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Confessions of a Polar Expedition Team Member

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Have you ever wondered what life is like aboard a Quark Expeditions ship and during polar excursions, beyond what you see and read online and in the travel brochures?

Polar-passionate traveler and Quark team member Dave Riordan visited our Quark office in Toronto recently and sat down to answer the questions prospective travelers ask us most often. Our booking staff are polar experts in their own right, coming from a variety of polar travel backgrounds and each having participated in a Quark expedition. However, Dave brings to the table a breadth and depth of experience, having traveled with Quark for ten seasons in a variety of roles including Expedition Leader, program coordinator and now Logistics Manager. All told, he spends about eight months of the year on Quark Expeditions ships.

Quark Expeditions team member Dave Riordan

In his off-time, Dave is addicted to travel, as well, spending just a couple of months a year "at home" in Courtland, New York. This upcoming Antarctic season, you'll find Dave cruising with Quark passengers on the Sea Spirit and Sea Adventurer.

His experience is extensive and his perspective definitely unique! Here's what Dave has to share about life on board with Quark Expeditions:

Everyday Life on Board a Quark Expeditions Ship

On board each Quark Expeditions ship, Dave explained, there are three groups of people: Quark travelers, Quark expedition staff, and the ship crew – engineers, deck officers, the receptionist, bartenders, wait staff, housekeepers, etc. "The ship crew are from all over the world and typically, there are about 60 of them on board," he said. "There may be 12 to 15 Quark team members and I'll tell you, the better we all get to know one another, the better the ship runs. They're a fantastic group and we'll often go join them below deck in their common quarters, like the break room and cafeteria, and get to know them."

Ocean Diamond crew, Antarctica 2014

Quark Expeditions team members stay in the same types of quarters, in the same area of the ship, as travelers. "We take meals together, do shore excursions together, and spend time together on the decks and in the restaurant/bar areas," Dave said. "Passengers don't expect the comfort level when they get on board and there's something so special in getting together throughout the trip with these people who all want to have that same awesome polar experience. It's a worldly, amazing group of people; we're there day and night to answer questions and share in the experience with them."

Dave also noted that people are often surprised at the services available on board. "Technology has changed everything – people are surprised that there's any internet service at the poles, but we have satellite." He explained that the Internet connection is usually good enough for sending text-only messages, for checking email or sending short tweets to Twitter. "But then, some are surprised it's slow and intermittent," he chuckled. "For the most part, passengers are impressed we can communicate with the outside world at all when we're in the most remote regions on earth."

Sea Spirit in Antarctica with Quark Expeditions

The in-room TVs don't have any outside programming and are used to show in-house movies and display daily information, he explained, adding, "We get very little news from the outside world. It can be a really good thing but you can have serious culture shock." On returning to port, Dave said, "The first time you see a tree… it's crazy! I like to go straight to a mall just to freak myself out." People's expectations are always different, he said, so being prepared before you go is important.

 

A Typical Day On Board with Quark Expeditions

"Usually, the team gets up bright and early and has a pre-breakfast meeting," Dave explained. "We have breakfast with guests and then get into our gear and head out for the day. That's when we launch the zodiacs and check out the landing sites before we take the guests out." This is especially important in the Arctic, he said, where they need to make sure there are no polar bears or other carnivorous animals onshore. The team then marks out the perimeter of a path for passengers to use onshore.

Quark Expeditions passengers dine at the North Pole

"We're taking about 10-12 passengers out in the Zodiacs and will bring them ashore for the morning," he said. No food is allowed to be brought on shore in the Antarctic, he cautions, so shore lunches are out of the question. The North Pole is an exception, he noted. "We bring tables and chairs and a BBQ and you're floating on ice 4000 feet above the sea floor, in June or July. It's incredible and I can tell you, the passengers who get to participate in that will never, ever forget it."

"If the weather is bad and everyone stays on board, we do lectures with our marine biologists, ornithologists, or other experts. They'll give presentations and we may have parties, or a scavenger hunt, or even quiz nights. We're all entertainers at heart!" Dave said of himself and his teammates.

"After the morning excursion or activity, we go straight into lunch and then gear up. The ship will be repositioned to another spot." Afternoon excursions are often when optional adventure activities take place, Dave said, such as kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking or cross-country skiing.

"Each night, we have recaps of what we've seen throughout the day. We put slides together from our cameras and put together these presentations on the fly." Most people are using PowerPoint, he said, and one person collects everything and puts it together in one presentation for the recap. "We go from person to person and share what we saw that day."

