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Svalbard/Spitsbergen & the High Norwegian Arctic

The Arctic and North Atlantic islands and coastlines offer some of the finest scenery and wildlife experiences in the world. Visitors to the region can witness enormous colonies of seabirds thronging the cliffs and shores, and enjoy the thrilling antics of whales and dolphins at sea, and seals and walrus hauled out on the rocks and ice floes. You may even encounter the very symbol of the Arctic - the Polar Bear. Though remote and sparsely populated today, many of the places we explore have been inhabited in the last 5000 years, and thousands of unique prehistoric and historic sites are a testimony to the thriving cultures of the past.

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.

Mid-summer at these latitudes the sun will not set, providing endless photographic possibilities: Spitsbergen at midnight


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.

Galapagos Travel first began traveling to Spitsbergen in 2001, and began sharing it with our own explorers in 2004, offering the occasional group expedition since that time, most recently in 2011. At present we have no plans to offer a group departure to Spitsberen in the future. The reason for this is nothing to do with Spitsbergen, but rather our own limited time and not wanting to "spread ourselves too thin." On the contrary, during the 10 years we have been venturing to Spitsbergen it seems that the bear and walrus sightings are getting better each year!

Selecting an Expedition
There are a lot of consideration 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 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 you wildlife viewing possibilities we suggest a longer voyage. The archipelago is vast, and you don't want to rush the experience!

The various Polar Tour Operators we will recommend are all experts in the region. They use ships with the highest safety ratings, with highly experienced crews and expeditions teams. Each operator has different names for their programs, but generally speaking the shorter voyages will be more restricted to the western and north-western coast of Spitsbergen. The longer voyages will either wrap around and hit more of the northern coast, or late in the season might even circumnavigate the archipelago. Of course all routing and plans are subject to ice conditions and weather. By late August most ships depart Spitsbergen, often with journeys that visit the eastern coast of Greenland, finishing with a stop in Iceland, before returning to the Antarctic for another season in the far south.


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 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 an expedition might 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 quite 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 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, BrŘnnich's Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin.

Along the rocky shores 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!


Expedition Logistics...
Getting there: Nearly all Spitsbergen expeditions will embark and disembark in Longyearbyen (the largest community in the archipelago). O slo, 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 want to spend one night in Oslo at the start of the trip - there is no shortage of things to keep one occupied in the city, even if you're not a "city person." Our favorite cluster 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 at the airport and transfer you the short distance to either the ship dock or town center. Expedition ships typically board passengers around 4 or 5pm, sailing out of the Fjord Isfjorden by early evening. The sea in this area is usually quite calm, and owing to the shallow depth and northward flow of the Gulf Stream, the climate is milder than one might 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 Blu Hotel to several simple guesthouses. The small town is colorful and its environs are bright with wildflowers beginning to bloom, and Svalbard Ptarmigan (a subspecies of the Rock Ptarmigan) and Snow Buntings (the only songbird this far north) 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 your expedition cruise it is typically possible to catch a mid-day flight back to Oslo the same day (disembarkation is usually around 8am).


Expedition Cruise
While each ship and tour operator will have a planned itinerary for their voyage, of roughly 8 to 14 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. Typical landings might offer guided options for both easy and more challenging walks, allowing visitors to choose the best experience for their interests and abilities. Some departures might also offer an enhanced photography program, or kayaking options. In addition the expedition teams offer lectures on the wildlife behavior you are seeing, plus the geology, flora and history of the High Arctic. Following is a sampling of sites that might be visited.


A few of the places you might visit depending on your routing:

Hornsund • A major fjord south of Bellsund and north of the tip of Spitsbergen is the large and rugged Hornsund, which has 14 large glaciers and rich marine wildlife, including seabird cliffs, Polar Bears, seals, and Belugas, plus interesting geological formations. One of the major migration routes of a Polar Bear population is up Hornsund Fjord, across to the east side of Spitsbergen, south to the tip at S°rkapp, and back up the west side into Hornsund again. The mountain peaks on the south side of Hornsund, Hornsundtind (1,431m) and Bautaen, show why the early Dutch explorers named the island Spitsbergen, meaning "pointed mountains." A Polish research station is located in Hornsund Fjord and the mountains behind it are home to thousands of nesting Little Auks (Dovekies).

