Towering cliffs, wildflower-flecked tundra and ever-shifting ice floes provide a habitat for a remarkable array of wildlife, from raucous seabird colonies and majestic whales to polar bears pouncing on unsuspecting seals. The daily drama plays out against a backdrop of eerie 24-hour daylight in summer, and the rippling colours of the Northern Lights during the dark winter months.
The best time to visit the Arctic region depends on where you want to go and what you're hoping to see. Hurtigruten's Northern Lights cruises brave the chilly seas off northern Norway throughout the winter, with sightings of the aurora possible (though never guaranteed) at any time between September and April.
Once you start to venture beyond the Arctic Circle your ability to explore by ship is dictated by the extent of the sea ice, with the expedition cruise season running from May to September. The most intrepid voyages, such as an expedition to the North Pole or a transit through the Northwest Passage, are only possible at the height of summer when the sea ice is at its lowest extent. Even at lower latitudes, there are considerable differences in what you'll see depending on when you visit.
To help you plan your trip, we've put together a month-by-month guide to visiting the Arctic by expedition cruise:
May signals the beginning of the cruise season in the Arctic proper, with the first ships arriving in the Svalbard archipelago towards the end of the month. Sea ice can still be a challenge at this time of year, but you're also likely to see some truly spectacular recently-calved icebergs. Summer breeding birds start to arrive and will begin nesting once the cliffsides are free of snow, while male polar bears are battling their rivals ahead of the mating season. Where the sea is free of ice you may see whales arriving to feed, and perhaps the extraordinary narwhal, the 'unicorn of the sea'.
The sea ice continues to break up in June, with extraordinary wildlife encounters at the edge of the ice floes, and this month it becomes possible for icebreaker voyages to reach the North Pole itself. You'll see birds nesting on sea cliffs and amongst the tundra, with species including fulmars, kittiwakes and common eiders arriving in huge numbers. June is the best time to see narwhals, and you also have the chance to spot hungry polar bears hunting seals. You can also expect to see walruses and whales, and later in the month you will experience 24-hour daylight.
July and August are high season in the Arctic, when temperatures are at their warmest and wildlife is active across the region. By mid-July the Hinlopen Strait is normally ice-free, allowing the full circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, and the tundra is speckled with wildflowers briefly in bloom.
The polar bear mating season peaks in July, while scavengers such as skuas, gulls and Arctic foxes are drawn to the cliffs where seabirds are laying their eggs. Walruses gather together for safety in large haul-outs, and this is a great time to see whales off the west coast of Greenland. July is also when the first expedition ships venture into the Canadian High Arctic, and some 60,000 migrating beluga whales arrive in Hudson Bay.
Sea ice retreats to its minimum extent in August, meaning that the Northwest and Northeast Passage become navigable for those who seek the ultimate Arctic adventure. By this point the impressive icebergs of the early season will have mostly shrunk or melted, but the break-up of the ice allows ships to visit spectacular Scoresby Sound in Greenland and the west coast of Spitsbergen, where you'll find high densities of polar bears.
This is still a good time to see walruses, seals and whales, including minke, humpback, fin and perhaps even blue whales. Sea cliffs are a maelstrom of activity as chicks hatch and predators pounce, while migratory birds prepare to fly south for the winter. Towards the end of the month, expedition ships begin to leave Svalbard and head for the fjords of eastern Greenland.
In September the nights begin to darken, the tundra flushes red and orange with autumn colours, and if you're lucky you might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. This is a great time to visit the east coast of Greenland, with the first snows of the winter dusting the mountain tops. By September the sea ice is starting to return as the temperature drops, with birds heading south en masse for the winter and polar bears preparing to den.
October - March
By October the polar expedition ships have left the Arctic and head south to Antarctica, with no cruises possible during the frozen winter months. If the prospect of 24-hour darkness doesn't perturb you then you can still cross the Arctic Circle on a Hurtigruten coastal voyage to northern Norway, with regular sailings throughout the winter. January and February are considered the best months to see the Northern Lights, when skies are clearer, and you can also try your hand at activities such as snowshoeing and husky sledding.
By April the Arctic is beginning to come to life again, with polar bear mothers and their cubs emerging, walruses arriving from the south and humpback whales searching for food, though the sea ice means that you'll have to wait until May before you can make the journey north by ship.