systems in Svalbard. One possible landing site here is Ahlstrandhalvøya, at the mouth of Van Keulenfjorden, where we can see piles of beluga skeletons. Fortunately, belugas were not hunted into extinction, and there’s a small chance you might come across a pod.

Photo by Ali Liddle.

Sometimes ice prevents full circumnavigations early in the season, which is a major factor in differences between our various Around Spitsbergen cruises. But as you can see from the route map and locations above, this trip gives you an incredible survey of a fantastic Arctic island.

North Spitsbergen

Wildlife tends to be more concentrated in northwest Svalbard, which is where our North Spitsbergen voyages are most focused. Though we cannot promise any particular wildlife sightings, your odds for spotting polar bears and a few other species may be slightly better in this area.

A popular location in this program is Raudfjorden, on the north coast of Spitsbergen, where you can view an expansive fjord and its many glaciers. You might even see ringed and bearded seals. The cliffs and shoreline of this fjord also support thriving seabird colonies, rich vegetation, and the possibility of polar bears.

Photo by Sara Jenner.

Sometimes we also sail into Fuglefjorden for views of Svitjodbreen and Birgerbukta, both breeding spots for great skuas as well as polar bear hangouts. On Birgerbukta you can see 17th-century Basque ovens once used for cooking whale blubber. We might likewise visit Ytre Norskøya, a small island that served for many years as a Dutch whaling lookout.

Photo by Oliver Vogler.

On northern side of Reindyrsflya, we see the largest tundra area of Spitsbergen. And in Fuglesangen, we can view communities of little auks. Magdalenafjorden is another possibility on this cruise and is one of the glacier-filled highlights of Spitsbergen. If we can make a shore visit, you’ll see the remains of 17th-century English whaling here as well as large colonies of little auks.

Photo by Fridrik Pall Fridriksson.

Two other places of historic interest that are possible on our North Spitsbergen cruise are Ny London and Ny Ålesund, two of the northernmost settlements in the world. And at Fuglehuken, there are massive seabird colonies and a haul-out site for harbor seals.

Shared locations for both Svalbard cruises

Naturally, there are many overlapping sites in our Around Spitsbergen and North Spitsbergen voyages. One of these is Liefdefjorden and Monaco Glacier, a feeding spot for thousands of kittiwakes as well as a polar bear hunting ground.

Both voyages also tend to see Hinlopen Strait, which is home to bearded seals, ringed seals, and polar bears – and at the entrance, there’s even the possibility of blue whales.

The last few shared locations are the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, the Seven Islands, and Nordaustlandet, where reindeer, pink-footed geese, and walruses are likely sights. Both cruises may take you close to the 80th parallel north, close to our northernmost sailing point at the 82nd parallel.

Photo by Olga Lartseva.

Which Svalbard trip should you book?

As you’ve no doubt guessed, our answer will have to be painfully obvious: the cruise you should book is the one whose areas, activities, and wildlife most appeal to you.

We wish we could be more definitive, but the fact is that both of these cruises are far too varied to be viably compared, to say nothing of the enormous impact ice, weather, and wildlife can have. Even cruises with identical itineraries can be radically different given these variables.

What we can suggest, however, is that you base your Svalbard cruise decision on whether you want a wider survey of locations or a deeper dive into a smaller area.

But whichever trip you select, don’t worry. You are sure to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience regardless. Both cruises give you the chance to see wildlife you can only encounter in a few other places on the planet, not to mention all the jaw-dropping landscapes and ice formations you can enjoy on foot, in a kayak, on skis, or even under the waves.

Header photo by Andrew Peacock.

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