What’s in Spitsbergen?
You can see it in your mind’s eye. You’re standing on a rocky shoreline bundled to the ears in scarf, woolen cap, and gloves. Up ahead, snow-capped mountains sparkle in the sunshine. Auks, guillemots, and kittiwakes fly overhead calling out, seemingly gliding without trying. And then you see it: lumbering off in the distance, a dirty white ball of moving snow. What’s that? It’s really there! You’ve spotted your first polar bear! And where are you? Chances are good you’re in the Svalbard Archipelago, maybe even on the largest island in the group: Spitsbergen.
Most adventurous souls hope to see polar bears. We’ve all heard the tales of how endangered they are and how they may indeed disappear in our lifetime. The four main places for seeing polar bears include the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, and the Russian Arctic, yet the most classic, and one of the most accessible areas for bears is Svalbard, sometimes called Spitsbergen (though technically Spitsbergen is the largest island there.) Svalbard is the stretch of Arctic between Norway and the North Pole.
The Svalbard Archipelago is a region that figured often in the whaling histories of the 17th and 18th centuries. Whalers used the islands as a base before they abandoned them in the early 1700’s when whales became hard to find there. In the early 20th Century, coal mining took hold and the islands and the people of Svalbard recognized Norwegian sovereignty in the Svalbard Treaties of 1920 and 1925. Today research and tourism provide the most economic stability to the largest settlement, Longyearbyen and to a few smaller outposts.
What’s it like to visit such a remote location and how do you get there? Most travelers interested in seeing polar bears opt to take an expedition ship to explore the region. You can find many options on our Wild Nectar website here. We offer small ships of mostly 100-200 passengers that travel throughout the archipelago looking for polar bears, walrus, Arctic fox and other wildlife. These trips offer exciting shore visits along with great opportunities to see humpback whales, orcas and maybe even the elusive narwhal. Polar bears are the star, and though there are no guarantees you’ll see them, I’ve never had a traveler return and say they did not see a single bear.
What struck me most when I arrived in Longyearbyen to board my ship, was how extraordinary it must be to live in such a northerly place. The sun never fully sets in the summer and never actually rises in the winter so what must it be like to live year-round so far away from everything and everyone and with so many days in the dark? I loved hearing the locals describe their very unusual lives there. As you can imagine, there’s a strong sense of community among the small population and the place attracts a lot of eccentrics.
One fascinating location carved into the hillside above Longyearbyen’s airport is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault is the world's largest secure seed storage opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent there for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults. Should global catastrophe render any of earth’s plant life irreplaceable, there’s a backup supply right here.
To get to Longyearbyen, you travel first to Oslo, Norway and then fly three hours north from there. Oslo is a wonderfully picturesque and cosmopolitan city with charming cafes, beautiful architecture, plus friendly and creative locals.
Why should you choose the Norwegian Arctic for your polar bear adventure? The Norwegian Arctic offers a combination of being very easy to get to from Europe via cosmopolitan Oslo as well as offering great opportunities to view polar bears in their natural habitat. Other Arctic regions are much more remote and are much more difficult to reach. A trip to Spitsbergen via expedition ship is the classic way to see bears.
This is the trip I went on via one of the world’s most renowned luxury operators offered on the stylish, 199-passenger L’Austral. We offer a host of other ships that include the purpose-built X-bow ship, the National Geographic Endurance, plus the spacious, new Ultramarine, and the more basic Ortelius, both with helicopters. I hope you’ll contact us soon so we can help you select a Spitsbergen trip that’s just right for you.