About the destination
Svalbard is unique in many ways. It is one of the last virtually untouched wilderness areas in the World. More than half of its area is protected as national parks, nature reserves, bird sanctuaries and plant sanctuaries.
Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located between 76° and 81° North. It lies directly north of North Cape on the Norwegian mainland. Spitsbergen is the largest island and occupies more than half of the area. Some of the other islands are Nordaustlandet, Edgeøya, Barentsøya, Prins Karls Forland, Kong Karls Land, Kvitøya/ White Island, and Bjørnøya/Bear Island. The total area is approximately 62,160 sqkm, roughly equivalent to the size of Ireland.
The name Svalbard is first mentioned in the Icelandic archives from the year 1194, "Svalbardr fundr" – Svalbard is found. It is uncertain, however, whether it was the land or the ice edge that had been discovered, since Svalbard can be interpreted as "cold coast" or "cold edge". It would take another several hundred years before any of the major nations in Europe discovered Svalbard. In 1596 two Dutch ships sailed north to round the tip of Norway, hoping to find a shortcut to China and India. On board one of the ships was the pilot Willem Barents, who is officially regarded as the discoverer of Svalbard. The Dutch were impressed by Svalbard's dramatic and mountainous landscape, and named the land Spitsbergen. Svalbard soon became a natural starting point for several more or less successful attempts to reach the North Pole. Ice-free waters cannot be found this far north anywhere else on Earth.
Nature and wildlife
With midnight sun and pack ice, glistening glaciers and abundant Arctic wildlife, there are few places that quite measure up to, Svalbard. In this vast, glacier coated archipelago, often called by the name of its largest island Spitsbergen, live a mere 3 000 hardy inhabitants. Lying at over 80˚ North, the islands’ close neighbor is the North Pole!
The wildlife in Svalbard is extraordinary. After almost 40 years as a sanctuary, the polar bear and walrus populations have shown a healthy increase. The animals are relatively unafraid of humans, even showing signs of curiosity. There are around 3 000 polar bears in the area and during our expedition cruise the chances of seeing them are very good indeed. Likewise we can hope to be charmed by the enigmatic walrus – whilst many of our guests come to see a polar bear, many return with a newfound love for this blubbery, ‘tooth-walking sea cow’! The ice plays a central role in the Arctic ecosystem, which is both unique and vulnerable. In many ways, the mammals are Svalbard’s very soul. Half of the 22 species of mammal that live on land and ice and in the sea around Svalbard are whales. Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox are the only mammals that live entirely on land.
Svalbard has a rich bird life, particularly sea birds that nest in large colonies. More than 200 bird species have been observed in Svalbard and its surrounding waters, but only a few species nest here. Four species account for 95% of Svalbard’s abundant bird life: Brünnich’s guillemot, the northern fulmar, the little auk and the black-legged kittiwake. Nowhere else on earth do you find birds in such impressive numbers this far north.
Glaciers and pack ice
Svalbard is still in the ice age. Glaciers cover 60% of the land and the ice can be up to 600 metres thick. There are more than 2,100 glaciers in Svalbard. Some of the mightiest and most well known include Monacobreen, Lilliehöökbreen and Bråsvellbreen. Austfonna on Nordaustlandet in the northeast part of the archipelago is an ice cap that is one of the largest in the World. Its ice front reaching into the sea is more than 130 kilometers long.
Anyone who is interested in geology will find Svalbard very exciting. The archipelago was formed on the northeast coast of Greenland a long, long time ago, and has since moved via continental drift to the other side of the equator where it turned and headed north. Just wait another 50 million years, and Svalbard will probably be at the North Pole!
Svalbard is not exactly a hothouse, the fact is that plants can only live on some 7% of the land area. There are approximately 164 species of native plants growing on Svalbard, plus at least 6-7 species that were introduced by man.
Season in Svalbard
Svalbard has a mild climate compared to other land areas on the same latitude. This is thanks to the Gulf Current. The average temperature in Longyearbyen in July is +6°C.
During winter thick ice and snow blanket the archipelago, but when warmer weather arrives, the ice loses its grip and the rugged coasts become possible to navigate by vessel. Millions of seabirds arrive to their traditional nesting sites, and the archipelago teems with life.
The beginning of the season (June, early July) is characterised by a lot of snow and a wonderful purity. It is still spring in the Arctic, polar bear cubs and seals can sometimes be seen on the ice of the fjords in front of the glaciers. The mighty pack ice is not far away.
Summer arrives in the middle of the season (July). The ice loosens its grip around the islands and this makes it possible to get further east. Whales are more frequently seen in the waters and more and more snow-free areas become accessible for walks. Colourful flowers are in bloom.
Autumn arrives in Svalbard in August. The light is beginning to become gentle and soft and it is now that the snow-free landscape can be seen most clearly. After mid-August you may be able to see the Ivory Gull’s chicks, while some birds are preparing to migrate. The ice has pulled further away and it may be possible to get all the way around Spitsbergen.
Groups of harp seals can be seen and close encounters with walrus females with cubs are not uncommon.
Do you want to read more about the archipelago? Below you can have a scroll in our book "An introduction to Svalbard" which is exactly what the title suggests - a brief introduction to the areas that make Svalbard the true gem of the Arctic.