Dinner is a delicious but casual affair, he said. "People can sit with whomever they choose and mix and mingle. A lot of the passengers are well traveled, so you'll hear these great conversations about polar travel, but also about travel the world over."

After dinner, passengers are free to take part in the every-other nightly activities in the lounge, settle in to watch an educational movie, or head to their cabin. "Depending on each person's sleep patterns, some are real morning people and others are more night owls. I prefer to stay up in the lounge chatting in the evening than to be up first thing in the morning," Dave said.

 

Adventure Part of Daily Life in the Polar Regions

camping in Antarctica

"We have experienced, trained guides for every activity, whether it's mountaineering or hiking, or one of our watersports," he said.

Dave was a camping guide for six years before joining Quark and he usually runs the Antarctic camping program on his excursions.  

"We take about 30 people out after dinner and come back before breakfast, as they're not allowed to eat while they're out there," he explained.  It's light all night during the summer in Antarctica and they usually don't need headlamps. "It's incredible… we listen to the penguins and the whales blowing and the ice cracking. I'm usually tucked in a bivvy bag – a waterproof shell, with just my head sticking out," he laughed.

Photo courtesy of Paul Shaver from of our passenger slideshow, Antarctic Explorer voyage, Feb 2014

Photo courtesy of Paul Shaver from of our passenger slideshow, Antarctic Explorer voyage, Feb 2014.

Dave warns that campers have to watch for the Antarctic fur seal (seen above): "It looks like a dog wearing mitts and they bite! They may come into the campsite. We camp on top of the snow so animals don't jump into a snow pit with us. They're about the size of a German shepherd," he said. It happens, too – Dave told us a story about a camper digging deep into the snow in an effort to get further out of the wind, only to have a fur seal hop down into their pit and refuse to leave.

Other animal sightings are common for campers. "A penguin might come look at you while you're sleeping… I once woke up to a penguin jumping on my chest and then calmly just walking away!"

You never know what to expect on the seventh continent, he said. "We once had a penguin and a Weddell seal guard the toilet all night," he laughed.

"Sure, it was a bit creepy at first. We try to set the toilets up behind some kind of snow wall or natural sight barrier and here were these two little guys, just hanging out right there for the entire night. Just keeping an eye on things, I guess!"

littlecamper

Oh, and about those Antarctic toilets… "Everyone gets a very realistic briefing of what they'll experience before they go camping. Sometimes people decide it's more than what they want to get into, and that's totally fine!" Dave said. "We have bucket toilets and everything goes back onto the ship for disposal in the proper sewage system. We make sure people understand how everything is going to work out there so there are few surprises."

Once passengers go to shore, he said, unless they're hypothermic or there's a medical emergency, they're can't return to the ship. "We take safety very seriously at Quark and have emergency equipment with us in a tent, with wilderness first aid leaders in camp. We do take flares, blankets, signalling equipment, food rations, and water, just in case. We want everyone to be comfortable and happy and a big part of that is knowing what to expect while you're out there!" he said.

 

A Day in the Life of a Quark Expeditions Traveler is Different Each and Every Day

Photo credit: Angus Hamilton

 

Even with all of that preparation, Dave said, "people are often surprised and even in awe at the sheer scale of Antarctica and the Arctic. You can learn about the animals and the geography, but you can't understand it until you're there.  It's massive."

Travelling different areas of the world, he explained, you have all of these different cultural elements – the history, the languages, the people, the traditions, and so on. "But in the polar regions, you have no inhabitation. There are no trees – it's just epic nature and you don't have to tune out the human aspect of it. It's amazing how that floating vessel turns into a community for the time you're together," he said.

For Dave Riordan, heading out to the ships is like coming home. It's a sentiment shared among many experienced polar travelers. Whether it's your first expedition or your twenty-first, a typical day in the polar regions is highly unlikely to be typical in any way, shape or form. And we wouldn't have it any other way!

 

 

 

 

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I left my heart in Uummannaq: Greenland with Acacia Johnson

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By: Acacia Johnson

I first watched Uummannaq appear from the sea. In the golden haze of morning light, a single spire loomed silhouetted on the horizon; icebergs filling the ocean ahead. Mountains lined both side of the ship, purple in the glow of dawn, glaciers zigzagging their way towards the sea. As the sun’s rays began to pour over the land, the colorful houses of Uummannaq came into view, perched upon the red stone of the town’s heart-shaped mountain.

