The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge.
In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.