Deep within the Arctic Circle, the untamed landscapes of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago stretch out into the Arctic Ocean. The largest island in the archipelago is Spitsbergen – arguably the best place in the world to see polar bears in the wild.
Adventurous travellers journey to Spitsbergen to admire its pristine, snow-covered landscapes and to go in search of its wildlife. The area is home to a surprising number of species, some of which are endemic to the Arctic. The sea supports strong populations of marine mammals including walrus, five species of seal including the polar bear’s favourite prey – the ringed seal and 12 species of whale including the ghostly white beluga whale. On land, Svalbard reindeer graze on whatever vegetation they can find while Arctic foxes search for bird eggs and chicks with which to feed their hungry cubs.
Top of the wildlife list for most people is the polar bear. In the summer months, shrinking ice sheets deny the polar bear of its main way of hunting. Hungry bears take to scavenging whale carcasses and raiding bird nests to supplement their main source of nutrition – seals – which are best hunted from the ice. Female bears with cubs have a particular challenge in making sure their young get enough to eat. To see this top carnivore in the wild is truly thrilling.
In the summer months, birds flock to Svalbard to take advantage of the abundant supply of food. Little auks turn cliffs into noisy breeding colonies while in the lakes and lagoons grey phalaropes, red-throated divers and common eider take up residence. Off shore, northern fulmar, puffins and kittiwakes are commonly seen. The area also supports a population of the rare ivory gull. While on land you may also see Arctic skua, Svalbard Rock ptarmigan and barnacle or Brent geese.
The best way of travelling in Spitsbergen to maximise every wildlife viewing opportunity is by small expedition ship. Standing on the viewing decks you can enjoy a fantastic vantage point from which to spot and photograph the surroundings. And with so many pairs of eyes and binoculars constantly scanning the horizon, the chances of spotting what is there are excellent. Zodiac inflatable boats get you even closer and provide the perfect transport to take you to shore to explore on foot (polar bears permitting!). Our polar rates ships are capable of nudging their way through sea ice and the team of polar experts on board enhance the experience with lectures to impart their extensive knowledge. As these voyages operate in the summer months, long daylight hours mean that you can make the most of every minute.