Uummannaq  by Acacia Johnson Uummannaq comes into view

 

Uummannaq struck me initially as a place of impossibility, so surreal did it first appear. Lined up in the sea beside it stood a massive wall of gargantuan icebergs, like immense ships waiting their turn to enter port. As we neared the town, part of one calved and collapsed into the sea; a flurry of commotion ensued as fishermen and hunters rushed to clear their boats from the harbor should a tsunami result. We soon learned that only the day before, one of the mammoth icebergs had overturned, causing a wave that wreaked havoc upon the town and destroyed several boats. A certain uncertainty hung in the air around the icebergs, a peculiar mixture of awe and fear in the face of their crystalline beauty. With a watchful eye towards the sea, however, life on shore resumed as usual.

I accompanied a group of travellers with Elizabeth, a Greenlandic woman who smiled all the time and spoke softly in Danish for me to translate. Beckoning happily, she led us far up the slopes of the village, the view growing more and more spectacular as we climbed. Eventually we reached the summit, where panoramic views of the colorful Danish kit houses, the red stone landscape, and the icy sea surrounded us in all their glory. Inside her mountaintop home, Elizabeth had prepared a feast of local cuisine – narwhal, seal fat, seal soup, halibut, cakes, and coffee. I sat for a while, letting a piece of seal fat dissolve in my mouth like butter, marveling at Elizabeth’s family photos scattered in frames across the walls. What a life, I thought, to awake every day looking down at this.

 

 

Uummannaq views by Acacia Johnson An incredible view

 

Later that afternoon we watched some hunters pulling pilot whales into the harbor behind their boats, following them as they proceeded to butcher the animals on the shore behind town. With the hunters’ permission, I found myself holding the fins of the whale in my hand, amazed by their thin and paperlike skin and sharp teeth. So much food, I remember thinking, looking at the thick layer of blubber underneath the animal’s skin. Crimson pooled at the ocean’s edge as hunting boats zipped back and forth in the sun.

 

 

Hunters in Uummannaq by Acacia Johnson Hunters pulling whales

 

Our new Greenlandic friends accompanied us aboard ship that night as we cruised up and down the coast in the sunset light. The scenery, more dazzling than ever in the magenta hue of dusk, took my breath away, but it was Elizabeth’s reaction to her own home that made the deepest impression. Together we stood out on deck, speechless at the overwhelming beauty of the land. She gestured towards her town, her mountain. Hjerte, she said softly, holding her hand over her heart. Understanding she was speaking of more than just the mountain’s shape, I nodded in agreement. I would not forget Uummannaq.

 

 

 

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Antarctica bound: Books for the passionate polar buff

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One of the most frequently asked questions we get here at Quark Expeditions (aside from "What do I pack? and "Any tips for handling the Drake Passage?") is what our recommended reading for Antarctica is. When preparing for their journey south, excited history-buffs often want to read all about past explorers and get into the polar mindset.

Victoria Salem, Historian aboard the Sea Spirit during our Antarctic voyages has put together a fantastic list of books for the passionate polar buff and we are excited to share it here!

GENERAL
Let Heroes Speak: Antarctic explorers 1772 – 1922 by Michael H. Rosove – contains chapters on the great and the forgotten heroes of Antarctic exploration, including Otto Nordenskjold of the 1901 – 03 Swedish Antarctic expedition to the Weddell Sea.

 

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA
The Storied Ice: Exploration, Discovery, and Adventure in Antarctica’s Peninsula Region by Joan N. Boothe – a comprehensive, well-written book specifically focusing on the places we have been!

 

SCOTT & AMUNDSEN
Scott’s Last Expedition/The Voyage of the Discovery – very well-written and readable account by Scott himself
The Last place on Earth/Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford – very detailed and well-researched account of Scott and Amundsen’s famous race to the Pole. A great supporter of Amundsen and a great debunker of Scott. Very interesting, though extremely (obsessively?) anti-Scott.
Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes – A much easier read than Huntford’s tome; sets out to debunk the debunking of Scott and vindicate his heroic reputation. Extremely (obsessively?) pro-Scott. Also very interesting – draw your own conclusions!
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard – A wonderfully written account of Scott’s last expedition, with emphasis on Cherry-Garrard/Wilson/Bowers’winter journey to Cape Crozier for emperor penguin eggs.

