Akademic Vavilov in sea ice near Svalbard
Svalbard is a group of islands roughly half way between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole.

Around Svalbard lots of places claim to be “The Northernmost”, and the main town Longyearbyen on the island of Spitzbergen does indeed claim to have the northern-most hotel, university campus and to be the northern-most permanently inhabited town.  

Longyearbyen can also claim to have the northern-most airport with scheduled flights so travel is relative easy from mainland Norway.

Both SAS and Norwegian fly into Longyearbyen regularly from Oslo, usually with a brief stopover in Tromso en route, making it very easy to connect with flights worldwide.

Visitors to Svalbard mostly fall into one of two groups.  Either they arrive by and get around on the large cruise ships that include Svalbard as part of broader Norwegian cruise itineraries, or they fly into Svalbard to join one of the several small expedition cruise ships that spend the summer operating around Svalbard.  Recent changes to the operating rules mean that the big cruise ships are going to have to drop Svalbard from their itineraries, so from 2015 it likely that there will be fewer ships operating in Svalbard waters.  The rule changes are starting to bring arctic maritime rules into line with Antarctic ones.  A few years ago the heavy fuel oil used in big cruise liners was outlawed in the Antarctic, now the Norwegian authorities have done the same around Svalbard.

The smaller expedition cruise ships are already using lighter fuel oils, so will be able to continue to operate around Svalbard.  On these boats, which mostly operate with about 100 passengers are either converted research ships or purpose expedition ships.  In all cases the ships come equipped with a significant number of inflatable boats which allow passengers to get either get closer to the wildlife or landscapes, or to go ashore where there are suitable landing beaches.

If you don’t want to spend time on the water around Svalbard, your travel options are pretty limited.  Outside Longyearbyen there are no roads so although in winter you can get around by snowmobile in the summer you are pretty much stuck on foot.  The other caveat, at any time of year, is that its not safe to go outside town without being armed.  Polar bears are a real threat here.

The typical trip to Svalbard, for most summer visitors, will involve flying into Longyearbyen before joining an expedition boat. The boat will then travel around the islands calling in at a number of key landing sites, the itinerary varying according to both the weather and ice conditions, and to reports of wildlife activity.
In most cases the ships will have specialist expedition crew (in addition to the standard maritime crew) who will attempt to organise one or two excursion each day.  Svalbard is relatively small so it’s would be common for a morning excursion to be followed by a short transition in the middle of the day to allow a second excursion at a different site in the afternoon. The ship will then move to another set of sites for the following day.  On some ships, if the wildlife sightings merit it, there are sometimes excursion late in the day too.  In the summer, the sun doesn’t set, so the wildlife stays active.  The limiting factor just might be passenger (or crew) exhaustion.

Mother and Cub at lunchtime
What you will actually see will depend on the time of year, the crew and luck.  Some of the sites, for instance bird colonies, are very dependable.  The crew can be confident that during the breeding season the birds will be there and the only real variable will be the weather. You are, after all, in the High Arctic. The mammals are much more unpredictable.  There are beaches where walrus haul out regularly, but not always.  Whales are around but spotting them is a matter of luck. And polar bears, the real reason that most folks will head up to Svalbard, are very mobile.  Most trips will manage to find polar bears, but how close you get is again a matter of luck.  I’ve seen bears come right up to the ship, I’ve also seen them stay far, far away. 

It is possible to visit Svalbard in the winter too. At this time the wildlife options are limited, but there are still a number of winter sport attractions (such as snow mobiles), and there is always the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights.

For more about my visit to Svalbard, see…..

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