Despite increased tourism and rising temperatures, the Arctic’s stunning landscape of crashing glaciers and elusive wildlife is still largely ruled by ice.

In the European Arctic, there is an etiquette to wildlife watching. And unfortunately, it requires something most humans lack: patience.

“Animals are wary of new things. They’re curious, but cautious,” said Dr Gary Miller, an expedition leader on the Polar Pioneer, a 54-passenger ice-strengthened expedition vessel that travels between the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, the east coast of Greenland and Iceland. “You don’t want to come at the animals directly, because they’ll think you want to eat them.”

It was sage advice for passengers during the ship’s first landing at Alkhornet in Spitsbergen, the largest island in Svalbard. In a strategic attempt to lure the ship’s passengers away from its den, an arctic fox dashed out from a rocky outcrop and then disappeared across the tundra. But just 15 minutes later, when the fox was satisfied the group was not a threat, it returned to investigate the strange herd of two legged creatures, running in circles around the group and scent-marking the small parcels of food it had previously stockpiled in the ground nearby. Bold and inquisitive, at times the Arctic fox came so close that his long tail almost brushed up against the passengers’ legs.  

Unlike Antarctica, which is protected by an international agreement, numerous countries lay claim to parts of the Arctic, which makes it hard to pin down exactly how many tourists visit the region each summer, when the sun does not set below the horizon and the ice melts enough to allow expedition ships passage to the remote wilderness. However, according to the United Nations, numbers rose from about one million travellers in the early 1990s to more that 1.5 million in 2007, and the number continues to grow.

Luckily, Arctic tourism remains sustainable. A 2010 report by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) found that operational emissions had a relatively minor impact on the Arctic marine environment, and that environmental awareness was high among ship personnel, expedition crew and tourists.

Since the Artic does not have a unified set of environmental policies, the AECO published a discretionary set of guidelines for visitors and operators that are aimed at protecting the environment, ensuring safety and promoting cultural sensitivity and social interaction with locals.

 Most boats employ a team of highly-educated polar and Arctic specialists to lead expeditions. On the 14-day Jewels of the Arctic cruise operated by Aurora Expeditions, for example, passengers on the Polar Pioneer had access to a naturalist, geologist, an assistant expedition leader and Miller, an expedition leader who has spent 14 seasons in the Arctic and 20 in the Antarctic.

On board the Polar Pioneer, precautions to protect the environment are taken in simple but effective ways. Passengers wear boat-issued rubber boots on most landings, which are washed and disinfected once back on board. This keeps the boat clean, and more importantly, avoids cross contamination between sites, like the delicate spongy paradise of Alkhornet, an authorised landing site made up of hundreds of species of lichen and moss..

Dotting some landing sites are former trapper’s huts. The first visitors were hunters who came in search of whale blubber, walrus and the white fur of the Arctic fox. Old fox and partially collapsed polar traps still surround the ramshackle huts. Long abandoned, these relics are protected as part of the region’s cultural heritage. 

Old Paleo-Inuit archaeological sites are also common, and are usually ideal landing spots to see both terrestrial and marine wildlife. Early settlers chose places that were favoured grazing or resting spots, to ensure they had enough animals to hunt. Today, the wildlife at these sites are shot not with guns, but with the eager click of expensive camera gear as passengers attempt to snap spectacular wildlife photos.

But there is more than just wildlife to entice visitors to the Arctic. The stunning landscape is filled with frozen glaciers, icebergs and ice floes. Best viewed from Zodiacs, passengers can watch as 10-storey high chunks of ice intermittently calve from the glacier facades and smash into the water below. It is a spectacular performance that is unfortunately indicative of a bigger problem: the Arctic is warming up, the ice is melting and glaciers are receding.

Since 1979, when NASA first began recording satellite ice images, scientists have seen a 13% decline per decade in the minimum summertime extent of sea ice, and in late August, NASA confirmed that the ice was at an all time low.

For example, when the Polar Pioneer visited the Brepollen glacier in Svalbard, the ship’s chart noted that just a few years ago the glacier face extended a few hundred metres further out -- demonstrating just how rapidly the glacier has receded.

However, although the sea ice is shrinking -- covering less total area as well as becoming thinner -- the Arctic is still a world ruled by ice, a lesson well learned when the Polar Pioneer encountered heavy pack ice between Svalbard and the eastern coast of Greenland, forcing the captain to divert the boat and drop speed to just a few knots. A day at sea was added to the itinerary, but few passengers minded; there was no wind and blue skies -- the perfect conditions for wildlife watching.

In the distance, ring seals were spotted briefly before they disappeared into the safety of the water – a good sign, the crew assured. A cautious seal means that polar bears are most likely around.

Several hours later, in the honey-dipped low light of the midnight sun, a polar bear was spotted on an ice floe, finishing his dinner. The engines were cut and with the precision of a surgical team, the crew manoeuvred the 71m vessel slowly and safely just near the bear, who, intrigued by the sight of the boat, walked over to take a closer look. Gripping the ice with his sharp claws, the polar bear leaned over the edge of the ice, sniffing the air and taking in the foreign scent of the 50 sweaty, sunburnt tourists, expedition leaders and crew. The experience was made even more spectacular by the appearance of a second, larger and more inquisitive bear that was so well camouflaged he appeared almost out of thin air.

The polar bear is the most unique creature in the Arctic, but it is also an animal to be respected. Polar bear attacks on humans are rare, but do happen, and on all Arctic landings guides carry both flare guns and rifles to protect passengers from overly curious bear encounters.

Throughout the Svalbard archipelago, polar bears are protected, but in the remote village of Ittoqqorrtoormiit on the east coast of Greenland, they are hunted for meat under license and within strict limits set out by the government. Cut off by sea ice nine months of the year, Ittoqqorrtoormiit, population 400, receives two supply ships between late June and September, when the ships can make it through the ice to deliver goods. The half-dozen expedition ships that also visit each summer provide an opportunity for locals to ply their goods and make an income (and for the kids who managed to commandeer a Zodiac left on shore, a bit of summertime fun). For travellers, a visit to Ittoqqorrtoormiit offers incredible insight into how man has built a community in the Arctic’s incredibly hostile conditions – and survived.

At the end of the Polar Pioneer’s journey in Iceland, Miller said he hopes visitors walk away with an appreciation of the Arctic’s wildlife, the people and the complexity of the landscape. “It’s not a wasteland where we should let anyone do what they want to it,” he said. “We hope that people come to the understanding the Arctic is worth saving.”