 

 

Shackleton's Grave, Grytviken, South Georgia Paying tribute at Shackleton's grave in Grytviken, South Georgia

SHACKLETON

Endurance and Shackleton’s Boat Journey by F A Worsley – An easy and fascinating read by a great supporter of Shackleton.
Shackleton by Roland Huntford – Very detailed and well-researched account of Shackleton’s life and expeditions. But bear in mind Huntford’s obsessive debunking of the Scott myth when considering his objectivity over Shackleton.
Shackleton’s Forgotten Men by Lennard Bickel – A fascinating account of the fate of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party, who were laying supporting depots for his Antarctic crossing; he never came, but they completed their appointed task at great cost.

 

Quark Expeditions in Antarctica. A view from Sea Adventurer

 

NOVELS ON ANTARCTICA
Antarctica by Kim Stanley-Robinson – a sci-fi, futuristic, political novel set against
a backdrop of one version of a future Antarctica. Highly recommended.
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski – a compelling account of a journey to
Antarctica and an inner journey of the spirit.
Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition by Caroline Alexander – a cat’s eye view of
Shackleton’s Endurance expedition!

 

Visit Antarctica with Quark Expeditions and create your own history today!

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A Leap of Faith: The Murres of Cape Walstenholme

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Written by Acacia Johnson

After sailing east from Churchill, the Sea Explorer was promptly met with a gale warning. High winds, swell, and poor visibility kept us on the ship for a day and a half, and with white caps ripping across the sea’s surface outside the window, we instead turned our attention to lectures and presentations. Fortunately, clear skies soon appeared on the weather forecast, and when opportunity struck, we were prepared to seize the day.

Thus dawned an absolutely epic day, with three excursions taking in the very best of Hudson Bay. Immediately after breakfast, we made a landing at Digges Island, where tundra ponds glistened in the sun amidst fields of wildflowers and a spectacular Dorset site waited to be explored. We later made our way to the beautiful Eric Cove, with hiking opportunities abound up a colorful river valley to catch a glimpse of caribou. Spirits were high, and we were overjoyed to be off the ship, soaking up the sun and the landscape – but nothing could have prepared us for the overwhelming spectacle of nature that would present itself that evening.

Walsenholme

After dinner, as the sun sank towards the horizon, we neared Cape Walstenholme, a dramatic coastline of gigantic, colorful cliffs plunging straight into the sea. From the reddish tones of the clifftops, the stone transitioned to orange, yellow and vibrant green vegetation before ending in the bright blue water – a full rainbowlike spectrum, illuminated in the low-angle light. And the stone’s surface, and surrounding air, was absolutely buzzing with life. Hundreds of thousands of thick-billed murres filled the stone, sea and sky, churning and soaring in great spectacular waves. Even with the wind picking up, you could hear them from the ship. We loaded into zodiacs and embarked into the evening breeze.

Thick-billed murre chicks are amazing because, at three weeks old and only half-fledged, they take a leap of faith from the cliffs and into the sea. If they can make it that far, they spend the next three weeks with their fathers on the water, learning to fish and dive as they grow their flight feathers. This leaping event happens for only three or four days every year, and we had arrived right in the middle of it. At the base of the cliffs, we found the water teeming with murre chicks and their fathers, chicks dropping out of the sky around us as we idled carefully near the animals.

Walstenholme

The experience was multisensory in every sense of the word. The sound of the birds was deafening, the smell overwhelming, the ocean spray cold and biting. The view was totally panoramic as waves of birds soared in graceful unison around us, above us, and out towards the sea, absolutely filling the sky. I was speechless, astounded to have stumbled into such a phenomenal spectacle of nature. The crimson light of sunset only intensified, setting the landscape and the animals aglow like a painting. To have born witness to such a rare and unique moment in the lives of wildlife was a gift. The experience filled the mind and the senses to the brim; it caused one to re-contemplate life in general. As the sun set on Cape Walstenholme and aurora filled the sky, I thought that in times like this, the Arctic becomes something out of a dream, a rich and captivating reminder of what it is to be alive.

Walstenholme
Visit Arctic Quest for more information on this fascinating voyage!

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White Whale Wonderland: Cruising with Belugas in Churchill

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Written by Acacia Johnson

On a beautifully warm day in Churchill, Manitoba, the Sea Explorer welcomed a new group of passengers aboard. After a long day of travel and sightseeing for our guests, we had initially planned a restful evening for their first hours aboard the ship – but nature had other plans. In the true spirit of an expedition, we decided to seize the opportunities that presented themselves, because outside, something amazing was happening.

