In The Pipeline: The call of ‘great blue beyond’ beckons

As I included in my column the last two weeks, my son and I were in the Arctic.

Having just returned home, I thought I’d share a bit of our trip, which was even more spectacular than we’d imagined.

As you may remember, I traveled with Quark Expeditions to Antarctica last fall with my daughter. I guess you could say I was bitten by the “polar bug” after that trip because after getting home, I realized it had had a profound effect on me.

Maybe it was the deep isolation in a blue and white ice world; maybe it was the spectacular nature or a combination of both. Whatever it was, I could not wait to visit the land of the “midnight sun” with Quark this year, and this trip has left me reeling, just as the last one did.

We flew from Oslo to Longyearbyen, a small town on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. From there, we boarded our Russian expedition ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, with about 70 other passengers.

To give you a sense of how the trip started, this is a piece from my travel journal:

“We are officially back in ‘blue heaven.’ Spectacular icy mountains dwarf the ship. Morning began with a large male walrus relaxing on a piece of ice — like a giant dollop of meringue on a thin, floating ice cracker.

“Slowly and quietly we approached for photos, and to watch this chocolate-brown behemoth undulate and roll over up close was breathtaking. There were other sightings as we cruised into a quiet bay ... a bearded seal sunning itself on a piece of ice ... several ring seals. Various sea birds ... and then an announcement — ‘polar bear spotted off the port side.’ There it was in the distance it was — a small, buttery teardrop meandering near the shore — our first polar bear.”

And from here it only got better.

Another excerpt:

“Little prepared anyone for what we witnessed at morning (which, by the way, has become an extremely relative term, given that the sun never goes down). So let’s just say that at 7 a.m. yesterday, beautiful chaos broke loose. It was announced over the ship’s address system that four polar bears had been spotted off the port side of the ship.

“However, that was not the main headline of the morning — you see, just ahead of us were two holes punched in the ice — each perhaps 50 to 75 feet across. Within each of the holes was an astounding sight — two pods of trapped beluga whales. Understand, these elusive creatures are hard enough to spot in open water. What we had here was an event none of the crew on board had ever seen (‘except in documentaries,’ as Woody, our expedition leader, chuckled).

“More than 10 of the gorgeous, milky-white whales were surfacing within the tight confines of the hole, presenting themselves in glorious detail, surfacing sometimes five and six at a time. Everyone wondered — would those four polar bears pick up on the action and move in? Not likely — it could happen, but odds were against it given the size of the whales. But you never know.”

The whales made it out to open sea, thanks to a path carved by our ship, and yet another marvelous experience was had.

Of all the amazing wildlife encounters we witnessed, for both Charlie and me, the birds were probably the most spectacular. The Arctic terns are very much like the ones we photograph here in Huntington Beach at the wetlands, so it was a nice continuum from home to witness them there along with the guillemots, kittiwakes and several other species.

It was so strange to have the sun burning bright around the clock, but it also was sort of comforting in that you were never in jeopardy of missing a wildlife sighting.

We met some wonderful people aboard, made good friends and even had the honor of hitting 80 degrees north latitude — a place in the sea few ever get to visit.

This was another special trip with Quark Expeditions, which I cannot recommend more for a polar adventure. The on-board experts provide a wealth of learning — especially when young people are aboard — and they frame the journey through a caring lens: The wildlife and environment are held in sacred regard so while we were able to observe, we never upset the balance of anyplace we were. They love the planet — they respect the planet — and it shows.

While we are happy to be home on the one hand, I think a part of me will always remain out there in the great polar regions, “the great blue beyond” as I find myself calling it — a grand, sweeping place where beauty, serenity and all of nature’s most primal forces exist in a tough-but-lovely harmony.

I hope everyone gets to enjoy at least one polar adventure in their lifetime.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new “Hello, It’s Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie.” You can write him at