Spitsbergen

Spitsbergen

The island of Spitsbergen is the archipelago’s largest – and is home to its only town. The frontier-like Longyearbyen is doubly cut off: firstly in its remoteness, and secondly because it is surrounded by polar bears, meaning anyone venturing beyond its boundaries must bring with them a rifle – or an armed guide. But the best way to explore Spitsbergen is not on land, but from the sea. Most travellers explore the inlets, fjords and islets onboard a sailboat or ice-strengthened survey vessel, with schedules dictated not by written itineraries, but by the wind and waves, the dispersing ice floes and the snowmelt. A breaching whale merits a detour, as do Arctic foxes, bounding along the tundra. Zodiac trips and kayaks take voyagers up close to the wildlife – you could be paddling within metres of an orca – or a 3-metre-long walrus. Disembark for a day of snowshoeing, glacier hiking or husky sledding – a Spitsbergen holiday will transport you entirely from the trappings of the modern world.

Deep inside the Arctic Circle lies the remote and rugged Svalbard archipelago, the final strip of land separating Norway from the North Pole. With its stark but beautiful landscape of glaciers, fjords, jagged snow-capped mountains and frozen tundra, this is the land of the polar bear and the midnight sun. Remote and untouched, the ‘wildlife capital of the Arctic’ is home to Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, colonies of walruses, whales, seals, thousands of migratory seabirds nesting on coastal cliffs and in excess of 3,000 polar bears. If the scenery and wildlife are not draw cards enough, Svalbard also offers a fascinating history, the staging post for many expeditions to the North Pole in the 16th century due to its close proximity.

Spitsbergen travel takes a look at the extreme nature of the Svalbard archipelago – a place where polar bears outnumber humans, the midnight sun alternates with 24-hour darkness, and the next stop is the North Pole. On Spitsbergen cruises, look out for whales and orcas and massive walruses, and disembark to discover glaciers and reindeer, and make your way across the island on snowshoes or husky-pulled sleds.

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago – a cluster of islands sitting just over halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Longer expedition cruises may sail to Spitsbergen over several days via the remote Bear Island, though it’s more common to fly into Longyearbyen and embark there. There are few alternatives to cruising; roads only exist in the few scattered towns, with miles of (often snow-clad) tundra in between. Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen is only possible during the height of summer, when the pack ice has dispersed around the northern reaches, though most trips do away with itineraries altogether, leaving the route to be governed by the waves, the weather and the wildlife.

Founded at the turn of the 20th century as a mining town, today the capital of Svalbard is the archipelago’s most populous town with just over 2,000 residents, including an unusually large number or artists who are inspired by the northern wilderness. The museum reveals the island’s history of hunting, whaling and mining. Several tours depart from here – including dog sledding, snowshoeing and glacier treks.

Spitsbergen’s most famous inhabitant is the isbjørn – or ‘ice bear’. Around 3,000 of them inhabit the island’s glaciers, ice floes, tundra and mountain slopes; look out for them hunting ringed seals on the sea ice, particularly around June. Even when you can’t see them their presence can be felt; it’s illegal to walk without a rifle, and homes are left open should someone need to find shelter rapidly.

Having bounced back after centuries of being hunted for their valuable blubber, whales are now abundant around Svalbard. Species include minke, pilot and blue whales – as well as the ghostly white beluga. Active orcas – or killer whales – are also frequent visitors; you may even be lucky enough to kayak alongside them.

The walrus is likely to be the most surprising encounter on Spitsbergen. Few visitors expect them to be quite so enormous: up to 3.5 metres long with huge tusks which they use to haul their huge wrinkled bodies up onto ice floes, and to fight. They are now seen across Svalbard in large colonies, having been protected since 1952, when their numbers dwindled to just a few hundred following centuries of hunting.

Massive glaciers have shaped the entire island – modern ice rivers slice through the landscape, while the fjords and U-shaped valleys are evidence of the glaciers of the past. Hiking on a glacier is tough but requires no technical skill, so challenge yourself – and look out for fossils in the surrounding rock. You may also have the chance to spot calving glaciers from onboard your ship.

Not all reindeer are domesticated. The endemic and completely wild Svalbard reindeer is found across Spitsbergen, with thick, snowy-hued winter coats turning brown in summer – just one of their many adaptations to this harsh environment. Due to the scarcity of food, the reindeer gather in very small groups – unlike the huge herds of Lapland. Look out for wobbly-legged calves in June and July.

The Arctic climate of Spitsbergen and the Svalbard archipelago means that summers are short but winters are long and extremely cold. Spitsbergen is still covered in ice in April, with average temperatures of between -9°C and -16°C. May temperatures are slightly higher, between -3°C and -7°C and rainfall is at its lowest during these months, averaging 13 to 16mm. By June, temperatures have increased to between -1°C and 3°C, with around 18mm of rain during the month, but there is still plenty of snow and ice. July tends to be the warmest month in Spitsbergen, with temperatures averaging 3-7°C, sometimes even reaching double figures. Rainfall is a little higher than in June, but usually falls as drizzly rain and sleet. By August the sun is starting to set, but there are still around 20 hours of daylight and temperatures are generally above zero, averaging 2-6°C. Temperatures start to fall below zero by September, averaging between 1°C and -3°C. As summer comes to an end, the archipelago starts to freeze over and by mid-winter Spitsbergen is experiencing the darkness of the polar nights and temperatures as low as -20°C.

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