Alongside the ship, in the Churchill River, thousands of beluga whales and their young calves broke the surface of the water as far as the eye could see. The water itself stood mirrorlike and calm, dazzling sun reflecting in all directions. We set immediately out for a zodiac cruise in the evening light. A few short minutes from the ship, we set our engines to idle, and we waited.

The belugas surrounded the zodiacs, skimming under the surface of the water and breaking through in short and frequent bursts. The grey calves splashed energetically, the pristine white adults sleek and elegant in their motion. I thought about how amazing it would be to listen to them underwater, as belugas are the most vocal of all whale species, with an incredible range of sounds they use to communicate. Some of the staff tried squeaking their boots against the zodiac pontoons to capture the whales’ attention; my closest encounters happened without any efforts whatsoever.

beluga near zodiac

As I looked over my shoulder at the zodiac’s motor, my eye was drawn to the constant stream of water that keeps the engine cool. There, mere inches below the surface, was the face of a beluga whale, staring curiously up at the engine’s cooling stream. As I watched, it slowly spun around a few times, seeming to look right up at me as it did so. I laughed aloud in delight and called for my passengers to take a look. “It looks as if it’s drinking from a fountain!” exclaimed a passenger. “You’d think it hadn’t seen water for days!”

For most of that remarkable evening, there was little to do except intermittently laugh and exclaim from the sheer wonder of it all. Such a close and friendly encounter with wildlife was like something out of a dream. As the time passed and we moved slowly towards the ship to return for dinner, the whales gained a newfound fascination with the zodiac’s motor. Nearly the entire drive back to the ship, we were followed by a group of about five whales, only a meter or two away, porpoising curiously in the boat’s wake.

We could not have asked for a more stunning start to our trip to Kangerlussuaq. With the magic of the evening still lingering over us, we sailed east from Churchill, watching a brilliant orange moon rise above the sea as our voyage began.

Moon

 

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Sunshine in Sisimiut

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Written by Acacia Johnson

Early morning on the Sea Explorer dawned calm and hazy, the low sun sparkling off the sea in a golden haze. In the distance, mountains lined the horizon, growing slowly larger as we made our way towards shore. Coffee in hand, I joined a group of passengers on the deck, watching seabirds and waiting with anticipation as the colorful houses of Sisimiut grew nearer. Good morning, Greenland.

It was to be a day of local experiences, with walking tours led by local guides who lived in Sisimiut year-round. As we disembarked, a small fishing boat pulled up behind the ship. A beaming fisherman, loading boxes of fish onto the deck, held up the largest, most beautiful spotted wolffish I had ever seen, its leopard-print skin noticeable amongst the bright redfish loaded onto the dock. Later, we were going to have a feast.

Sismiut Fisherman

We set off into town with Sanne, a Danish woman who had lived in Sisimiut for years, and her 11-year-old son Magnus, both of whom illuminated the landscape with knowledge, stories, and anecdotes. Under their guidance, the town came alive as we trekked through its warm, sunny streets. Wildflowers bloomed along the road; our guides told us about the meanings of the colors used to paint the houses, the local culture and way of life.

“You should REALLY think about living here in Sisimiut, at least for one year,” Magnus exclaimed energetically. “The winter is the best part. It’s too hot right now, there’s not as much to do.” On a sunny summer morning, it was difficult to envision everything blanketed in snow in the darkness of winter, but our guides assured us that the ice and snow open the landscape to easy travel by snowmobile, skiing and snowboarding.

Wandering through the town, the howls and yips of dogs filled the air as we crossed into a wide mountain valley extending into the wilderness beyond. There, beautiful Greenlandic dogs stood tied to the rocky hillside amongst colorful dog houses and sleds. Affectionate puppies frolicked curiously at our feet, to the delight of the group. It was explained to us that these animals are strictly working dogs, and after the age of five months must be treated as such, and kept tied to a designated area. Here, on the outskirts of town, they too stood awaiting the winter in which they thrive.

Dog

Hungry after hours of walking, it was time for a taste of traditional Greenlandic cuisine before boarding the ship once again. Dried cod, herring and minke whale, mattak (raw whale skin) and muskox soup were on the menu, and I was beyond excited to taste them all, especially the mattak. While the chewiness took some patience, the flavor was surprisingly awesome, in my opinion – and eaten raw, quite high in vitamin A! For those less convinced, the muskox soup tasted just like beef stew. Everyone had their favorites, but I was particularly taken with the dried minke whale, which I found pleasantly reminiscent of beef jerky.

