For the last 13 years, I've either been leading or helping to develop polar itineraries with Quark Expeditions, a role that has enabled me to explore many Polar Regions in-depth. A highlight of my career with Quark Expeditions has been to lead the development of our Greenland Adventure Program, which is available to guests on the “Greenland Adventure: Explore by Land, Sea and Air” sailings in 2021.
I was recently asked, “What's so unique about South Greenland?” For me, the answer comes easy. Here's why South Greenland resonates with me differently from other Arctic destinations:
The shores of South Greenland are home to a labyrinth of spectacular fjords. Photo: Carlo Lukassen
South Greenland: A region of contrasts
My first impression of South Greenland on my earliest visit, back in 2010, was that it was a land of contrasts. Your eyes take in the quintessentially polar features—rugged mountains, glaciers cascading down to the sea, icebergs, and deep fjord systems that penetrate the southern horn of Greenland, some of them reaching 100 kilometres into the mainland. But then you encounter the region's temperate climate, which is 10 to 15 degrees warmer than other parts of the country.
And parallel to these really intense features is the unique human history of South Greenland, which includes the rich chronicle of exploration and Viking settlements and the Inuit migrations led by the ancestors of today's residents.You learn that it was the temperate climate and arable farmland—the “green” of Greenland—that compelled the Vikings to settle here.
The Hvalsey church ruin in South Greenland is the best preserved Norse ruin in the world. Photo: Aningaaq R. Carlsen/Visit Greenland
As a modern explorer to South Greenland you're immediately struck by all of these contrasting elements—and the immensity of what's here to explore: Going ashore to local communities; walking on the ice sheets; observing wildlife—whales off the southeast coast, as well as muskox and marine mammals; exploring deep fjords; and learning about Viking history. There's so much diversity to experience in a very concentrated area, which is different from other destinations in the Arctic.
The Landscape of South Greenland
The easiest way for me to sum up the landscape of this part of Greenland: mountains, ice and vegetation.
First of all, there are the mountains, especially in the southern horn of Greenland and along the southeast coast. They're incredibly jagged, rising hundreds of metres straight out of the sea. It's mesmerizing to sail past them in any fjord, whether it's Tasermiut, Prins Christians Sund orLindenow Fjord.
The second main feature that comes to mind: ice. Ice in its many forms. There's the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is the second-largest body of ice in the world. There are the many glaciers pouring down into the sea. And icebergs, a veritable theatre of differently shaped and colored ice sculptures.
All glacial ice in Greenland originates in the immense Greenland ice Sheet, flowing down coastal valleys. Photo: Hugo Perrin
The third main feature sometimes surprises visitors: the vegetation. South Greenland has more plants and vegetation than any other part of the Arctic. There's so much diversity. Juniper trees and all sort of shrubs. Botanists encounter plant species that don't grow elsewhere. You can actually get “small forests” of plants that reach up to your waist (or shoulder, depending on your height.)
Mountains, fjords, ocean water, icebergs, glaciers, rock and, yes, beautiful plants appear
unexpectedly in South Greenland. Photo: Sam Crimmin
These main features reflect contrasting colours: the green of the mountains and abundant vegetation; the snow and ice tones of the glaciers and icebergs; and the deep blues of the oceans and fjords.
Stepping onto the Greenland Ice Sheet for the first time
I'm excited that our guests will have the opportunity to be among the few people to explore this immense geographical feature on foot. The Greenland Ice Sheet, the second-largest ice mass in the world, extends about 1.7 million square kilometers (656,000 square miles), roughly three times the size of Texas. Guests on our adventure program will get to appreciate the immensity of this vast, almost desert-like domain from above—in a helicopter—before gently descending and stepping onto the ice sheet itself.
The Greenland Ice Sheet is one of the most studied ice masses in the world. Guests will learn from glaciologists who accompany them onto the ice sheet but also while onboard the helicopter from the ship thanks to the aircraft's internal communications system.
Few things, of course, beat the magic of finally setting foot on the ice sheet.
Tasermiut Fjord: Does it Never End?