Stormbukta • Going south, before reaching the tip of Spitsbergen, we may try to land at Stormbukta near a Kittiwake colony and post-volcanic springs.

Sandhamna • Near S°rkapp Island, where Harp Seals like to molt at the southern tip of Spitsbergen, we may make a landing at Sandhamna. Due to different ocean currents that meet and swirl around this southern tip of land, dead animals are often washed ashore here, attracting Polar Bears to the area. The land is dotted with lakes, which are home to geese and loons, and, occasionally, migrant birds that have lost their way are also spotted here.

Isbukta On the southeastern side of Spitsbergen, Isbukta is a secluded ice-filled bay surrounded by a spectacular glacier front. Its waters are rich in marine mammals.

B÷lsche°ya This charming island is in the small archipelago of Tusen°yane, to the south of Edge°ya. B÷lsche°ya has many remains of Walrus and Right Whales. On a happier note, there are Red Phalaropes, Arctic Skuas, Red-throated Loons, and possibly the Pale-bellied Brant Goose, a subspecies found only on Spitsbergen, Franz Josef, and occasionally in Greenland.

Aekongen Also in this same multitude of small islands south of Edge°ya, Aekongen has a complete Right Whale skeleton, spectacular basalt rock columns, and Common Eiders often nesting in July.

Risetreppen There are two beautiful canyons located at Risetreppen in Keilhaubukta, south of Edge°ya. The canyons are home to small colonies of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Black Guillemots. There are also raised beaches littered with sub-fossil whale skeletons. The beaches are foraging areas for the hardy Spitsbergen Reindeer.

Kraussbukta Just north of Kvalpynten, the southwest tip of Edge°ya, there is a big Thick-billed Murre colony at Kraussbukta. The tundra here is covered with small ponds for breeding Red-throated Loons, Pink-footed Geese, and Grey Phalaropes.

Freemansundet At the northwest tip of Edge°ya we may proceed through Freemansundet, the strait between Barentz°ya and Edge°ya. This passage is wonderful for observing Walruses, seals, and even the elusive Northern Right Whale, which was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century.

Kong Karls Land In the eastern part of the Svalbard Archipelago is Svalbard's most strictly protected nature reserve, Kong Karls Land. This is the most important denning area for Polar Bears and is a haven for seabirds and other mammals. Ships may not approach the reserve closer than 500 meters (1,650 feet); landings obviously are prohibited. Cruising northeast, we may pass Svensk°ya, the westernmost island in Kong Karls Land. There will be plenty of pack ice and there is a good chance we will see Polar Bears, Harp and Ringed seals, Ivory Gulls, and Pomarine Jaegers (Skuas).

Svartknausflya On southern coast of Nordaustlandet, the most northerly of the major islands, is Svartknausflya, a "polar desert" that gets so little precipitation that even the hardy tundra plants cannot survive. The bare, sandy hills are a strong contrast to the world's third largest ice cap, several hundred miles long, which plunges into the sea not far away.

Alkefjellet If ice conditions permit, we will sail northwest through Hinlopenstretet, the strait that separates Spitsbergen to the west and the big island of Nordaustlandet to the northeast. Along Lomfjordshalv°ya, a big glacial thumb protruding from the coast of Spitsbergen into the strait, are the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. The basalt pillars, rising to hundreds of feet, and the overhanging ice cap with its waterfall are amazing. The cliffs are the breeding ground for thousands of Thick-billed Murres (BrŘnnich's Guillemots).

