Svalbard cruise on MS Polarfront ship

In late September 2019, I participated to a 10 days Svalbard cruise on board the French MS Polarfront ship. In the last days of September we were one of the last ships still cruising the Svalbard waters as the season was about to end. And although historically the extent of the sea ice reaches its yearly minimum around this time, I specifically wanted to come at those dates. This would be the first week after the long Midnight Sun season when the sky would get dark enough to be able to see the Northern Lights. Read on to find out if we were lucky for this!

Day 1 – Leaving Isfjorden

Any Svalbard cruise usually starts by embarking on the ship in the late afternoon at the harbour of Longyearbyen, and then navigate west along Isfjorden. So off we go and start sailing into the sunset. After the usual safety briefing by the ship’s crew, the passengers get acquainted with each other in the lounge. The sky is glowing pink and orange and I can even see it from inside the lounge. I can’t hold it any longer so I leave everyone to the introductions and grab my gear.

Orange sky on top of glacier on the first day of our Svalbard cruise
Beautiful sunset colours in Isfjorden just after our departure from Longyearbyen.

With such clear sky I already start hoping for some northern lights at night. A faint glow will be barely visible to the naked eye that night, which is no reason to wake up everybody.

Day 2 – Northwest Spitsbergen

We wake up on our second day in the north-west corner of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. It is a bit windy and snowing, contrasting a lot with the previous day. Despite the snow we take our first zodiac excursion this morning to visit a walrus haul-out on Amsterdamøya (Amsterdam Island).

Walrus in the water with zodiac and tourists in the background
A curious walrus comes to check us out in our zodiacs.
Walrus haul-out in Svalbard
Walrus haul-out on Amsterdamøya.
Group of Svalbard cruise tourists in the snow
Our group on Amsterdamøya.

After this first great wildlife encounter, we carry on to our next destination in Fuglefjorden. There is a very beautiful glacier at the end of the fjord, which we explore again in our zodiacs. We are even lucky to hear and see the glacier calving!

Blue glacier calving
Glacier calving in Fuglefjorden.

Day 3 – Hinlopen Strait

On our third day we wake up in the Hinlopen Strait that separates the two islands of Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet. I am the first up because as every morning I want to try to catch the sunrise. And what a gorgeous morning this is! There is quite a bit of ice drifting in the water, and I find the typical Arctic colours everywhere around us.

Bridge of the Polarfront ship in morning light
The bridge of the Polarfront in beautiful Arctic morning light.

We sail south in Hinlopen Strait, along the ice edge, trying to find some polar bears. Despite long hours spent with the binoculars, we don’t have any luck on this day. So we set course towards the Alkefjellet cliff. This cliff is well known in spring and summer for its tens of thousands of sea birds breeding. All the birds have gone at the end of September, but it remains quite an impressive sight especially while navigating so close to it.

Alkefjellet cliff and moon
The Alkefjellet cliff in late season. All the breeding birds are now gone.

We leave the cliff and continue to search for the sea ice. In the evening our Captain decides to “park” the ship on a big ice floe for the night. The landscape turns to a large pastel canvas after sunset. This is what I live for when I travel to the Arctic!

French flag, moon and sea ice in pastel colours
The French flag of the Polarfront ship stands proudly above the sea ice of Svalbard.

With such a clear sky, you can image that I got excited again about the northern lights. I stayed up at night to watch the sky, until it turned so cloudy that it became pointless.

Day 4 – Nordaustlandet and our first Polar Bear

I wake up quite early again to catch the sunrise. The ship is already moving and they tell me at the bridge that we are moving further south towards more ice. First we will stop at Torellneset, a small cape on Nordaustlandet island, to visit another walrus colony.

A walrus swimming in the grease ice
A walrus swimming in the grease ice comes to check me out.
Walrus haul-out near the sea
Walrus haul-out at Torellneset
Group of Arctic cruise in Svalbard hiking
Our group hiking in an Arctic desert.

After this beautiful morning and very close encounters with walrus, we board the Polarfront again and set course in the direction of the Bråsvellbreen glacier. The Bråsvellbreen glacier comes down from the large Austfonna ice cap and displays characteristic high walls of ice going straight down into the sea.

Bråsvellbreen ice wall glacier
The ice walls of the Bråsvellbreen glacier on Nordaustlandet island.
black-legged kittiwakes resting on the glacier face
Black-legged Kittiwakes resting on the face of the glacier.
glacier carrying dirt
Glaciers can carry dirt when they progress.

