If Antarctica is the forgotten continent, these specks of land are the least explored part of it. Collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these five groups of Islands nurture strange megaherbs and are a haven for seabirds, as the only land for thousands of miles. Further south, Macquarie Island – once considered too “harsh” to be used as a penal colony – shelters huge penguin and seal colonies.
Navigating these waters is possible for just a few months each year. The wilderness islands include the Wrangel Nature Reserve, whose mammoth steppe vegetation is filled with strange endemic flora. Visit the remains of a 3,400 year old Eskimo camp, and look for grey whales, polar bears, musk oxen and Pacific walrus. Brown bears and smoking volcanoes can be seen along the Kamchatka Peninsula.
It may not have the romantic connotations of the Northwest Passage, but enormous, frozen Baffin Island is a haven for Arctic wildlife, including walrus, seals, polar bears and huge colonies of seabirds. Sail past glaciers, fjords and Arctic plant life, looking out for rare bowhead whales. Meet the Inuit inhabitants who live a traditional lifestyle and create wonderful carvings and drawings.
When you sign up for an outdoor adventure in a wild, polar landscape, lecture programmes may sound rather dull. But the ships’ biologists, geographers, photographers, historians and geologists share fascinating insights about the land and creatures around you. You’ll learn to identify species, and a little knowledge means you will be even more amazed by the world passing you by on deck.
The fact that any creature can survive in these landscapes is incredible enough – but the animals themselves are awe-inspiring. Orcas and huge humpback whales breach beneath huger icebergs and 3m-long leopard seals hunt penguins beneath the waves. Polar bear cubs trek across the ice to the sea, caribou migrate thousands of miles and Arctic foxes hunt gulls along the cliffs.
Canada and Greenland are places to meet the Arctic locals. Hunting and fishing are the basis of Inuit life – but they are also renowned for their artworks including woven textiles, carved soapstone and antlers, and baskets. There are “Inuit games” to join in, unusual throat singing, and the chance to hear the folklore of these most northern of villages.
The power of the Polar Regions is never clearer than to those venturing out in tiny inflatable zodiac boats – surrounded by whales, seals and towering bergs. Cruises tend to include one or two shore trips a day, allowing you to get up close to the wildlife, mountains and local villages. Your schedule is dictated by the weather and the ocean – simply thrilling.
In the rush to reach the Antarctic, don’t miss the desolate and beautiful resting place of Shackleton: South Georgia. A 3,000m mountain ridge discharges glaciers into sheltered harbours, home to king penguins and enormous, barking elephant seals. The Falkland Islands are another unusual detour – a bit of Britain tacked onto the tip of South America, complete with penguins and red phone boxes.
Get your wildlife right when booking your polar cruise. Polar bears are only found in the Arctic – along with walrus, narwhals, caribou, Arctic foxes and musk oxen. Head south for penguins, leopard seals and elephant seals.
The passage’s history is fascinating and brutal; this route around the top of the world was long sought. Today, however, there are much better ways to see the Arctic – with more wildlife, more culture and much better accessibility. Additionally, slapping the name “Northwest Passage” instantly equates to a higher price tag – it’s the cheeky designer label of the Arctic cruise world.
Defying international regulation, Norway still allows whale hunting – as well as eating whale meat. While we accept that native communities should be permitted to maintain traditional hunting practices, commercial whaling is a totally different prospect, posing a threat to the survival of the species. Don’t support it.
Reaching the South Pole once took months and killed many who attempted it. Now it takes a few short hours – a snip at £30,000. Ironically, this is designated a “Specially Managed Area” to protect it – but we’re not sure how flying all this way for a few short hours fits in with this. Likewise, you can take a helicopter to the North Pole, have a glass of champagne, then head back the same day.