There are few places left in the world that you can truly call pristine, but that’s just what our Polar Regions offer. They are surprisingly havens for wildlife, and a range of small group tours journey to remote destinations like Greenland and Spitsbergen in the north as well as Antarctica in the south.
Whether you’ve always wanted to witness a vivid aurora or be bathed in 24 hours of sunshine, the world’s Polar Regions offer adventures unlike any other. From walruses and polar bears in the north to elephant seals and penguins in the south, our Polar Regions abound with rare and endangered wildlife.
In addition to witnessing almost unimaginable landscapes and wildlife, there are many epic activities on offer including dog sledding, hiking on ice sheets, mountain biking in Greenland, and kayaking or taking a polar plunge in the icy waters off Antarctica.
So grab your parka because Quark Expeditions, the leader in polar adventures, is ready to help you choose from some of the top Polar Region bucket list adventures.
The Ultimate Polar Region Bucket List
Float Over the North Pole in a Hot Air Balloon
Attempting to fly over the North Pole in a hot air balloon during the 19th century may have been quite risky, but today’s travelers can safely and easily do so and witness the expansive Arctic landscape from a truly unique perspective.
During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration of the late 19th century, three Swedish explorers attempted to fly in a hydrogen balloon over the North Pole but crashed just a few days after taking off from Svalbard. They initially survived the crash but succumbed to the harsh elements due to being ill-equipped with proper gear.
Unlike the early Arctic balloon expeditions, you can now enjoy a 360-degeree view over the top of the world via a safely tethered hot-air balloon basket some 30 meters above the ground, something very few travelers can say they have experienced.
Alternatively, helicopter journeys from Spitsbergen can also be arranged over the Arctic where you can even choose to skydive over the North Pole if you’re truly daring.
Image credit: Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Visit the “Wildlife Capital of the Arctic”
Spitsbergen is one of the best places in the Arctic to observe wildlife including many species which are threatened or endangered. While seeing polar bears is the highlight for most travelers, there are a number of other incredible animals that call this region home.
Spitsbergen is the only permanently human inhabited island within Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, which is surrounded by icy seas like the Arctic Ocean and Greenland Sea. The seas are home to several different whale species including giant blue whales, humpback whales, and ghostly-white belugas, most species commonly being seen during the months of July and August.
Along the coastal areas, large numbers of seabirds congregate during the summer including skuas, auks, guillemots, fulmars, and the occasional colorful puffin. When it comes to land mammals, roughly 3,000 polar bears call the Svalbard archipelago home, while the adorable Arctic fox withstands the freezing temperatures all year long.
You then have a number of seals such as ringed seals and bearded seals which spend half their time on land and half in the sea, much like the walruses which can congregate in groups of over 100 individuals.
See the Northern Lights in Greenland
Most travelers dream of one day seeing an aurora. This colorful natural phenomenon occurs near both poles, and is caused by disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind.
While they occur year-round, it’s only during the long dark nights of winter in places like Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and other regions near the Arctic Circle where the aurora borealis displays its vivid colors.
Greenland is known for being one of the best destinations to see the northern lights thanks to extremely low light population due to the lack of populated cities.
They become visible from around September to April each year and there are many snowshoeing and dog sledding tours offered to view them.
You’ll need a dark clear night and maybe a bit of luck to see a vivid display of purple, blue, yellow, green, end even red hues during truly intense solar activity. Some of the more popular places within Greenland to see the northern lights include Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut, Ilulissat, and Kulusuk.
Glide Through Polar Waters
Experience either the Arctic or Antarctic in a truly immersive and unique way by joining a sea kayak program which many polar cruises offer as an add-on. These programs usually have limited spaces, so booking in early before you set sail is a must.
Small groups of kayakers are led by an experienced kayak guide, as you drift quietly in-between ice floes and along the shorelines of sheltered bays. You may experience close-up encounters with marine mammals swimming alongside you and really feel like you are part of the landscape.
It’s believed that the kayak was invented in Greenland, so what better way to enjoy paddling in one than in the Arctic. Kayak outings generally last between 2-4 hours and allow you to reach places that are inaccessible to the cruise ships and Zodiacs.
There is no need to be highly-skilled and all the necessary equipment will be provided for you including paddles, wetsuit, life jacket, and spray cover.
Hike Across the Greenland Ice Sheet
Nearly 80% of Greenland is covered by the Greenland ice sheet. One of only two remaining ice sheets in the world, Greenland’s ice sheet is only surpassed in size by the Antarctic ice sheet.
While it is quite an impressive sight to simply see and can be seen from most Greenland towns, the true magic is steeping foot on the ice sheet.
Hiking on the Greenland ice sheet begins in the town of Kangerlussuaq, where 4WD vehicles take Greenland’s longest dirt road to the ice sheet’s edge. You can book simple day-trips that allow you to walk a small section of the ice sheet, camp overnight, or embark on a multi-day trek to really take in the unique landscape.
You can also opt to travel to the impressive 60-meter high Russell Glacier.
Image credit: Uwe Brodrecht (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
Chill Out with King Penguins in South Georgia
Penguin lovers will want to book a trip to South Georgia Island to witness the colony of large king penguins that congregate on Salisbury Plain every mating season.
Estimates put the colony at around a quarter million birds, which also join other species of penguins including macaroni, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins. King penguins are the world’s second largest penguin species, standing roughly 2-feet-tall. The adults are strikingly beautiful, while their blown fluffy chicks are much less attractive.
Starting around September each year, the penguins come ashore to mate and raise their young during the summer months.
While you are required to try to keep a distance of five meters from the penguins, they often choose to approach you on their own free will. On and around the island, you’ll also be greeted by giant wandering albatrosses, elephant seals, and Antarctic fur seals.
Observe Whales in Antarctica
Whales begin arriving in Antarctic waters beginning around December and stay through April, with peak sightings occurring in February and March.
A total of eight whale species can be observed during voyages to Antarctica, beginning when you start your journey across the Drake Passage. Notable locations where whales are commonly seen include the Lemaire Channel and Wilhelmina Bay.
Observe curious minke whales swimming alongside the boat, humpback whales performing their acrobatic breaching, and pods of orcas hunting seals and penguins. Enormous blue whales as well as male sperm whales may also be spotted.
Image credit: Anthony Smith
Observe Walruses in Russia’s Remote Franz Joseph Land
Franz Joseph Land is a Russian archipelago that lies less than 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole. Inhabited only by military personnel, this remote destination is a haven for rare arctic wildlife which includes large gatherings of walruses.
Most of Franz Joseph’s islands are frozen and collectively make up the Russian Arctic National Park.
Cruise in a zodiac to islands like Apollonova and Stoliczka to observe the giant tusked walruses who haul out on solid ground during the summer months when taking breaks from eating molluscs off the seabeds.
Other animals including polar bears, ringed seals, bearded seals, and narwhals also call the waters home, as well as expansive colonies of birds that migrate to the islands to breed.