Spitsbergen (Svalbard), with its rugged mountains, sweeping tundra, ice caps and glaciers, is a true High Arctic archipelago, and only 500 miles from the North Pole. Its abundant wildlife was once a huge draw for whalers and trappers but now discerning visitors are discovering the attractions of huge Arctic seabird colonies and the chance to enjoy and photograph species like Walrus, Reindeer, Arctic Fox and of course, Polar Bear.
Most of Svalbard's 62,000 sq km are unspoilt and incredibly beautiful, with no roads outside of the 2 settlements - Longyearbyen with 2,000 residents, and the Russian community of Barentsburg with 1,000 residents. The area is best explored by ice-strengthened expedition ship, using Zodiacs for shore landings. The coast is mostly ice free in the summer and colorful wildflowers, mosses and lichens abound.
The photographic opportunities are stellar as one explores the surreal landscape of fjords, glaciers and icebergs, and the extraordinary wildlife that makes its home here.
Selecting an Expedition...
There are a lot of considerations when looking at the High Arctic. What area(s) would you like to experience? What would you most like to see there? How big or small of a ship would you like to travel aboard, and what amenities do you need or want? Are there special activities you would like to participate in? Is one part of the season better for you than another? We will want to consider all of these things and how they fit together as we find the perfect High Arctic program for you!
Much like the Galapagos, or Antarctica, many expeditions are short - often just 7 nights. That's ok if that's all the time you have, but it will likely leave you wondering what you missed. To really get a feel for the area, and increase your wildlife viewing possibilities, we suggest a longer voyage. The archipelago is vast, and you don't want to rush the experience!
June, July or August?
The Arctic season is short, with the weather, and to an even greater degree the ice, controlling where your expedition goes. Typically by early June the seasonal ice will have receded to the point were most of western Spitsbergen, warmed by the gulf stream, is largely ice free. This enables expedition ships to undertake an in-depth exploration of the western coast, both north and south of Longyearbyen.
Traveling mid-summer one can still expect to see plenty of sea ice - the perfect place to find bears and seals. Mid-season is also remarkable for the density of the bird colonies and the cacophony of activity there, with expeditions often exploring part of the Hinlopen Straight which separates the two largest islands in the archipelago. At this time the tundra is also a blaze of tiny flowers.
By late-season the ice may have receded to the point where expeditions will attempt a full circumnavigation of the archipelago - bears continue to be found along the ice edge particularly to the north and east at this time, as the landscape takes on the ruddy tones of autumn.
The Wildlife Experience...
Unlike Antarctica, Svalbard has terrestrial predators - the Arctic Fox and Polar Bear - so almost all of the birds nest on cliffs inaccessible to these hungry predators. The wildlife is not as approachable as in Antarctica, but because Svalbard never had an indigenous population its wildlife is less afraid of people than in any other Arctic region. Svalbard Reindeer, Arctic Fox, and Walrus can at times be approached within 20 feet. The expedition team likes to keep a bit more distance between you and the Polar Bear!
Pelagic whale species such as Humpback, Blue, Minke, Fin and Greenland (Bowhead) are possible. Keep your eye out for Narwhal, which on rare occasions pass through these northern waters in July. There is a decent chance to see Beluga in the southern fjords.
Harp Seals congregate and molt off some of the southern islands, with Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals, and Hooded Seals all being more common in the central and northern archipelago.
There are fantastic bird cliffs where Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, Glaucous Gulls, and several species of alcids breed, including Dovekie (Little Auk), Black Guillemot, Brünnich's Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin.
Along the rocky shores of Spitsbergen watch for nesting Arctic Terns and Arctic Skuas. Inland you might see goose colonies - Pink-footed, Barnacle, and Brant - along with Common Eider, King Eider, Red- throated Loons, Long-tailed Ducks, Red Phalaropes, and Svalbard Ptarmigan. Ivory Gulls breed farther inland although we are likely to see them foraging along the sea ice.
The region has one of the highest concentrations of Polar Bears, which are most likely encountered along the western and northern coasts of Spitsbergen, and hunting along the ice edge.
One has to work a bit harder for the wildlife here, but once seen it is nothing short of spectacular!
Getting there: Nearly all Spitsbergen expeditions will embark and disembark in Longyearbyen. Oslo, Norway, is the jumping off point for flights to Longyearbyen, with several flights per day during the summer months. Based on flight schedules you will likely need to spend one night in Oslo at the start of the trip - there is no shortage of things to keep one occupied in Oslo however, even if you're not a "city person." Our favorite group of museums anywhere are located on an island in the harbor - Amundsen's Fram Museum containing his Polar exploration vessel; Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki Museum, with his vessel of the same name; and the Viking Ship Museum.
Flight time between Oslo and Longyearbyen is roughly 5 hours, with a morning departure typically getting you to the island in plenty of time for an afternoon boarding of your expedition ship. Your Tour Operator will likely meet participants and transfer you the short distance to either the ship dock or town center. The expedition ships typically board passengers around 4 or 5pm, sailing out of the Fjord Isfjorden by early evening. The waters are very calm compared to the Antarctic and due to the shallow seas and the northward flow of the Gulf Stream, the climate is much milder than one would expect so far north.
Of course you might also prefer to arrive in Longyearbyen a day early and spend a night in this northern outpost - Longyearbyen bills itself as the northernmost town in the world. Accommodation options range from a small Radisson Hotel to several simple guesthouses. The small town is colorful and its environs are often bright with wildflowers, plus Svalbard Ptarmigan (a subspecies of the Rock Ptarmigan) and Snow Buntings (the only songbird in the region) nesting on the outskirts. Strolling around this former mining town you might well cross paths with Svalbard Reindeer (an endemic sub-species). The Svalbard Museum, located in the Science Centre, the Spitsbergen Airship Museum, and the parish church are well worth visiting.
At the conclusion of the expedition cruise one can typically catch a mid-day flight back to Oslo.
While each ship and tour operator will have a planned itinerary for their voyage, of typically 7 to 12 days, the actual routing will be forged around the ice and weather conditions at the time, with the aim of doing as much as possible. Anticipate days filled with exciting landings and excursions, zodiac cruising, and ship-based wildlife viewing. In addition the expedition teams offer lectures on the wildlife behavior you are seeing, plus the geology, flora and history of the High Arctic. The ships we recommend for the region include the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, Plancius, and Ortelius.
Planning your expedition...
If we have whet your appetite to learn more about Spitsbergen let us know. For more than 15 years we have been traveling to Spitsbergen personally, and sharing the region with our intrepid travelers. We are not offering any Galapagos Travel group trips there at this time, but we know the ships, the tour operators, and the region, and we'd love to have a chance to help plan your voyage. Let us put our experience to work for you!
As an added bonus GALAPAGOS TRAVEL will include a free pre-departure hotel night in Longyearbyen for anyone booking through us (it is an easy way for us to make sure everyone arrives early and we don't have to worry about you!)