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Kayaking with Polar Wildlife

Notes from the Poseidon Expeditions team

Kayakers have many reasons for putting the Polar Regions at the top of their must-do list of paddling destinations. Foremost among them is the chance to paddle with iconic and charismatic polar wildlife. In this first of our “Notes from the Poseidon expedition team” series, we share with you our experiences guiding paddlers around polar wildlife on cruises to the Arctic and Antarctica.

What kind of polar animals are you likely to meet while kayaking?

In Antarctica, penguins are the stars of the show. Few experiences are as special as gliding silently through glassy water in a kayak while penguins swim and leap alongside. The Arctic has similarly wonderful seabirds in abundance, particularly the murres, guillemots and puffins. We have been lucky a few times to be kayaking at the base of seabird breeding cliffs while the chicks were jumping from the ledges into the water—a truly incredible wildlife experience.

Additionally, there is always the possibility of paddling with seals. In the Arctic, we mostly meet bearded seals. These large and peaceful creatures are often encountered at close range reposing on ice floes in sheltered bays and fjords. Harbor seals and ringed seals can be seen from a kayak as well. In Spitsbergen and in Franz Josef Land, kayakers might also encounter walrus. Particular care must be taken when paddling in the vicinity of these massive and occasionally aggressive animals. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, the most commonly encountered seals are Weddell seals and crabeater seals. Leopard seals are also present and often approach small craft with great curiosity and playfulness, giving lucky kayakers a memorable encounter. In South Georgia, it is normal to be paddling with energetic fur seals and enormous elephant seals all around.

What about kayaking with whales?

In the Arctic, we’ve had the privilege of leading kayakers near beluga whales. Paddling with these gentle and intelligent creatures in the wild—hearing their breaths and feeling their inquisitive gaze upon you—is a life-changing experience. One time we had a pod of over a hundred beluga whales swimming in long procession past and underneath our kayaks. Some of our kayak guides have also had the great pleasure of paddling with a pod of bowhead whales—what a thrill!

In Antarctica, we’ve kayaked with humpback whales and minke whales countless times. Kayakers should be advised that the later months of the season offer the best opportunities for paddling with playful humpback whales. Other whales can be encountered, too. For example, one of our kayak guides was once leading a group of paddlers through a maze of icebergs when a pod of Arnoux beaked whales suddenly surfaced near us!

Have you ever paddled with polar bears?

Though it might seem like a dream-come-true, it’s not safe to paddle around polar bears. In polar bear territory (virtually anywhere in the Arctic), kayak guides and the safety boat driver (who is armed with a rifle, by the way) are constantly on the lookout for polar bears. If a polar bear is seen in the area, we assemble around the safety boat, and we might even climb from our kayaks into the boat, as the situation warrants. We can resume kayaking only if the bear is observed to have completely left the area, for example by climbing over a mountain range. Otherwise, we leave the area in the safety boat with the kayaks in tow.

Any final thoughts on safety and respect for polar wildlife?

AECO and IAATO have developed guidelines on how close to approach and how to behave around marine wildlife. Our sea kayak guides are well versed in them. Essentially, while we want to appreciate and enjoy the company of polar wildlife from our kayaks, we must do our best not to disturb the animals. As a guest in our polar kayaking program, you will want to stay close to your kayak guide; this is important. When approaching wildlife, stop when your guide stops. If animals are treated with caution and respect, chances are good that they will want to approach and even interact with you. In this case, always stay calm, let the events unfold naturally, and enjoy the experience!

Poseidon Expeditions offers kayaking as an optional activity on its Antarctica cruises and Arctic cruises aboard its deluxe expedition ship Sea Spirit. Spots are limited and sell out quickly, so act fast to book your polar kayaking adventure! The wildlife will be there. Will you?

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