One of the most anticipated experiences of a voyage to South Greenland is a journey down the Tasermiut Fjord. From the mouth of the fjord to its head, Tasermiut stretches 70 kilometres. In my mind, it's the most mysterious fjord in the entire Arctic because it's not – to this day – represented on any nautical chart. While it appears on topographical maps and satellite images, Tasermiut Fjord is largely unknown to expedition teams. It's one of the Arctic's best kept secrets.
An aerial photograph taken during a helicopter tour over the 70-km long Tasermiut Fjord, South Greenland. Photo: Sam Crimmin
My first experience of Tasermiut Fjord, in 2016 while on an Arctic circumnavigation voyage with Quark Expeditions, wasn't planned in advance.
I had heard about the fjord and I knew that some people had created special maps, had undertaken special soundings of their own to safely navigate a ship into this fjord.
To make a long story short, another expedition guide and I had the opportunity early one evening, after the ship had anchored (at the mouth of the fjord, where the soundings end), while the guests were at dinner. We set off in a Zodiac as the sun was setting and drove into Tasermiut Fjord with these sonar systems in our boat to map the ocean floor to make sure it was safe to sail. We journeyed three hours up the fjord thinking it would never end. At one point, we shut off the motor and found ourselves looking at these huge peaks – a huge bowl. These huge granite walls reaching up from the depths of the water are the reason why this region is called Arctic Patagonia. The sheer magnitude of the peaks. They're what big wall climbers dream about. Just as we were about to turn back we looked over and there in front of us was this monument of epic proportions, just sitting in front of us: a towering mountain jutting out towards the sea as if it were a sentry guarding this beautiful place.
Quark Expeditions' Alex McNeill on his 2016 reconnaissance mission into Tasermiut Fjord. Photo: Sam Crimmin
The next day we were able to navigate the ship, the polar-class icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, into the fjord. The guests were astounded by the nature's paradise that unveiled itself the deeper into the fjord we traveled. A wilderness playground rose up before us. Luckily, we were able to take passengers on helicopters tours that day. Guests were rendered silent as they watched the raw beauty of the region unfold before them. For the guests, and for those of us on the expedition team, this fjord experience felt like a true discovery.
That experience was pivotal for me. Flying in a helicopter over the fjords of South Greenland for the first time – after years of ship-based exploration – opened my eyes to a whole new set of opportunities for future travelers. This paradise of South Greenland was begging to be explored further — and by air.
Touring by helicopters is a key part of our “Greenland Adventure: Explore by Land, Sea and Air” itinerary. Flights in our two twin-engine helicopters will reveal so much more to our guests: mountain ranges, alpine ridges, hidden gems, the ice sheet itself, and other sites that are out of reach by boat or perhaps too far to hike. The helicopters transcend all of these barriers. When a helicopter drops guests off to hike or trek or kayak, they're in the epicentre of wilderness, whether they're heli-hiking, heli-trekking or heli-kayaking.
Helicopters and helicopter-supported adventure options provide a whole new set of experiences
for visitors to South Greenland. Photo: Hugo Perrin
Guests who join our Greenland Adventure itineraries will find themselves in a wilderness amphitheatre. They will literally have the best seat in the house to view the wonders of South Greenland.
Partnering with local communities
Taleb Rafai (former Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization) once wrote,“There is no future for travel and tourism if you are not welcomed and embraced by the local community.”
Whenever you travel, it's always an advantage to include perspectives of the local communities. What makes this Greenland Adventure program so special is how we developed it in close collaboration with the people of South Greenland. Consequently, local stakeholders have not only welcomed and embraced our program, they're just as excited about it as we are. I'm incredibly proud of the way we were able to go into the local communities and present our idea: “We would like to visit. Can we come? Can we work with you? Let's build this program together.”
Two girls biking through the settlement of Nanortalik in South Greenland. Photo: Mads Pihl/Visit Greenland
Through team work, camaraderie and shared expertise, we've achieved something special that's never been done before: an adventure program completely developed in partnership with local people and businesses in Greenland. I believe this approach to tourism development in the Arctic will serve as a model for other companies. The benefits are plentiful: stakeholders are involved in the planning process and execution, local businesses and communities benefit financially and socially, and guests traveling to the Arctic are able to learn about a rich cultural heritage that doesn't exist anywhere else. This is the way to explore South Greenland.