Augustabukta On the eastern side of Hinlopenstretet, across from Lomfjordshalv°ya, the huge island of Nordaustlandet offers more great wildlife sites. Augustabukta is a good place to see Spitsbergen Reindeer, Pink-footed Geese, and Walrus. We may also visit a cliff where the rare Ivory Gull breeds.

Liefdefjorden If the ice is light here in the northernmost regions of Spitsbergen, we may sail to the mouth of Liefdefjorden and go ashore for a walk on the tundra of And°ya. Many Common Eiders and Pink-footed Geese nest here and the less common King Eider may also be seen. Monacobreen, with its five-kilometer long face, is an impressive glacier at the end of this large fjord. Polar Bears have been seen on the glacier and the waters from its front are a favorite feeding spot for thousands of Kittiwakes.

Raudfjorden Further west along the north coast of Spitsbergen, Raudfjorden is a beautiful fjord with spectacular glaciers. It is home to Ringed and Bearded Seals, seabird colonies and surprisingly rich vegetation.

Ytre Norsk°ya The small island of Ytre Norsk°ya, on the northwest coast of Spitsbergen has an accessible breeding ground of Little Auks, Black Guillemots, BrŘnnich's Guillemots, Puffins and Arctic Skuas.

Krossfjorden On the west side of Spitsbergen, on our way back to Longyearbyen, Krossfjorden is a good place for a Zodiac cruise along the famed 14th of July Glacier or Fjortende Julibreen. Large numbers of Kittiwakes and BrŘnnich's Guillemots nest on the nearby cliffs. There is also a good chance to spotting Arctic Foxes below the cliffs and Bearded Seals in the fjord.

Ny ┼lesund Just south of Krossfjorden is Ny ┼lesund, the world's northernmost settlement. Once a mining village served by the world's most northerly railway, it is now home to a research base for the Norwegian Polar Institute. The tiny settlement is a breeding ground for Barnacle Geese, Pink-footed Geese, and Arctic Terns. Ny ┼lesund is also the location of the anchoring mast used by Amundsen and Nobile in the airship Norge and by Nobile in the airship Italia before their flights to the North Pole in 1926 and 1928 respectively.

Alkhornet At the mouth of Isfjorden, the largest of all Spitsbergen's fjords, we may land at Alkhornet where seabirds nest on the cliffs and Arctic Foxes search the cliff base for fallen eggs and chicks. Also at the base of the cliffs, Spitsbergen Reindeer graze the relatively luxuriant vegetation. Continue up Isfjorden to return to Longyearbyen.


"We had a wonderful time. 3 outstanding polar bear encounters, many other excellent wildlife viewings --belugas, fox, reindeer, walrus, birds birds birds birds, good companion travelers from around the world, amazing expedition team (how many times do you get to travel with 2 Nobel Peace Prize winners?), comparable to our Galapagos trip... "

Mary & Mark - Spitsbergen July 2014


"The trip was fantastic. Sunshine every day, temps always in the 40's or 50's, sea bird and mammal life was everything we could have wanted - whales, polar bears, arctic foxes, reindeer, walrus, seals, and birds, birds, birds. The guides were terrific, the food always good and plentiful, the crew efficient and professional, and overall a wonderful experience."

Harlan & Doris - Spitsbergen July 2014


Expedition Ships
Your expedition ship will be ice-strengthened and ideal for exploring the Svalbard region. Most vessels converted for Polar expedition cruising were built in northern Europe or Russia, and are today manned by expert Russian crews knowledgeable in these waters. Sizes vary from roughly 50 tour participants up to closer to 120 participants. An expedition team of expert naturalist guides, european chefs, a hotel manager and doctor round out the typical staff. Most vessels will have an open bridge and extensive outside viewing decks. Several also feature indoor view lounges. All utilize inflatable Zodiac craft for shore excursions. Other amenities or activities vary, possibly including kayaking, trekking or snow shoeing, or photo symposiums.


