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  • Writer's pictureJulie Prusak

What to Expect on a Silversea Arctic Expedition Cruise

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

The Arctic is often called the last great frontier. It is home to a wide range of extraordinary animals and plants adapted to the harsh conditions at the top of the world. I do not consider myself well-adapted to harsh environments, so for me to experience the Arctic required a stateroom on a luxury cruise line, complete with a butler!

Accompanied by an industry-leading Expedition Team along with 190 other travelers, we ventured to the remote reaches of the high Norwegian Arctic, small villages of Greenland, and the icy waters of Iceland on a two-week itinerary onboard the Silver Cloud. The Silver Cloud officers, staff, and crew represented over 37 nations worldwide and had decades of expedition experience.

Here is what to expect on a Silversea Arctic expedition:

The season is short

The Arctic summer is short, from mid-June to mid-August, with average temperatures of 40-50 degrees F. Much of the Arctic is frozen for large parts of the year, with the frozen sea ice too thick for ships to navigate. To cruise the Arctic, expect to travel in the summer months.

There is no set itinerary

You could explore the Arctic in parts of Alaska, Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Russia, Sweden, and Norway. Silversea’s Arctic Expedition season operates around the islands of Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard is the largest wilderness area in Europe, with a history of whaling, fur trapping, and mining. No roads connect the communities in Svalbard, and residents travel by snowmobile. We arrived on a Silversea chartered flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital.

Svalbard, with its extreme living conditions and no indigenous population, serves as a base for polar expeditions. Where you explore on each expedition is up to the captain and the conditions. On the first night onboard, the Expedition Leader will share an outline of the planned itinerary. However, you will only learn the next day’s destination and excursions at the daily briefing held each evening.

The days are very structured

An Expedition Leader, supported by an Expedition Team, hosts the cruise. The team includes scientists (marine biologists, ornithologists, botanists, historians, naturalists) along with “polar bear guards” and at least one professional wildlife photographer. They run talks, provide debriefings on things seen each day, drive the zodiacs, and answer countless questions.

Guests are divided into six zodiac groups - make sure you are with your loved ones, as you will participate in shore excursions and zodiac cruising with your group each day of your cruise. AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) operates a quasi-booking system to limit the number of people visiting each area of the Arctic daily. AECO also controls maximum group sizes and minimum viewing distances from wildlife.

Although the places visited are subject to constant adjustment, the schedule of each day is structured. The days are busy, with little downtime. You should expect the following:

  • At 7 am, an announcement is made with departure details for the first set of zodiac excursions. You will hear this in your stateroom!

  • Most days, two excursions lasting around 1.5 hours each are offered. Based on the destination, you will either be cruising in zodiacs or hiking in small groups onshore. Every landing is a “wet landing.” Zodiac groups are called in order, and each day the order is rotated, so those who go first one day go second the next.

  • Lunch is between noon and 2 pm served as a buffet. A different menu is available at the Deck Grill.

  • Before dinner, the daily debrief session is conducted. It lasts about an hour, and cocktails are served. Consider it an educational happy hour. It is important to attend these or to watch them live on your in-suite television. The Expedition Team will provide more insight and highlights on any wildlife encountered that day and explain the plans for the next day.

  • Dinner is served between 7 pm to 9 pm. Although the bar is open afterward with a pianist, there is no other entertainment. Most guests retire early to be ready for the early morning start.

All wildlife sightings are a privilege

Polar bears are hard to find. But with their keen sense of smell, they can easily find you. Approximately 3,000 polar bears live in Svalbard, roaming over 68,000 square kilometers of land and sea. The human population of Svalbard is 2,926. If you do encounter a bear onshore, evacuate immediately because bears move three to four times faster than humans.

While on the cruise, you will meet the Polar Bear Safety Team. This dedicated bear monitor team scouts for polar bears throughout the expedition. They are trained and armed to keep guests safe when polar bears are encountered.

We saw a polar bear on the first day of our cruise! The captain maneuvered our ship close to a bear walking along the shore. We watched and photographed him run and swim from the ship's bow. Another day, we saw a polar bear sleeping on the ice while on a zodiac cruise. The thrill of these wildlife encounters, although from a safe distance, is indescribable!

The wildlife is abundant, but the Arctic is vast. The Silversea team will work hard to find polar bears, seals, arctic foxes, and whales. There is a good chance you will see walruses and reindeer, as their movements and location seem to be more predictable.

The Arctic is a birdwatcher’s paradise. With over 3 million birds flocking to the Svalbard archipelago every summer, National Geographic described Svalbard as “one of the world’s great wild places to see birds.”

