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How my first visit to Svalbard changed my outlook on life (and why I co-founded Secret Atlas)


Andy Marsh

Co-founder – Secret Atlas

For as long as I can remember, I had always been fascinated with the Arctic. As a curious child, I remember looking at the top of our planet on a map and imagining what it must be like to stand there and see first-hand the wilderness of Svalbard or the towering icebergs of Greenland. To see a polar bear in its natural habitat or witness the unrivalled beauty of the Northern Lights.

Fast-forward a few decades and that day finally came when, bags in hand, I was walking along the gangway to board an expedition vessel in Longyearbyen to go and explore Svalbard.

Visiting Svalbard was more than a holiday, it was a calling. Images and footage of polar bears roaming in their natural wilderness spoke to me over the years, glimpses of the Arctic wilderness on the pages of books and old photos of the glacial landscapes drew me in. I was captured by the romance of polar exploration in the books I read and the tales told by explorers that used Svalbard as a base in their attempts to reach the North Pole (the mast from which Nobile and Amundsen’s airship departed to reach the North Pole back in the 1920s still stands today in Ny Alesund).

But it’s not the traces of human activity which I came for – it’s the escape into a wilderness like no other. The search for a place to witness the majesty of nature, the wonder of wildlife and the power of solitude.

If you haven’t visited the Arctic, Svalbard is the perfect starting point – you can fly there before joining a cruise, by far the best way to experience the archipelago’s diverse wildlife, outstanding natural scenery and unique history. 

As we set sail out into the ice-cold Arctic waters little did I know that, by the end of the voyage, my life would be changed forever.

Soon after departing the dock in Longyearbyen, you are immersed in a natural world, one that many of us don’t realise still exists; it’s something we cannot fathom as we go about our hectic modern, globalised way of living. Gazing out at the pristine scenery, it becomes hard to recall any other significant landscape without buildings or human interference. The sound of nothing but pure nature is a distant memory for most of us. 

The wilderness of Svalbard gives you the change to reconnect once again.

One of the moments that will stay with me from that first voyage is heading towards the magnificent Lilliehöökbreen Glacier on the north-west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago. 

As we approach the face of the mountainous glacier which is a few miles wide, all sense of perspective is skewed. It’s almost impossible to tell how far we are from this towering wall of ice. One of the things I love about smaller expedition vessels is how close they get to what you came to see – to glaciers, sea ice, polar bears and walruses. The larger ships keep their distance. They have to.

The captain slows the vessel to a standstill a few hundred meters from the wall of ice. We are surrounded by the sound of thousands of pieces of tiny ice popping all around us in the water. Everyone on board stares up at the glacier face – a shared moment of silence, an awe of disbelief. And that overwhelming feeling of just how small and insignificant we are when faced with the wonder of nature.

Suddenly there is a loud cracking sound as if a giant tree is about to collapse, except there are no trees on Svalbard – an Arctic desert. The thunderous sound echoes all around. Several huge chunks of ice break off the glacier as it calves, as if in slow motion. We watch mesmerized by this phenomenon as the ice tumbles into the water. A wave comes towards us and gently rocks the vessel.

It is then you get the true sense that things are greater than you, and that this force of nature far exceeds mankind. It’s a humbling feeling and one I hope that every human has a chance to witness.

On my seminal voyage to Svalbard, I had countless other encounters that stayed with me. A lone polar bear swimming across a tranquil fjord in the bright sunlight shortly after midnight. Sleepy walruses basking in the sun and the curious Svalbard reindeer that followed us along the beach. A day among the rafts of endless Arctic sea ice which extend all the way to the North Pole. The list goes on.

Spending time in such an untouched natural world is not something that we get to do much these days but is definitely something we need to do more. It allows us a real opportunity for reflection – the space and time to think about how we treat this natural world.

I left that first voyage with the profound realisation that the actions we take and decisions we make in our day-to-day lives have a monumental effect on the Arctic. Seeing the fragile environment with my own eyes, walking those shores and hearing the glaciers calving made me truly understand the importance of protecting this world.

Svalbard was one of the first remote places that I travelled to and it paved the way for expeditions to Greenland, South Georgia (the island) and Antarctica. I’ve written about these in my blog but I felt compelled to do more to share these places with people and help them understand the very real impact of climate change.

That is one of the main reasons I co-founded Secret Atlas, as a way of sharing my experience with others and allowing them the same privilege.

As interest in the Arctic increases, so does the size of the cruise ships visiting her waters. The latest expedition vessels now take 350 guests. While tourism is an important industry in Svalbard, the real beauty of this place lies in how remote and untouched it is. I have always been a great believer in small groups as, not only do they offer a more personal experience, they also offer a lower-impact way of encountering the rich nature and wildlife that the Arctic has to offer. That is why Secret Atlas takes a maximum of 12 guests on each voyage. We also work with experienced local guides and abide by AECO and WWF guidelines.

A word of warning, visiting the polar regions is highly addictive and a trip to Svalbard could well be a gateway to a life-long obsession.. Helpfully, as well as Svalbard, we already have some Greenland expeditions on the programme are working on plans to run expeditions to other remote locations, including Antarctica.

Visiting these remote untouched wilderness at the ends of the earth on a large cruise ship doesn’t seem quite right. Cruise liners are for leisurely trips around the Med or Caribbean. To truly experience the magic of Svalbard, you have to join a smaller expedition vessel. At Secret Atlas we carry 2 guides on every voyage (1 for every 6 guests); This gives the group a great opportunity to come and learn about the natural environment, to ask questions and to enjoy a camaraderie you simply don’t get on a larger cruise ship.

Those that get to see Svalbard in real life are very fortunate. Due to its remote location,  it is an expensive destination to reach – and some people save for many years to be able to afford to go. But I believe it is worth every penny – a feeling that grows stronger with every visit. To visit Svalbardis a real privilege – an insight into the natural world you cannot get elsewhere.

The impact of climate change is visible in the  Arctic – with record temperatures of 22 degrees celsius recorded recently and sea ice melting. It will have a lasting effect on us all. Seeing this first-hand gives a sense of urgency you may otherwise not get.

We at Secret Atlas are very mindful of the natural environment and take great care not to disturb the wildlife and natural habitats. We climate compensate all our trips and encourage our guests to offset their flight emissions as well. We pick up any trash we find when visiting the shore. We are also asking our guests to sign our passenger pledge to help reduce their emissions on their return home. We are constantly looking at ways to help reduce and mitigate climate change and plastic pollutions and will continue to place this at the heart of what we do.

Educating others about this is part of our mission. Part of my personal mission and that of the business. 

It is my hope that people who join us on a Secret Atlas trip will experience the same personal shift that I did on my first voyage to Svalbard, and return home with a strong message about how important it is to protect the natural world.

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