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Travel Guide: Choosing Eco-Conscious Arctic Expedition Cruises

A Note On Arctic Tourism And Carbon Footprints

I think it’s important to add a note before we delve into specifics operators and travel companies etc. that no tourism is 100% eco-friendly, certainly, no tourism to the Arctic is.
My travel choices were based on the information currently available and what I decided would be the best way to visit the Arctic with the smallest footprint possible. In future, this may change and I will update accordingly.
Flying is not good for the environment. It’s responsible for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions each year and the demand for air travel is climbing at a rapid rate and is set to double in the next 20 years. However, it also connects isolated communities, like Longyearbyen in Svalbard and Ittoqoortoormiit in Greenland, with the outside world. Air travel creates job opportunities and supports conservation via tourism that wouldn’t happen without it. Flying leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than the coal mining industry did in Svalbard. The increase in tourism to Svalbard may result in future visitor numbers being capped each year, which I see as a viable option.
Currently, the alternatives of flying to Svalbard cause more emissions and waste than flying does. Ways of reducing your travelling carbon footprint are by booking economy, because the seats take up less space and weight and the lack of in-flight extras also reduces flight weight, as does keeping your luggage to a minimum. Also flying in summer causes a lot fewer emissions than in winter due to the heat produced by contrails in cold temperatures and high humidity.

Blue Whale At Sunset

Picking An Eco-Friendly Expedition Cruise To Svalbard

Many sailing tours include an airport transfer so if you’re not staying in Longyearbyen before or after you can be taken directly to and from the airport, or transferred into town to your hotel in the other direction. Both are only a few minutes away from the port and a taxi will cost approx. £/€15 (you can’t walk to the airport because it’s outside of the polar bear safety zone).

If you’re booking an expedition cruise be aware that ‘cruise’ is a very loose term for what are essentially refitted icebreakers! Best to keep in mind ‘expedition’ and you won’t be disappointed by the lack of on-board spa facilities. Although happy hour does indeed exist.

When researching eco-conscious expedition companies, this is what I recommend looking out for:

  • Ships Fitted With Biodiesel Engines

These are almost silent so wildlife is far less disturbed by your presence in their habitat. This made the biggest difference to my wildlife viewing experience in every instance and meant we got to stand on the deck of m/v Plancius watching a blue whale fluking in the sunset right next to the boat because she wasn’t concerned by the ship’s sounds or presence.
Many boats are now using biodiesel, which dramatically cuts the pollution levels; Sailors for the Sea’s Green Boating Guide estimates this to be roughly 5 pounds of CO2 emitted per gallon for biodiesel compared with around 20 pounds for marine diesel and Jet-A.

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions M/V Plancius

M/V Plancius, Oceanwide Expeditions

  • AECO Membership

AECO is the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, which regulates and monitors sailing in and around Svalbard. This includes wildlife viewing, Zodiac cruising, Search & Rescue and ashore trips while on board an expedition cruise. Amazingly it is not mandatory for sailing companies to be a member of AECO (and it should be because their guidelines are fantastic and helping protect the environment from tourism in so many ways). They’re a third party association so each cruise operator has to sign up and pay membership to be monitored by them. I met Ida Winther from AECO at work on the North Spitsbergen I took, and she was actively monitoring whether the company and crew were following protocol correctly. She takes protecting the Arctic very seriously and it was wonderful to witness their work in action.
For me, these extra measures are making the difference between polar bears being shot during ashore trips from cruise ships and kept alive. I asked Ida a lot of questions about this while on board and unexpectedly got to see Oceanwide’s own protocol in action when a polar bear suddenly appeared on shore during a safety inspection by the expedition crew of a walrus site. The fast actions of everyone involved ensured that the crew were safely removed from shore and the bear left alone and no further ashore trips made there at all.

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions

Zodiac Cruising

AECO operate the Clean Up Svalbard event too, which is when the community sails out to collect washed-up waste and plastics from the shores of Svalbard.
I unexpectedly got to see Search & Rescue in action too. Since there are so many cruise ships far from land a rescue helicopter must be deployed to remove someone from a ship should they fall seriously ill. The Svalbard Search & Rescue happened to be doing practise tests in the area while we were sailing back to Longyearbyen and asked if they could do a safety drill with the ship. This was pretty reassuring to see in action (it was successful!) and not something I’d given much thought to before.
If you’re going to Antarctica, the equivalent company for monitoring these things is IAATO, the International Association For Antarctic tour operators. Every tour operator associated with these companies will have their badges clearly visible on their websites and paperwork. I found the AECO website really informative to my research so I recommend checking it out too.

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions

Search + Rescue Drill

  • LT&C Linking Tourism & Conservation

LT&C are a useful resource for discovering which international companies and projects are actively investing in and developing conservation through tourism. I met founder, Peter Prokosch on board, the former director of WWF’s Arctic programme who was instrumental in the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act 2001, which turned Svalbard into the natural reserve it is today. You can read the findings of his study trip here.

