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  • Photograph of Polar Bear

    Polar Bear on Spitsbergen by Gary Crowder.

    SPITSBERGEN

    Best Wildlife in Spitsbergen

    Mammals
    Polar Bear, Walrus, Bearded, Harp and Ringed Seals, Arctic Fox and Reindeer (Caribou). Also a chance of Beluga and whales such as Fin and Humpback, and an outside chance of Bowhead Whale.

    Birds
    Atlantic Puffin, Little Auk (Dovekie), Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre), Grey (Red) Phalarope, Ivory Gull and Long-tailed Skua (Jaeger), as well as Common Eider, Barnacle, Brent (Brant) (pale-bellied) and Pink-footed Geese, Long-tailed Duck, Rock Ptarmigan, Red-throated Diver (Loon), Northern Fulmar (mostly dark 'blue' form), Purple Sandpiper, Glaucous Gull, (Black-legged) Kittiwake, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Arctic and Pomarine Skuas (Jaegers), Black Guillemot and Snow Bunting. Also a chance of King Eider and Sabine's Gull.

    Plants
    The colourful Arctic flora includes abundant saxifrages.

    Best Sites for Wildlife in Spitsbergen

    The extent of the pack ice is unpredictable but it is usually at a minimum in late July-early August when it is even possible to circumnavigate Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, but should there be more pack ice than usual at this time of the year or at other times during the short northern summer cruising season it may not be possible for the ships to visit all of the sites listed below. However, few mammals or birds are restricted to specific sites and most occur all along the northern and eastern coasts at least.

    Photograph of Walrus

    Walrus on Spitsbergen by Coke & Som Smith.


    Best Times for Wildlife in Spitsbergen

    The cruising season is from the end of June to early September. The peak time to see Polar Bears is usually late July-early August when there is normally the least amount of pack ice, thus enabling ships to sail deep into the prime habitat for bears along the northeastern and eastern coasts. However, June, when the presence of pack ice may prevent access to the northeastern and eastern coasts, is the best time to see the most interesting bear behaviour, because those bears that can be found amongst the pack ice are likely to be hunting, often at close-range and for prolonged periods. Once bears are confined to land later in the season they may spend long periods sleeping or, if on the move, be more elusive.

    Late June-early July is the best time to look for plants and birds. After then, activity at most of the seabird breeding colonies has usually passed its peak.

    The average temperatures even in July range from -4°C to just 4°C and the weather can change quickly so warm, waterproof and windproof clothing is recommended. Polar Bears are dangerous! They may look languid as they lounge around or shamble along in search of food but when they sense food they are capable of running at 40 km/h and killing humans with ease. Shore parties have armed guards and there are strict rules about what visitors can and can’t do when on land.

    Recommended Books etc. for Spitsbergen

    Svalbard by A Umbreit. Bradt Travel Guides, 2013 (Fifth Edition).

    The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North by S Chester. PUP, 2016.

    The Arctic: A Guide to coastal wildlife by T Soper. Bradt Travel Guides, 2012 (Third Edition).

    A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife by R Sale. Helm, 2006.

    Collins Bird Guide by L Svensson et al. Collins, 2010 (Second Edition).

    Birds of Europe by L Jonsson. Helm, 1999.

    Flowers of Svalbard by R Gjoerevoll et al. Tapir Academic Press, 1999 (Second Revised Edition).


    Apps etc.

    Collins Bird Guide.

    Trip Reports for Spitsbergen

    Many trip reports, some for Spitsbergen, are posted on the websites listed here. On some of these websites some reports are independent and some are posted by tour companies who organize tours to Spitsbergen. These tour companies and others also post their own reports on their websites, which are listed under 'Some Organized Tours to Spitsbergen' below.

    Local Guides and Tours in Spitsbergen

    The costs of organized tours partly reflect the quality of the tour leaders. Some leaders are certainly better than others and many companies claim their leaders are the best but even the best rely at least to some extent on the exceptional skills of the local guides they employ. If you are travelling independently, employing such local guides will greatly increase your chances of seeing the wildlife you wish to see.

    Accommodation in Spitsbergen

    Some Organized Tours to Spitsbergen

    There are many tour companies who organize tours to see mammals, birds, other wildlife and other natural wonders. The cost of these tours vary considerably according to such variables as the airlines used, the number of days the tours last, the number of sites visited, the number of people in the group (an important consideration if you wish to see such wildlife as rainforest mammals and birds), the number of tour leaders, the standard of accommodation and transport, and the percentage profit the company hopes to make. Generally, where the number of days tours last and the number of sites visited are similar, the cheapest tours are those that use the cheapest airlines, accommodation and local transport, that have the largest groups with the least number of leaders, and that make the least amount of profit. The most expensive tours tend to be those which are exceptionally long, use the most expensive accommodation (ridiculously lavish in some cases, even for single nights) and which make the most profit. Some tour costs partly reflect the quality of the tour leaders. Some leaders are certainly better than others and many companies claim their leaders are the best but even the best rely at least to some extent on the exceptional skills of the local guides they employ.

    While tour companies organize tours with set itineraries many also organize custom tours for individuals and private groups who instead of taking a tour with a set itinerary want to follow their own itinerary to suit their own personal tastes, whether it be mammals, birds, other wildlife, other natural wonders or even man-made attractions, or a mixture of them all. Many organized tours with set itineraries are also fast-paced and target as many species as possible, whether they are mammals, birds or other wildlife or everything, which usually leaves little time to enjoy the best sites and individual species, but on a custom tour those taking part can specify the pace and the sites and species they wish to concentrate on. Custom tours also suit people who like to travel with people they already know, rather than with a group of strangers, and people with partners with different interests. Individuals and small groups will almost certainly have to pay more than the price of an organized tour with a set itinerary but a large group of friends may be able to travel for less than the price quoted for a set tour.

    Tour companies who run organized tours or can arrange custom tours to Spitsbergen include the following.