Located about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard ranks among the world’s northernmost areas that are inhabited by humans. Of course, with approximately 23,500 square miles of land and less than 3,000 full-time residents, this remote Arctic archipelago isn’t exactly what you’d call a bustling metropolis. And that is precisely what makes these Norwegian islands an emerging ecotourism hotspot.
What the Svalbard archipelago lacks in people, it more than makes up for in Arctic wildlife. The seven national parks and 23 nature reserves that cover approximately two-thirds of the archipelago are home to more than two dozen mammals, three of which are endangered. These include animals such as the Arctic fox, red fox, reindeer, and polar bear, as well as walrus, five species of seal, and around a dozen cetacean species.
Avid birdwatchers will also find plenty of action in these Arctic islands. Researchers have record over 100 different bird species (mostly migratory) in Svalbard. Less than 30 of these are known to breed in the archipelago, but they include favorites like Atlantic puffins, eiders, the rare ivory gull, dovekies (a.k.a the little auk), Brünnich’s guillemot, and more.
Of course, there’s more to Svalbard than just wildlife. There’s also dynamic Arctic scenery and, if you visit during the summer, a midnight sun that ensure plenty of light (and energy) for a day filled with activities. Here’s a look at a few of our favorite things to do in Svalbard, many of which you can experience for yourself on Zegrahm’s Polar Bear Quest expedition.
Birdwatching at the Cliffs of Alkefjellet
Located along the Hinlopen Strait in Ny-Friesland on the island of Spitsbergen, Alkefjellet is a dynamic set of sheer basalt cliffs that become a haven for nesting seabirds in the summertime. The smells and sounds might be overwhelming at first. But the sight of the rugged rocks lined with tens of thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots (a.k.a. thick-billed murres), glaucous gulls, and kittiwakes is one you’ll never forget. Watch the base of the cliffs carefully and you may spot opportunistic Arctic foxes hunting for eggs!
Enjoy Amazing Arctic Landscapes on Phippsøya Island
Located at the northernmost edge of the archipelago, Phippsøya Island was named after 18th century English explorer Constantine John Phipps, who commanded an expedition to Svalbard in 1773. Its striking landscape is a classic example of the High Arctic landscape– barren and rock with coastal plains and steep, mountainous interiors. Hiking the area reveals a diverse array from flora, from colorful lichens to small patches of Svalbard poppy and saxifrage. Birdwatchers will also enjoy the island’s colonies of Atlantic puffins, dovekies, and rare ivory gulls.
Explore Forlandet National Park
Encompassing nearly 1800 square miles, Forlandet National Park is worth visiting for numerous reasons. Its Forlandsøyane Bird Sanctuary has been recognized as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International, and there are fascinating archaeological remains from the archipelago’s whaling past. The Poolepynton area is a popular place for walrus to haul out, meaning it’s also a great place to watch them courting, fighting, lumbering about, and vying for their own scenic stretch of Arctic coastline.
Go Dogsledding in the Mountains
For an unforgettable adventure through the Arctic wilderness, visit Svalbard just before the dog days of summer and try your hands at this traditional form of transportation. There are numerous dogsledding outfitters in Longyearben, some of which offer half-day tours for small groups up to eight people. You’ll start by meeting your canine team (and their adorable Husky puppies) from their kennels. Then you’ll head for the hills (around 2,000 feet above sea level), where the mountains often remain snow-capped even in June. The panoramic scenery from the summits is spectacular, the ride exhilarating, and the dogs… well, their enthusiasm for mushing is undeniably infectious. In short, it’s an experience you’ll never forget!
Look for Polar Bears on Lågøya Island
Located off the northwest coast of Nordaustlandet, Lågøya Island is rarely visited. By humans, that is. But it’s a fantastic place to spot some of the 3,000 or so polar bears in Svalbard, who tend to spend most of their time hunting for prey. Lågøya’s proximity to numerous bays and fjords on the Arctic Ocean makes it prime territory for polar bears, who can often be seen along the island’s shorelines watching for bearded and ringed seals, or perhaps the occasional whale carcass.
Marvel at the Midnight Sun (Or Northern Lights)
Whether you choose to visit in summer or winter, the archipelago’s evening skies offer wonders you’ll only find in extreme northern latitudes. From late April to mid-August, the sun never completely sets in Svalbard. The midnight sun makes for some seriously surreal snow-capped landscapes that make for incredible photo opportunities. If you visit during the polar night, which lasts from November to February, there’s no daylight whatsoever. And Svalbard just so happens to be the only place in the world where you can see the northern lights (a.k.a. Aurora Borealis) during the daytime!
Photograph Dramatic Fjords and Glaciers
Svalbard is covered by over 14,000 square miles of glacial ice, encompassing about 60% of its land area. The largest glacier is 3,248-square mile Austfonna (on Nordaustlandet), followed by Olav V Land and Vestfonna. But one of the region’s most dramatic glaciers is in Liefdefjorden, a gorgeous fjord where rugged mountains rise from the permanent ice cap. There you’ll find the Monaco Glacier, named for Prince Albert I of Monaco, an oceanography pioneer who led an expedition to Svalbard in 1906. The area is also a great place to spot whales, seals, and seabirds such as kittiwakes.
Tour the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Recently in international news thanks to a $13 million upgrade (in light of rising Arctic temperatures), Svalbard’s “Doomsday” Seed Vault is designed to protect the biodiversity of the world’s plant life. Situated deep within the permafrost in Longyearben, the vault has been referred to as a “Noah’s Ark of plant diversity,” with some 4.5 million seed samples from all across the world stored at an average temperature of around -18º Celsius. The building’s exterior is also impressive: Sharp concrete edges jut out from a mountain, with artist Dyveke Sanne’s “Perpetual Repercussions” installation using highly reflective stainless steel, mirrors, and prisms to reflect light in every possible direction. Visits inside the vault are extremely rare, but tours of the outside of the facility are available.
Watch for Reindeer on Edgeøya Island
Located in the southeastern part of Svalbard, Edgeøya (a.k.a. Edge Island) is the third largest island in the archipelago at 1,960 square miles. It’s remote and rarely visited, largely covered in ice, and protect as part of the Søraust-Svalbard Nature Reserve. Here you can see walrus, the occasional polar bear, and breeding populations of beautiful birds such as barnacle geese, king eiders, and purple sandpipers. But the main attraction for many visitors is the massive herds of reindeer, which the indigenous Arctic Laplanders known as the Sami people have herded for centuries.
Visit Moffen Island
Located just a few feet above sea level off the northern coast of Spitsbergen, this tiny island (which is really more of an atoll) offers amazing wildlife sightings that belie its diminutive size. It’s best known as a protected Walrus sanctuary, offering exceptional opportunities to photograph them along the gravel shoreline. But it’s also a popular nesting site for seabirds (including the rare Sabine’s gull), and hungry polar bears are sometimes seen hunting for prey.
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 25 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.