With over 150 species of birds in the Arctic, I guarantee you will see a variety of birds, including Guillemots, Little Auk, Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, and the adorable Atlantic Puffins. Also guaranteed is diverse Arctic plant life, as there are 173 types of flowers, 59 types of grass, and 373 moss variants.

You will spend more time at sea than onshore

You will spend more time on the ship and the zodiacs than onshore. Plan accordingly and pace yourself at meals. The Silver Cloud boasts four restaurants and 24-hour in-suite dining service. Champagne and caviar are just a phone call to your butler away. Tea Time is served each afternoon accompanied by a pianist. Tea Time is a popular time for whale sightings. Six bars are open on various schedules, and your suite refrigerator can be stocked to your tastes.

Guest facilities include a fitness center, sauna and steam room, spa and beauty salon, boutiques, laundry facilities, photo studio, two libraries, and a medical center. The ship is well-equipped to meet the needs of most guests.

Be prepared to take a break from wifi

For much of the cruise, you will have slow Internet and a weak mobile phone signal as the ship travels too far north to get good satellite access.

Bring your own entertainment

There are no evening shows or much entertainment. The in-suite television has movies on demand and limited TV stations. Pack reading materials to supplement the two libraries, load up your iPad or Kindle or play a board game.

Better yet, travel with a group of friends or family members.

Preparation prevents problems

You need to be equipped and ready for the Arctic.

To make getting preparation easier, Silversea partners with to offer packages of clothing appropriate for the cruise that will be delivered directly to the ship. Be aware of the order deadlines for your cruise date. Make sure that your gear arrives at the ship before you do!

I recommend buying the pre-set Destination Package for the Arctic, which includes almost everything you need and make sure to either order or pack rubber boots. You can also borrow boots on the ship, but sizes may be limited. Silversea gifts each guest a complimentary parka, which you pre-order via the same site, a backpack, and a beverage bottle. These items will be in your suite when you arrive. For more details about what to pack, consult the packing list provided by Silversea.

The dress code on the ship is smart casual – slacks, sweaters, and comfortable shoes. Pack a pair of Ugg slippers to wear down to the mud room…you’ll leave your rubber boots in the mud room after each excursion.

Pack to keep your luggage weight under the limits of the charter flight. Even if you fly business class from home or pay for excess luggage, once you arrive in Oslo, your luggage will be limited based on the rules of the charter flight. No exceptions.

There is a doctor on the ship to deal with emergencies and injuries. Since there are no onshore medical facilities or pharmacies available during the cruise, pack plenty of any prescriptions, first aid treatments, and cosmetics you use, as the ship is unlikely to have them if you run out. Read more about my medical travel kit recommendations.

Make friends with fellow cruisers

You will spend a lot of time with your fellow cruisers, so be friendly. Be sociable and expect to share tables at meals. There are some tables for two, but the staff prefers guests to share tables and meet others. You are sharing the experience of a lifetime and joining the small club of polar explorers together!

So who is a “typical guest”? On our cruise, the guests were a mix of nationalities and ages. There were several families like ours with college-age kids, some with younger children, but mostly retired couples. As the trip is active, getting on and off zodiacs, guests should be relatively fit and mobile. For the more adventurous, options of more strenuous hikes and sea kayaking are offered when conditions permit. An expedition cruise is accessible to most people, except the very young (under six years old) or those with significant health or mobility issues.

The Arctic is remote and sparsely populated. You will visit areas with no human settlements or facilities on most days of your cruise. In two weeks, we saw one other vessel, a Norwegian sailing ship, and never met the sailors. In Greenland, a few shopkeepers were happy to receive customers, but otherwise, the locals avoided the visitors. Best to bring your own friends and family or prepare to mix and mingle with other cruisers.

Leave the wildlife photography to the professionals

On the Silver Cloud, the casino was replaced with a photo studio staffed by professional photographers and videographers who offer training in digital photography and editing (iPhone to Nikon…LR and Photoshop). Guests can also book private zodiac sessions for a photography lesson in the field.

While every expedition has some guests who are serious photographers with long lenses and tripods, most people are happy to capture their experience on an iPhone. On each expedition, the photography team creates a video so guests can take home a recap of their voyage on a flash drive…my favorite souvenir!

Book expedition cruises early

Because the season is short, Arctic cruises book early. Plan your expedition one to two years ahead for the best selection of dates and staterooms.

Go Soon

The temperatures in the Arctic have increased by 10 degrees Celsius in just a few years. The sea ice is thinner and is melting faster than ever, impacting polar bears, seals, and humans. According to one scientist on our expedition, in 15 years, no ice will exist in the Arctic. While I hope that climate circumstances will improve, I advise making plans soon if an Arctic expedition is on your travel bucket list.

Schedule a complimentary travel consultation here.

Contact us today to learn more about planning your trip.

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