This day of our Svalbard cruise is not over. We are now really near the ice edge so this is our next direction. Minutes after we reach the edge of the pack ice, Pierre, the First Officer, spots a big male polar bear! Pierre is not even using binoculars, contrary to most of us, but he is the first one to spot the bear. This is what I call huge experience and quite a benefit travelling on a ship with such a crew.

We first observe the bear from the Polarfront’s deck while the crew speedily puts the zodiacs down in the water. The bear could not care less about our presence and we silently observed him for a while.

Polar bear yawning
Polar bear yawning.
Polar bear at the edge of the pack ice
Polar bear at the edge of the pack ice.
Polar bear at the edge of the pack ice checking out his reflection in the water
Polar bear checking out his reflection.

After this exceptional polar bear observation, everyone is so impressed and this calls for celebration and a nice glass of wine with dinner. With these beautiful images in mind, I go to bed, looking forward for our next destinations: the Seven Islands.

Day 5 – Seven Islands (Sjuøyane)

I am again the first one awake and on the deck at first light. The sun does not want to grace us with its presence this morning, but I enjoy very much our approach of the Seven Islands (Sjuøyane in Norwegian). This is a small archipelago and the northernmost islands of Svalbard. We are here above 80°N! There is absolutely no wind and the Arctic Ocean is so calm that it looks like a mirror.

Phippsøya on a calm morning reflecting in the water
Approaching Phippsøya, the largest of the Seven Islands.

We notice a walrus haul-out on the beach when we get close enough to the island. This is our third walrus haul-out on this trip! After checking that no polar bear is wandering on the island, we get in the zodiacs again for a landing and a short hike. We are there almost as far as it can be from the closest civilisation, and yet the beach of the island is covered in trash, mostly coming from the fishing industry. The fishing nets are so heavy that it is impossible for us to do anything about them. Our Captain will inform the Svalbard Governor of their presence, and hopefully a team can pick them up.

The calm bay in front of the Phippsøya island is the perfect place to get the paddle-boats in the water. The Polarfront’s guests can enjoy some extraordinary views while paddling, including a walrus on an ice floe!

The guests of the Svalbard cruise on Polarfront paddling behind a sleeping walrus
The guests of Polarfront paddling behind a sleeping walrus.

This is also the perfect place for a polar plunge in the frigid water of the Arctic Ocean! Only two volunteers jump in the water, including yours truly. The hot tub on the rear deck of the Polarfront feels so good after coming out of the Ocean!

Day 6 – Woodfjorden and more polar bears

Guess who’s up early again on the next morning! The ship drops anchor in a small bay near the entrance of Woodfjorden on the large island of Spitsbergen. The intention is to go for another hike to an old cabin there. While the guests are having breakfast, the crew spots a family of polar bears on the beach. The hike is naturally cancelled but we go into the zodiacs anyway to get a closer look.

And so we are facing a large and healthy female polar bear with her two 1.5 year old cubs. They are all mostly sleeping and from the traces of dried blood on their fur, we assume that they have had a recent big meal.

Mother polar bear with her two sleeping cubs.
Mother polar bear with her two sleeping cubs.
Female polar bear lying in the snow
Mom went back to sleep.
Polar bear cub sleeping in the snow
And so did the children.
Such a beautiful bear observation calls for a celebration lunch, right?

After lunch we set course deeper into the fjord, until we reach the Monaco glacier. This glacier is named after the first Prince Albert of Monaco. He financed several expeditions to Svalbard and as a result, several places carry his names or are related to Monaco. The low cloud cover prevents the sun from shining, but it gives a more intense hue of blue to the ice of the glacier.

The Monaco glacier (Monacobreen) on Spitsbergen island, Svalbard.
The Monaco glacier (Monacobreen) on Spitsbergen island, Svalbard.

Day 7 – Krossfjorden and finally some northern lights

The wind is quite strong on this 7th day of our Svalbard cruise, making it quite difficult to do any landing on the west coast of Spitsbergen. Our Captain decides to navigate further “inland” into Krossfjorden that we eventually reach in the afternoon.

There the sun is shining and I start to get excited about the night to come! But first, a late afternoon zodiac excursion, and we see one of the mammals that was still missing from our observations: the Svalbard reindeer!

Svalbard reindeer with big antlers on the tundra.
Svalbard reindeer with big antlers on the tundra.

Even if we already get dark nights, this is still just the first week since it happens so those nights remain quite short. Only after 1 AM does the sky become dark enough to hope seeing any northern lights. While everybody goes to bed, I decide to stay up and not give up as long as stars are visible. This has been a very long week so far, with not much sleep, so at midnight I start falling asleep on one of the couches in the ship’s library.