It was, simply put, an extraordinarily immersive day in Greenland, and we returned to the ship with all senses newly stimulated by our experiences. As we sailed north that evening towards Ilulissat and the Ilulissat Icefjord, I reflected on how surreal it was that we had left Copenhagen only the morning before. It was as if we had entered another world – an amazingly warm and sunny glimpse into Greenland’s arctic summers.

Visit Arctic Quest for more information on this fascinating voyage!

 

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Voyage Update: Spitsbergen Circumnavigation

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Fresh From The Sea! Expedition Leader Woody, currently leading Spitsbergen Circumnavigation, shares his exciting voyage update from the Sea Spirit:

"What a morning! Arrived early near Torellneset and spotted a polar bear and two cubs. As the breakfast was almost set on the table we ventured out in perfect blue sky conditions. The mother and cubs strolled to the waters edge where they slept and occasionally wandered about. Later in the morning as we landed at Torellneset, the other and two cubs came to the beac

h. We completed a tactical withdrawal with zero interaction. We cruised by walruses and the mighty beasts were relaxed. Some swam in and others just wallowed on each other....now sailing North.

x2013.50YearsofVictory.Andrianova-22-600x450.jpg.pagespeed.ic.pOprCH2zTo 

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Spitsbergen Explorer: Voyage update from the Sea Spirit

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If there is such a thing as a “classic Arctic” expedition cruise, Spitsbergen Explorer is it. You’ll get all the best of Spitsbergen, by exploring the western edge of the island and venturing to some northern outlying areas home to polar bears and walrus. Located above the Arctic Circle, Spitsbergen welcomes travelers from around the world to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Packed with options for snowshoeing and sea-kayaking, this 11 day voyage is the perfect expedition for exploring the “wildlife capital of the Arctic.”

Below is an update from Annie Inglis, Operations Manager, aboard the Sea Spirit:

For the expeditioners aboard the Sea Spirit, there could not be a better start for the voyage. On the first expedition day, on the very first landing, our very first bears. Not just a single bear, but a mother and two cubs. The overnight sail from Longyearbyen saw us in area of Bellsund, on the western side of Spitsbergen. High, snow-capped peaks with towering rock walls were the backdrop for our landing site at Vårsolbukta. Excitedly, we headed off in small groups for our adventure across the snow and tundra. High in the scree slopes was the cacophony of sound from the nesting little auks (dovekies) and the shrill calls of the kittiwakes. As we ambled Arctic-style, we became the curiosity of numerous Svalbard reindeer. Quietly we watched as they investigated us further, so close that we could admire the curl of their eyelashes!

 

Reindeer Reindeer. Photo taken by Quark passenger.

As we enjoyed the excursion, there was a very calm call informing all guides of “three polar bears”. With the location specified, it was deemed wise to retreat to our zodiacs. With the information gleaned from the safety briefings, it was a textbook-composed withdrawal! Once in the safety of our boats we were able to watch a mother and two cubs-of-the-year roam across our excursion area, their seemingly casual pace a disparity to the distance covered in a short period of time. The cubs gambolled along behind, occasionally stopping to investigate new smells before bounding towards their mother. All were silent in the zodiacs as we observed them leaving over the ridge, humbled by this small family in this vast and daunting landscape.

 

Polar Bears Polar Bear and cubs. Photo taken by Quark passenger.

Stay tuned for more updates and visit Spitsbergen Explorer to learn more about this amazing voyage to the wildlife capital of the Arctic!

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Easter Island Blog: Part 1

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Hanga Roa Eco Resort

Easter Island, Rapa Nui, as it is known locally, is a place I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. I grew up a bit of a nerd, watching the features of the huge stone heads on the Discovery Channel and I wanted to see them for myself. The opportunity came as I was going to Antarctica. I thought, ‘I’m down in South America already, why not take a few extra days and go?’ I caught my flight from Santiago, Chile, the only place that flies directly to Rapa Nui. When we were coming in to land on one of the most remote places in the world, it really hit me that I was finally going to experience this amazing place for myself. I got a bit over-excited and took a picture of the onboard map. I was one of THOSE people…but I didn’t care.

Flight map

I was met at the airport by the Manager of the Hanga Roa Eco Resort, the place I would call home the next two days. As is the custom on Hanga Roa, I was greeted with a necklace of beautiful local flowers and taken by transfer to the resort.

