Located halfway between the North Pole and Norway, Svalbard (meaning ‘the cold rim’) consists of numerous islands – the largest of which is Spitzbergen – that was settled in the last 200 years when mining and whaling drew settlers to this remote part of the world.
Today, the main town, Longyearbyen, is a great jumping-off point for those looking for an Arctic adventure like no other. Plus, this is probably the world’s northernmost place where you can get wifi connection.
This part of the Arctic is governed by the extremes – the Polar Night and the Midnight Sun which cloak the landscape in darkness and light 24 hours a day. While the Midnight Sun is the best time to go to spot wildlife, the Polar Night brings with it the spectacle of the Northern Lights. As desolate as it seems, the amount of wildlife that thrives here makes it worth the extra mile.
Characterised by circular markings on its body, the Ringed Seal is relatively small compared to the Bearded Seal, and occurs almost everywhere in the Arctic, and can be spotted near drift ice or fjord ice, where they can stay in quite large numbers. They moult in June and July, and retreat to open waters near the ice edge. Ringed seals often end up as meals for polar bears, and occasionally walruses and Greenland sharks. They’re also sometimes hunted by humans, although the meat is usually fed to sled dogs.
The highlight of any Svalbard trip is the sighting of a polar bear. These Kings of the Arctic scour the icy tundra looking for their favourite food source of bearded seals. About 3,000 of these bears are estimated to inhabit the Svalbard area (with numbers steadily increasing over the past few decades), meaning chances of an encounter with one can be high since it is relatively fearless of humans. The polar bear spotting season is between July and August when the waters are navigable by boat and you may see the bears hunting on the pack ice.
An unexpected surprise for most visitors is the sighting of walruses, which inhabit shallow coastal waters. Growing between 3-4m in length and weighing in at 1,500kg, these mollusc eaters can be spotted hauling themselves up onto shores or ice using their large canine teeth. Walrus numbers are on an increase – now estimated to be around 2,000 individuals – thanks to conservation efforts. One of the most known colonies close to Longyearbyen is on “Prince Karl’s Forland”.
Wildlife Spotting Options
There are a number of options available for exploring wildlife in the area around Svalbard. Trips depart from Longyearbyen, with most land-based trips accompanied by guides armed with rifles (for polar bear protection).
The best way to spot most of the wildlife Svalbard has to offer is on wildlife cruises – possible only during summer when the pack ice breaks up. A number of options are available, ranging from day trips to multi-day expeditions, offering opportunities to catch polar bears, walruses or seals perched on ice floes. You may also catch a blue whale or a humpback whale as they play around the boats. Some of these cruises also include time spent on the ground to be closer to wildlife like walruses, while others have inflatable Zodiac boats that cruise along towering sea cliffs, home to tens of thousands of raucous seabirds.
Dog sledging (sledding)
Dog sledging is normally done during winter/spring (Nov-May) when there is snow cover. This is a good time to encounter the Northern Lights and a crystal-clear sky full of stars, in addition to some wildlife like foxes and reindeer. Visitors are expected to drive their own sleds, and will be instructed on how to handle one (tethered to up to a dozen dogs), with two people per sled. It’s also possible to sled outside the winter season, although the sleds will be equipped with wheels.
Kayaking & Hiking
During summer, you can also go kayaking and/or hiking. A hiking trip to Fuglefjella takes you to cliffsides that are home to nesting seabirds including the little auk, guillemots, fulmars and maybe even the Svalbard Ptarmigan. Kayaking trips can bring you close to nesting bird colonies, and you may share a beach with walruses, arctic foxes, and reindeer or even catch whales (like mink or beluga) while in the water.
A relatively easy creature to spot is the endemic Svalbard reindeer, which can be even be seen in downtown Longyearbyen in small herds of 3 to 5 individuals (and they’re relatively fearless of humans) during summer when they feed on the lowland plateaus. Smaller than other reindeer species, the males grow their fuzzy antlers between April and July before shedding their velvet in August, whilst the females’ antlers grow in June and maintain throughout the year.
With their short snout, short ears and body size close to the red fox, the Arctic fox has a winter coat (white) and a thinner summer one (brown/grey with hints of white). Arctic foxes have 2 distinct colour morphs – white and blue, with most in Svalbard possessing the white coat. They can be spotted almost anywhere in Svalbard, and can be seen stalking smaller rodents on inland areas, or even feasting on marine creatures at sea.
One of the most colourful birds in Svalbard is the puffin – they are instantly recognisable and are unique in a way that they have huge, colourful bills and a peculiar walk. There are an estimated 10,000 nesting pairs in accessible spots along the cliffs and they can often be spotted if you’re sailing in the area near Spitzbergen. Puffins return early to their breeding sites in early or mid May and stay well into August.
The fastest way to Svalbard is by plane, with scheduled daily flights most of the year from Oslo (flight time of 3 hours) and Tromsø (flight time of 1 hr 50 mins) to Longyearbyen. Getting around the small town of Longyearbyen is easy, as there are few roads. Beyond that, transport is by snowmobile (winter) or boat (summer). There are about 17 lodges on Svalbard, ranging from hostels to 5-star hotels. For more, visit visitsvalbard.com.