Realm of the Polar Bear

Photos by: Marcela Cardenas & Roy Mangersnes @wildphoto.no

Located halfway between the North Pole and Norway, Svalbard (meaning ‘the cold coasts’) 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.

The islands are home to almost 3,000 human inhabitants, over 2,000 of which live in Longyearbyen, the administrative centre and largest settlement of the islands. It’s also where you can get Arctic food, locally-brewed beer, and even Wifi connection. Despite its latitude, the the archipelago has a relatively mild climate, with average temperatures of -14°C (winter) to 6°C (summer) in Longyearbyen.

This part of the Arctic is governed by the extremes with three main seasons: Polar Summer (mid May to end Sep), Northern Lights Winter (Oct to Feb) and Sunny Winter (Mar to mid May).

 

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).

 

Boat expeditions

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 – following the lead sled dogs and guide – and will be instructed on how to handle one (tethered to up to a dozen excited dogs), with two people per sled. It’s relatively easy to drive a sled – as the dogs are raring to follow the pack leader, all you have to do is handle the brakes. It’s also possible to sled outside the winter season, although the sleds will be equipped with wheels.

 

Snowmobiling

Everyone in Svalbard drives snowmobiles – and with an Arctic landscape covered with snow, a snowmobile safari can take you to the east coast for amazing sights like icebergs frozen in the sea ice, old trappers’ huts, glacier termini and Arctic animal life. Other snowmobile trips take you to the Russian settlement of Barentsburg or the ghost town of Pyramiden. If you visit Svalbard during the Polar Night, you can go on an exotic Northern Lights chase by snowmobile.

 

Kayaking & Hiking

During summer, you can also go kayaking and/or hiking. A hiking trip to Fuglefjella takes you to cliffs that are home to nesting seabirds including the little auk, guillemots, fulmars and the rare Svalbard Ptarmigan. Some hikes will be accompanied by pack dogs.

Kayaking trips can bring you close to nesting bird colonies, and you may share a beach with walruses, arctic foxes, and reindeer or even see whales (like mink or beluga) while in the water.

 

WILDLIFE IN SVALBARD

Historically, both whaling and trapping have been major activities in the archipelago, but now much of Svalbard is protected and consists of several nature reserves, national parks, bird sanctuaries and even a geotopical protected area. No matter where you go, there’s a high chance of spotting wildlife.

 

Polar Bear

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: bearded seals. As polar bears are protected by law, there are no polar bear safaris; however, as there are about 3,000 of these bears inhabiting the Svalbard area (more than human inhabitants), an encounter with one can be likely. 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.

 

Walrus

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. Walruses inhabit shallow coastal waters. The population is estimated to be around 2,000 individuals, and one of the most visited colonies close to Longyearbyen is on “Prince Karl’s Forland”.

 

Ringed Seal

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.

 

Bearded Seal

The second largest seal in the Arctic, Bearded seals weigh up to 300kg (with the females slightly larger) and have a characteristic large body, small head, and noticeable whiskers. They can sometimes be spotted year round in Svalbard waters – they will usually be on ice floes or swimming in the water, and hardly ever on land – as they feed on most shellfish found in the area. They are (unfortunately) usually devoured by polar bears, walruses, and Greenland sharks.

 

Reindeer

A relatively easy creature to spot is the endemic Svalbard reindeer, which can even be seen in downtown Longyearbyen in small herds of 3-5 individuals during summer when they feed on the lowland plateaus. It’s a relatively small reindeer species – the males grow their fuzzy antlers between April and July before shedding their velvet in August, while the females’ antlers grow in June and maintain throughout the year.

 

Arctic Fox

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 coat (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 in inland areas, or even feasting on marine creatures at sea.

 

GETTING THERE

The fastest way to Svalbard is by plane, with scheduled daily flights most of the year from Oslo (3 hours) and Tromsø (2 hours) 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).

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