Sign me up!
If the High Arctic has sparked your imagination and fueled your wanderlust please give us a call. Most tour operators set their schedule roughly 12 to 14 months in advance and we would be happy to match you with the perfect program to suit you! Of course we also just love talking about the area so let us know if you have any questions!


Other Arctic Destinations:
Eight nations have territory north of the Arctic Circle, although just six have coastline there; United States, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Iceland, Norway and Russia. It is this area, north of the circle, where the sun will remain continuously above the horizon mid-summer, bringing an exuberance of life to the region.

Many of these northern areas have been settled for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, with waves of migration from eastern Siberia across te Bering Strait into North America. Much later, during the historic period, there has been further migration into some of the Arctic areas by Europeans.

Iceland can feel and look more Arctic in setting than it actually is - only the tiny northern island of Grimsey touches the Arctic Circle. Iceland's coast remains ice-free and occasionally an expedition vessel will offer a one-week circumnavigation in the spring or fall. Wildlife highlights are typically enormous bird cliffs, including puffins and guillemots, plus shorebirds, geese and much more. Whale watching can be good, but also erratic. Today few vessels offer an extensive visit, instead starting their High Arctic season earlier, which has squeezed Iceland out of the schedules. Several vessels might spend a day or two here paired with more time in either Greenland or Spitsbergen. Iceland absolutely remains worth a visit! We offered expedition ship voyages here in 2004, 2005 and 2007.

Greenland - the largest island in the world - is largely locked in ice much of the year. Both the southeast and southwest coasts are accessible during the summer months however. The southeast has been described by visitors as stark and profoundly beautiful - some of the most spectacular scenery they have ever encountered. Musk ox are often seen here. The southwest is home to the fishing industry and several small communties. The geology and flora are remarkable, and the colorful villages beautiful. Here Ilulissat Icefjord is recognized as a World Heritage Site for its spectacular beauty and the sheer number of icebergs it calves into the sea daily - a spectacle enjoyed both from land and by zodiac. Greenland is however relatively light on wildlife in our experience. There are bird cliffs, but those we have seen are not as spectacular as Spitsbergen, Iceland or Canada. Polar bears are rarely seen in the south. The southern coasts are visited by several Polar vessels each summer, and there is occasionally an ice-breaker journey in the north. Some voyages will pair the southwest with a journey through the Northwest Passage mid-summer.

Canada's northeast, northern coast, and Northwest Passage, is as remarkable as it is historic - this in an area that fired many an imagination during the great age of exploration - connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Long rumored to exist it wasn't until 1906 that Roald Amundsen finally found a route through. Mid-to-late summer there are expedition options visiting the more rugged eastern half of the passage, often in conjunction with a visit to western Greenland. Visit Inuit communities, historical sites, and wildlife hotspots (ask about our best Polar bear experience ever, after 6 other trips to other parts of Arctic, that was had here). Other wildlife highlights might include musk ox, caribou, grizzly bear, walrus, seals, whales, and teaming bird cliffs. Most wildlife tends to be shy so one has to work a bit harder for the best sightings and photography. By late summer the barren flat tundra is ablaze in fall colors hugging the earth. Geologists rejoice here amid some of the oldest rock on earth.

The Russian far-east has only recently begun to open up tourism and expedition cruising, and still on a limited basis, and subject to fickle government approvals. Two expedition ships visit the region most summers, offering several itineraries in the area. Main destinations are the Kamchatka Peninsula and Siberian Coast, and the High Arctic and Wrangle Island. Early season in the southern reaches is a paradise for keen birders, with many hard-to-find species quite possible. The same area is home to Kamchatka brown bears, often seen fishing the rivers and streams or browsing for berries and plants. Polar bears are typically range restricted to areas with snow and ice, so found only in the far north and Wrangle Island. Sparsly populated, there are just a handful of small villages and summer fish camps dotting the coastlines. Stellar whale watching is the norm, often including Grey, Humpback and Beluga. The backdrop is the towering snow capped volcanoes of Kamchatka.

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