I give the instruction to the bridge to wake me up should anything happen in the sky, and go take a last look before sleep. Some glow above the southern horizon catches my attention so I decide to stay up a bit longer. The glow quickly develops to the very distinctive shape of the northern lights. Now I have to decide if I take the responsibility to wake up all the guests. If I do and the show doesn’t grow bigger, I won’t keep many friends for the rest of the trip!

The glow grows bigger and higher in the sky and it is evident from my experience that it will be something big. I rush to the officers on the bridge and tell them to wake up everybody while I go back on the rear deck to take pictures.

Powerful northern lights during our Svalbard cruise
Soon after I decided that everyone should wake up, this happened.
Northern lights above the Polarfront ship
This was a proper Aurora storm! What a show!
Northern lights dancing above the Svalbard mountains.
Northern lights dancing above the Svalbard mountains.

I can’t believe what I see. Despite being so far north and actually outside of the “Aurora zone”, we are witnessing a very powerful display of the northern lights. This is a first for all of the guests on this trip! I can’t hide how proud of myself I am for waiting and deciding to wake up everyone. What a show!

Day 8 – Krossfjorden and Ny-Ålesund

We wake up to a gorgeous morning light with the golden sun shining sideways on the beautiful Lilliehöökbreen glacier that we visit on the zodiacs again.

Lilliehöökbreen glacier in golden hour
It is nice to see the sun after a long Svalbard cruise with mostly low cloud cover.

After this excursion, it is time to sail out of this fjord and towards Ny-Ålesund. With low visibility and being completely sleep deprived, I decide to skip the afternoon excursion and keep some energy for the night at the scientific town’s bar.

A very good friend of mine is the station leader for the AWIPEV German-French research station. What a great opportunity to catch up around a couple of beers! After the bar closes, we naturally look up as a reflex and surprise: some more northern lights are visible!

Northern lights visible from Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard
Beautiful northern lights and Milky Way from the old pontoon of Ny-Ålesund together with my buddy!

Day 9 – Ny-Ålesund and Kongsfjorden

It pays to know people all over the world, as my friend invites us to attend to the weather balloon release in the morning before giving us a very interesting presentation of the important research on climate and ice that is being carried out in AWIPEV.

Weather balloon release in Ny-Ålesund
I’m releasing the weather balloon! Thank you to whoever picked up my camera to take this!

It is time to say goodbye, not before buying a few souvenirs and sending a postcard from the northernmost post-office in the world. We embark again in Polarfront and set course further into Kongsfjorden for another hike.

We are blessed again by the weather and we see the last land mammal that was missing from our list: the polar fox!

Polar fox in the golden hour
Beautiful polar fox in winter coat.

We climb up a gentle hill from where the view is extraordinary. Our guides ask us to stop talking or taking photos for a while to enjoy the polar silence. What a great idea!

View of Kongsfjorden in late afternoon light.
Sophie Galvagnon, CEO of Latitude Blanche, the company operating the Polarfront.

After this hike we go back to the Polarfont and it is time to navigate back to Isfjorden for the end of our Svalbard cruise.

Day 10 – Pyramiden and end of our Svalbard cruise

It is quite windy on this last day, preventing any attempt of using the zodiacs for a landing. The plan becomes to navigate as deep into Isfjorden where the crew hopes that the wind will become weaker. We eventually reach the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden.

Our local guide is waiting for us on the old pontoon and takes us into town, where he explains about the history and life as it was there until the town was abandoned in 1998.

Statue of Lenin overlooking the main square of abandoned Russian town Pyramiden
I took the inevitable picture of the Lenine statue overlooking the main square of Pyramiden.

After the visit we walk on our own back to the ship. While departing from the pontoon, the last light of the day casts a beautiful blue and pink hue on the glacier behind Pyramiden.

Earth shadow and Belt of Venus above the glacier near Pyramiden
Earth shadow and Belt of Venus above the glacier near Pyramiden. This is the last photo that I took during this exceptional Svalbard cruise.

Thank you for this exceptional Svalbard cruise

I want to extend a huge thank you to Sophie Galvagnon, the CEO of Latitude Blanche and owner of the Polarfront for giving me the opportunity to travel on board for this last Svalbard cruise of the season. As a disclaimer, I would like to write that I was not paid to report on this trip, and everything that you can read here is my honest opinion on how I experienced the trip.

Next trip to Svalbard

I will travel again on the Polarfront in September 2021 around the same dates, so expecting a similar experience!

More pictures of this Svalbard cruise

I have uploaded not less than 250 pictures from our Svalbard cruise. They are now all available for licensing and fine-art prints!

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