Easter Island
During the 20-minute drive he told us about the history of the island as well as things you must do when you’re here; see a local show, experience the quarry and walk around the small town of Hanga Roa.

Hotel

We arrived and were immediately greeted by staff and a drink: the best way to check into any resort. Hanga Roa Eco Resort was based on the idea of connecting to the natural environment and the history of the island. As they say, it pays homage to Orongo Village, an ancient settlement located on the top of the Rano Kau volcano. They strive to use natural materials and give the least artificial experience possible. The resort has a spa on site, a pool with an ocean view, 3 restaurants (one mainly used for breakfast, one a bistro and an evening restaurant for dinner) and wifi available throughout the resort. When I opened the door to my room I was really blown away. Calling it a ‘hotel room’ is an understatement. Most of the room was made up of natural elements. Volcanic rock, cypress trunks and a beautiful clay soaker tub. The sliding door led out to a patio overlooking the ocean. I could definitely get used to this.

Hotel Room

Despite how welcoming and beautiful my surroundings were, I was too excited to stay put. I had to get out and explore. I decided to walk into the only town on the island, also named Hanga Roa. The town itself is small, about 3400 people, and comprises 87% of the population. There are several shops, a couple of grocery stores and even a football (soccer) pitch that looks right out onto the harbor. Many of the shops carry the same type of things, but they are all great to browse in.

Tip: Make sure you go to the post office if you visit Hanga Roa. You can get your passport stamped there for free, but be aware you may not always get a chance to send that postcard home. When I went they were out of stamps.

The walk back to the resort was lovely. It’s only about 20 minutes from the town and a path/road lies right beside the ocean. It’s a pretty amazing realization, looking out onto the pacific and knowing you’re thousands of miles away from anything. Not only did I want to explore the island, but I wanted to try out some of the local dishes and see what the resort had in store. Keeping with the theme of the Hanga Roa Resort, much of what is offered in the restaurants are local specialties: I went for the kahi (tuna) and it was perfection. I spent my evening relaxing around the resort and exploring what else they had to offer, and wound up in my lovely, huge clay tub before tucking in and getting rested up for my all-day tour on Day 2.

Hotel at Night
I had a wonderful breakfast full of fresh, local fruit and at 9am sharp my guide from Maururu Travel, Matu’a, picked me up at the hotel and after picking up the rest of our small group of 8 people, we set off to discover the island. The tour took us all over the island and Matu’a was a great guide. He’s originally from Rapa Nui and seemed to know everyone we came across driving through town. His passion for the island and its history shows, and he seemed excited to share it with visitors.
Easter Island Guide
Maut’a told us throughout the day of the islands turbulent history, starting over 1000 years ago and ending in the late 17th century when civil unrest and degradation of the island’s resources led close to the extinction of the people. We learned the culture of the people and of course the story of the Moai – the giant statues that have become synonymous with Easter Island. Over 800 statues have been inventoried on Rapa Nui, many of which were never installed and remain at the quarry at Rano Raraku to this day. They are made from hard volcanic rock and average about 4 meters (13 feet) and weigh around 12.5 tonnes! The largest Moai ever carved still sits in the rock bed at the quarry. He is called “El Gigante”, a name that is well suited. El Gigante is 22 meters (72 feet) and weighs between 160 and 182 tonnes. To give you some perspective, a blue whale weighs around 150 tonnes. It is believed that the Moai were carved and erected to honor the dead. The statues were symbols of authority and power, but to the people of the island they were much more than that. Once carved and placed onto the ‘ahu platforms’, the people believed the statues were charged with a kind of magical energy called ‘mana’. Many of the ahu platforms were surrounded by villages and settlements and the Moai would look down onto the village, watching over their people.
Photo 7

You can see in this photo that some Moai have what look like hats on top of their heads. This is actually called a ‘Pukau’ or top knot and is believed to represent high status.
Photo 8

Our tour continued over many amazing sites but the highlight of the day came at our last spot: Anakena Beach. According to legend, Anakena was the landing place of Hotu Matu'a, the Polynesian Chief who is believed to have founded the first settlement on Rapa Nui. This place was paradise from the moment we arrived. A grove of coconut palms lead us to a white sand beach and crystal-clear blue water, which everyone in our group took advantage of and took a dip. Further away from the beach are small huts where you can buy local food and fresh juices. Try the maracuya (passion fruit). It was amazing. Along with the natural beauty of Anakena Beach, there is also an ahu of 6 Moai. Unlike most of Rapa Nui, these statues look out onto the sea, and not on the village. Some believe they are looking out to sea waiting for their king to arrive. This place was truly breathtaking and I felt as though I could have stayed here forever.
Easter Island

