Spitsbergen – Home of the Polar Bear

February 22, 2016

 

In the Arctic Ocean, midway between Norway and the North Pole, lies the Svalbard archipelago, a collection of four large islands and hundreds of smaller ones. Seven national parks and 23 nature reserves cover most of the archipelago, a breeding ground for many seabirds. The area is teeming with wildlife including reindeer, arctic fox and marine mammals including seals and whales.

Whale fluke in Spitsbergen. Photo credit: Brian Myers
Whale fluke in Spitsbergen. Photo credit: Brian Myers

 The largest island in the archipelago, Spitsbergen is a wild and beautiful place. Rugged mountains, vast tundra, glaciers and spectacular fjords are a feast for the eyes. There’s no shortage of wildlife on the island: seabird species thrive here, as there are few natural predators.

 

Welcome to the Land of Polar Bears

 That’s not to say there aren’t any predators at all; arctic fox and polar bears also call Spitsbergen home. In fact, over 3,000 polar bears live in the Svalbard region, making your chances of spotting one on your arctic expedition excellent.

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 During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were more than 50 whaling stations in Svalbard; many abandoned camps can still be seen today. In the 19th century, coal mining companies established themselves on the island and the largest city on the island, Longyearbyen, was actually founded by American coal miner John Longyear in 1906.

Exploring Longyearbyen, a Popular Arctic Travel Embarkation Point

The northernmost city in the world, Longyearbyen is the embarkation point for many arctic journeys. Burned to the ground during the Second World War, all that remains of the original settlement is a set of steps and two wooden pillars.

 With a permanent population exceeding 2,000, Longyearbyen offers much to travelers, including a museum, recreational center, art galleries and gourmet food. The restaurant Huset, for example, offers a world class menu with many regional specialties. Its wine cellar is one of the largest in Europe, with over 20,000 bottles!

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 Longyearbyen is flanked by two glaciers and sightseeing opportunities are plentiful. Snowmobiles are the main means of transport and signs posted at the town limit warn travelers to arm themselves in case they encounter a curious polar bear. Perpetual darkness in the region lasts four months and each year, the sun is welcomed back with a week-long community celebration. The only indigenous land mammal on Spitsbergen is the Svalbard reindeer, which you’re likely to see wandering the streets of Longyearbyen.  

Adventure Abounds

 The natural beauty of Spitsbergen can be experienced in any number of ways. Sea kayaking is a popular option for exploring the lesser known areas around the island, and with a dozen species of whales, seals and walrus, every trip has the potential for excitement and discovery. 

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Hiking is another way to see the island. The area offers hikes for every experience level and with any luck you’ll see reindeer, arctic fox, or quite possibly, a polar bear or two. One thing you’re sure to see are ancient encampments, abandoned mines, and the remains of whaling camps including blubber ovens, harpoons and whale bones. blog_spitsbergen_hiking.jpg

If your adventure in this region is early in the season, you’ll have an opportunity to explore the island by snowshoe. It’s an easy-to-learn sport and you’ll be able to reach areas on snowshoe that won’t be accessible following the annual thaw. 

 Photographers will find plenty to do on summer visits, as the midnight sun offers unlimited opportunities to shoot. The tundra bursts to life, with small flowers and vegetation taking advantage of the longer days. Soaring peaks, glaciers and fjords create a spectacular backdrop for amazing arctic bird cliffs, congregations of millions of birds breeding, feeding and raising their young.

 

Getting to Spitsbergen

Whatever your reason for traveling to this remote and beautiful part of the world, it will not disappoint you. There are many reasons why Spitsbergen should be on your destination list, from its rich culture to the unique wildlife and adventure opportunities. Plan your trip today with these itineraries and save up to 20%:

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