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Can you observe the Aurora Borealis on a Northern Lights Cruise?

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Can you observe the Aurora borealis on a Northern Lights cruise? You most certainly can. These photos taken on an Arctic cruise with Quark Expeditions speak for themselves.

Guests observe the Northern Lights from the deck of their polar vessel on a Quark Expeditions voyage. Photo: Acacia Johnson

The Aurora borealis can manifest in a rainbow of colors dancing across the night sky . Photo: Acacia Johnson

The multicolored explosion of green, red, yellow and purple dancing across the night sky is known scientifically as the Aurora borealis, and is more apt to be viewed in northern latitudes, in such places as Iceland, Greenland and the extreme north of Canada. The Northern Lights are the result of electrons (very small particles) colliding and mixing with gases in the Earth's atmosphere, which makes them “glow.” The closer you are to the Arctic Circle, the better chances you have of viewing the phenomenon known as this incredible light display—something you should bear in mind when planning for a Northern Lights cruise.

How to Book an Aurora Borealis Cruise

Travelers can witness the Aurora borealis on Arctic expeditions, whether or not the voyage is designed exclusively for those whose main desire is to witness the Northern Lights. Guests who've traveled to Greenland on an Arctic expedition have witnessed impressive displays of the Northern Lights along the famous Ilulissat Icefjord, which stretches about 40 kilometres (25 miles) on the west coast of Greenland. It's also an ideal spot to witness glacier calving, the thunderous moment when huge pieces of ice break off glaciers and crash into the ocean.

Past polar travelers have boasted about achieving their perfect Arctic trifecta: polar bears, Northern Lights and glacier-calving.

Understanding some basics of nature and elements of the atmosphere is helpful when planning for a Northern Lights cruise. The ideal Auroral borealis cruise is made successful with the intermingling of three essential ingredients: a northerly latitude, a cloud-free night sky and a location far removed from humanmade light (which we call ‘light pollution'). Arctic cruises are one of the few (if not the only) travel experiences that naturally offers all three elements. On a polar expedition voyage in the Arctic, you also have the added benefit of onboard polar experts who are experienced at reading the weather, ice and sky conditions to view the Northern Lights. Having seasoned polar guides make the world of difference for wildlife viewing, as well.

Your best option for an Aurora borealis cruise would be to join a seasoned polar operator with a good track record of taking guests to remote polar destinations. Topping the list would be Quark Expeditions' Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland. Not only would you have good chances of witnessing the Aurora borealis, you'd have plenty of other unscripted polar experiences. You'd find yourself cruising along Iceland's mountainous Vestfjords and Greenland's remote northeast coast, home to the world's largest fjord system. You'd have the opportunity to experience Inuit culture at the small settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit, visit ancient sites once occupied by the Thule (ancestors of today's Inuit) and capture incredible photographs of icebergs and towering bird cliffs.

Perhaps you're wondering, “Can you observe the Aurora borealis on a Northern Lights Cruise but visit more than one Arctic region?” The answer is yes, you can. How would you like to enjoy an Aurora borealis cruise that brought you to Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Norway?

A group of Quark Expeditions guests bask in the glow of the Northern Lights.

Guests converge on the deck of their polar vessel in the dark of night to revel in the beauty
of the Northern Lights. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Will I see wildlife on a cruise to see the Northern Lights?

A common question would-be Arctic travelers ask when they start planning for a Northern Lights cruise: “Will I see wildlife on a cruise to see the Northern Lights?” To be honest, it would be incredulous for anyone to take a polar expedition cruise and not see wildlife. (Pretty much unheard-of!) Rest assured, you'll return home with memory cards full of images of the Northern Lights—as well as wildlife.

So what kind of wildlife would you encounter on a cruise to see the Northern Lights: Well, polar bears for one. Among the best places to see both polar bears and the Northern Lights are places like Spitsbergen, in Arctic Norway, Greenland and parts of northern Canada.

Past visitors to Greenland—who intentionally chose a cruise to see the Northern Lights—also saw plenty of muskoxen, which isn't a surprise because 40% of the world's muskoxen are found in Greenland, which is the world's largest island. Greenland's deep fjords, nature preserves and vast stretches of wilderness are also home to polar bears, blue whales, narwhals, fin whales, humpback, ringed seals and rare Arctic birds.

Some helpful reading when planning a Northern Lights cruise:

• Photographer and longtime polar expedition guide Acacia Johnson captures some of the visual magic you can expect on an Aurora Borealis cruise in her blog The Celestial Wonders of the Northern Lights

• The information-packed How to See the Northern Lights explains in more detail some of the key ingredients of a successful Aurora Borealis cruise mentioned above.

Of Legends and Folklore: Greenland's Northern Lights delves into some of the cultural touch points and mythology surrounding the Northern Lights.

• Celebrated astronaut and New York Times bestselling author Colonel Chris Hadfield (also a onetime International Space Station commander)not only became the first Canadian to walk in space, he also traveled to the Arctic with Quark Expeditions. He discusses the Aurora Borealis in this inspiring video, a visual treat for anyone to enjoy when planning a Northern Lights cruise.

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