The tour ended and we headed back to our respective hotels in Hanga Roa. I wanted to experience some of the shows I had read about before coming. There are a few places around Hanga Roa that feature the story and traditional dance of the people. The receptionist helped me find a show in town that evening. I saw the Maori Tupuna show which was a 25-minute walk from the resort. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but these dancers were amazing. The music was powerful, and the men and women dancing were spectacular. They moved with grace and power and worked their butts off.
Dancers

Towards the end of the show they began interacting with the audience and much to my surprise, and embarrassment, I was one of the crowd they brought up on stage and to dance with them (I admit to being a not-so-great dancer, but I didn’t know anyone there so I worked it and had a great time). My first few days on Rapa Nui were amazing. The resort was beautiful, food and wine delicious and staff were excellent. The sites I experienced would stay with me forever. So far, Rapa Nui was everything I had hoped it would be and there was still more to come! As I was waiting for my transfer to my next hotel, I was presented with a necklace of shells from the area. As is custom on many pacific islands, Rapa Nui was no different. They were beautiful and something I will treasure always.

Stay tuned for part two!

Learn more about Quark's Antarctic Pre- and Post - Trip Options

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Filming The Mysterious 7th Continent

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Rhonda and Tony Wannamaker, members of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, are a husband and wife film team. Rhonda is a Producer/Sound Recordist and Tony is a Cinematographer/Director. During the month of November 2013, the filmmakers were in the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica working on a documentary about tourism and following in the footsteps of the great heroic Polar explorers, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. Below is a blog post about their experience:

Analogous to the trend in archaeology, the notion today is to leave things were you find them, in our case, visit animals in their natural habitat. We noticed a trend whereby many folks are turning away from zoos and looking to expedition type journeys to see flora and fauna in their environments. This is not to say zoos are finished, on the contrary they have a great use for research and protecting endangered species.

 

DOP Tony Wannamaker filming Elephant Island Director of Photography, Tony Wannamaker, filming Elephant Island.

We went to the mysterious 7th continent by way of Quark Expeditions; they’re the best in the business to see the Polar Regions. In addition, we had a rare opportunity to travel with Falcon Scott, the grandson of Capt. Scott and with Jonathan Shackleton , the 2nd cousin of Sir Ernest. Through these two individuals, we connected the romantic notions of southern polar exploration with contemporary expeditions of today. As Rhonda suggested, "It’s vital that both young and old see these last remaining pristine places on earth. The Antarctic is simply beautiful! It has a mysterious quality that is completely seductive, but she can change in a heartbeat". The weather tested us a couple of times, but we had a Vegas streak and lucked out on wonderful blue skies and great vistas. Rhonda and I did a lot of research and equipment testing before we landed in Tierra del Fuego. I wanted to document elements with a commercial grade look. We wanted to stay light and flexible, but utilize the necessary equipment to facilitate our shoot. I looked at a lot of sliders, and decided on the Cinevate Atlas FLT. It had great action; it’s durable and compact. It worked really well in challenging set-ups.

 

Seal pup playing with the camera Seal pup intrigued with the camera

Although we couldn't walk up to the animals, we had to stay 5 meters away; they could come and visit us. We had many close encounters with my favourite, the King penguin and the pesky seals, but always made a clear path for the Elephant seal.
To garner the best results and stay flexible, we decided on using the Canon 5D Mark III with a backup body and lenses: wide angle; standard zoom; 200 mm zoom and 400 mm zoom. In addition, we used GoPros for “wow” moments and underwater capture. For sound, Rhonda used an on camera mic for a scratch track and for quality sound, the H4N Zoom recorder with Sennheiser directional microphone on a boom pole. All our equipment was packed in waterproof Pelican cases to protect the gear from its nemesis, salt water. In short, for a two person crew with a huge laundry list, the compact but fully facilitated equipment package provided the means to capture great footage and great story.

 

Seal pup A cute seal pup loving the camera!

In summary, it was truly an incredible experience, a once in a lifetime. As a documentary filmmaker, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to 47 countries on seven continents, Antarctica presented a simple but wonderful notion: slow down, observe and savour the unique harmony in nature.

For more information on this voyage please visit: Crossing the Circle via Falklands and South Georgia

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