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions

Walrus Viewing

  • Ashore Walks

The company I travelled with do lots of ashore trips and I was a little sceptical as to how beneficial that is before boarding. However, being on a boat with 100 people, 24 hours a day, quickly changed my mind and I was quite excited to get off and go for a walk!
Ashore walks have to be well organised and involve the expedition crew going ashore first to thoroughly check the environment. Each ashore trip was in a location that polar bears are not known to use or frequent and the sole purpose was to walk around the incredible tundra and mossy landscapes and discover more of Svalbard’s vibrant ecosystem.
The terrain is lush and slippery so look out for companies that provide Arctic boots to use on each trip – they really make a big difference and take up a lot of room in your luggage otherwise.
Lots of attention was paid to washing our boots before and after leaving the boat so as not to contaminate the local environment. With the biodiesel engine of Plancius we could go much further into the fjords without trailing chemicals everywhere so we didn’t meet any other ships wherever we went.

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions

Ashore Walks

 svalbard reindeer ashore walk oceanwide

Svalbard Reindeer

  • Expedition Guides

All of the expedition guides on my tour were specialists in fields relating to the Arctic, whether an oceanographer or a husky rearing Longyearbyen resident with tons of local knowledge. There were lectures every day on board which were always optional. With so many new sights and experiences, it was helpful to have experts on hand to answer all of the questions I suddenly had about everything!

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions

Oceanwide Expedition Guide, Johanne

  • Polar Bear Promises, Or Lack Of

What eventually made my decision was the language used to describe polar bear encounters by each company.
In my previous post, Visiting The Arctic, Svalbard And How To See Polar Bears, I covered why I think the best option is to head to the pack ice if you want to see healthy polar bears. It was important to me to go with a company that isn’t competing to get a ‘We saw 50 polar bears in one day!’ review and actively pursuing ashore walks in known polar bear territories or pressing ships through tons of thick sea ice, destroying polar bear habitat at a crucial time. Oceanwide Expeditions told me quite clearly that they visit many places where polar bear are known to be but under no uncertain terms would we be causing them stress by going ashore with them at any time, and that if we found them at the pack ice the captain would steer the ship through the closest weak ice towards the bear but that we would not pursue it nor destroy its habitat or any thick ice in order to be closer to it, and that polar bear sightings were in no way guaranteed.
I can now say wholeheartedly that the moment I saw a polar bear I realised instantly just how tough an existence they have and how little I wanted to disturb them or cause one undue anxiety.
I got to see this sentiment echoed by the crew on Plancius when I was up in the Bridge and a mother and cub were spotted.  Captain Alexey immediately plotted a course so as not to disturb or destruct the bears’ habitat and I was really impressed by the concern and effort the Captain and crew put in to make the experience as silent and non-intrusive for the bears as possible. Again the quiet engine on Plancius meant the mother and cub were comfortable looking up at the ship and we spent 40 minutes with them before they left and we did not pursue them.

The cruise I did in Svalbard was the 8 day North Spitsbergen, Polar Bear & Pack Ice Special on Plancius from August running into September 2018.

Standing Tall Polar Bear

Ursus Maritimus

Pictures taken on the 'North Spitsbergen' cruise by Oceanwide Expeditions

On The Bridge

pack ice polar bears mother cub svalbard

Polar Bears On Pack Ice

Short or Day Trip Cruises in Svalbard

Just because you can’t afford to do a cruise while in Svalbard does not mean that you can’t see polar bears but I would strongly advise that if you are coming to Svalbard ONLY to see polar bears that you should save the carbon footprint and wait until you can sail out to where they really live – on pack ice.
However, if you’re there to enjoy Longyearbyen’s other activities, including dog-sledging, mining tours, hiking, kayaking, snowmobile safaris, art galleries and even a beer brewery, then you might want to find a boat trip heading to other parts of the island. You’ll sail past lots of coastlines where any polar bears are likely to be and can see them without disturbing them.

Visit Svalbard have a fantastic and easy to use website for tours, accommodation and activities in Longyearbyen and I found it really helpful during my research. Their Instagram account is inspiring and I did a takeover while I was there sharing my experiences in Svalbard. After using the website to find a day boat trip to the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden (so much fun and so completely bonkers that I might have to dedicate an entire post to it!), I visited the homepages of each company operating that tour to understand what their environmental policies are before selecting one.

I chose Arctic Explorer because of their high-speed boat, Aurora Explorer, which transports researchers to and from Barentsburg to Longyearbyen each day. Knowing that the boat is operating regardless of tourism was a big factor for me in choosing them. The high-speed journey also meant we could visit a few glaciers and watch the coastline en route. Newer boats like the Aurora Explorer offer more efficient fuel consumption, however, it does not have a biodiesel engine and I couldn’t find a day trip that did.

glacier svalbard landscape arctic explorer visit svalbard

Svalbard Landscapes


Companies that promote and/or provide Sustainable Travel in Svalbard:

Oceanwide Expeditions

Responsible Travel (UK based)

Albatros (Scandinavia based)

Visionary Wild (US based)

Visit Svalbard

Arctic Explorer



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