We decided to book the Arctic expedition on Silver Explorer with 2 other couples we met during our December 2010 Antarctica expedition on Prince Albert II (these are the same vessels). The Arctic expedition was spectacular for many reasons including sailing with friends, itinerary and wildlife, expedition staff professionalism and friendliness, cabin accommodation and hotel staff, dining and food service staff, and the blessing of good weather and timing.
The charter flight from Oslo was well organized and executed. We took a short bus ride around Longyearbyen whilst our luggage was being transferred to our cabin from the SAS Boeing 737. Check-in on Silver Explorer went smoothly and quickly. Following the mandatory safety briefing we headed north fully optimistic that the trip would be everything we hoped it to be.
We were not disappointed as we first found a blue whale. It was huge, the largest animal ever to populate the Earth. It fluked for us 2 or 3 times which apparently is quite a rare occurrence. The whale's blow had to exceed 30 feet. Second, we found ourselves in the midst of a pod of white beluga whales. There were so many of them they could not accurately be counted but they had to number over 30.
On the second full day we had to journey to 81 degrees 30 minutes north to find pack ice. On July 24, 2012 the ice was in a position where it was on August 24, 2011. The expedition staff was quite concerned about the ice situation because of the stress being put on the polar bear population. The expedition leader and ship Captain made a great decision to go that far north because we found a mother polar bear and her two curious cubs. They looked to be in great shape and we quietly observed them for quite some time before moving on. 24 passengers took the "polar plunge" in 32 degree water and 33 degree outside air temperature and it was great fun.
We visited two walrus haul-out locations, one with females and their young and the second being the walrus men's club where the lumbering beasts were enjoying a mud bath on the beach. We saw more polar bears, one which was apparently in bad shape and likely starving and another hanging out near the walrus cubs hoping to catch one away from the protection afforded by the mothers. We got lucky and found a bear with it's freshly killed seal (bridge personal actually saw the kill take place) and marveled at the bear behavior we saw. Toward the end of the sailing we found another bear finishing off his kill and then he swam across a bay to a snowy area where he cleaned himself up and settled in for a post meal snooze. His rolling and digging behaviors were fun to watch as he worked to get sea salt out of his fur. We had two zodiac trips to the nesting place of 1000's of birds including puffins, black guillemots, glaucous gulls, and northern fulmars. The birders in our group were ecstatic. We also saw some reindeer and an arctic fox but they were quite far away.
We spent some time at Ny Alesund, the northernmost community in the world and we enjoyed walking around the settlement and visiting the airship mast where so many polar expeditions had their beginning. We were fortunate to have a very knowledgeable polar historian, Peter Damisch, as one of our guides and he gave us a wonderful insight to some of the various expeditions carried out in the early 1900's. His lectures were filled with great stories and facts regarding explorers like Andree and Nassen.
Our walk up the side of the July 14 Glacier was a lot of fun but would be difficult or impossible for mobility challenged folks. Pictures taken on the glacier itself turned out well. The glacier calved 3 times while we were there, another sign of the warming trend in the Arctic. We also sailed close to the edge of a glacier that stretches some 120 miles in length. It was interesting to see some of the large waterfalls coming from the glacier.
Throughout the expedition we also had informative lectures on the sea and land wildlife, plants, birds, and geology of the Arctic. The lectures were a wonderful way to spend transit time between zodiac events.
The entire crew did everything they could to make us comfortable. Our cabin butler, Melissa, brought us a nightcap to help us celebrate a special occasion. She also prepared a bubble bath for my wife after one of our long zodiac events. Our cabin attendant, Reuben, did a great job keeping our cabin squared away. The restaurant and lounge crew learned our names within two days and they were so personable. They really made us feel special. It is difficult to single out one for the good job they did but Den Den, Bobby, Albert, Dominic, and Bernadette were all aces. Our German chef, Christian, and his galley crew turned out fantastic meals every day. Every choice we made was noteworthy and there was a lot to choose from. The wines served each day at lunch and dinner were quite nice and added to our dining pleasure.
There were just three very minor downsides we can comment upon. The boutique clerk, Adrianna, was an absolute joy but she was hindered by poor stocking decisions made by those who decide what items are made available for onboard purchase. There was not much to choose from for people of average size. There was a lot of stock for tiny folks and plus size people. Silversea should skip the fragrances, watches, jewellry, and snack items and make sure they have an ample supply of clothing items for all sizes of folks. One of the guides was very keen on bird life and was just "too birdy focused". He was really nice but in our opinion he fixated on his winged friends to the point where excursions with him got a little old and we missed seeing some things other people saw (a shipwreck and some nifty caves) during their zodiac events.
The city tour of Tromso was a time filler. Others have commented negatively on this and we should have listened. Time roaming around the town of Tromso on our own would have been appreciated. On our bus tour we were taken to the Cathedral of the Arctic, the polar museum which had some interesting (albeit somewhat on the dark side...seal killing, harpooning whales, etc) exhibits but not much in the way of descriptions in English, a botanical garden (15 minute walkabout turned into a 45 minute. trek) and something else which has been forgotten! A trip up the cable car to a lookout area with a broad view of the city might have been nice. The trip became arduous thanks in part to a contracted guide who rambled non-stop despite being asked by the Silversea representative to limit his commentary.
We cannot recommend the Silversea Expedition experience in anything less than the most enthusiastic terms. Anyone who wants to see wildlife in the extreme north and south should consider sailing with the Silver Explorer. It is a bit pricey but there is outstanding value in the product and it is an all-inclusive service model.
If you are interested in expedition cruising with Silversea we strongly recommend reading the voyages journals posted on their website. It will make your decision easier!