Svalbard: Polar Bears and Pack Ice Birding

Teetering on the brink of the North Pole, Svalbard is a dramatic archipelago of rocky crags, mountains and ice. Svalbard is administered by Norway and the capital, Longyearbyen, is a delightful town and with a budding ecotourism infrastructure that belies its grimy history as a frontier coal-mining settlement. Once the sun rises in mid-April, it does not set again for 5 months. Our visit is timed to be perfect for Arctic wildlife; specifically the majestic Polar Bear. We hope that our trip, timed for early-mid June will be optimal for the breakup of the pack ice on the northern stretches of the archipelago. This is where the white bears hunt seals, and much of our time will be spent tracking down Polar Bears, Walrus, Reindeer, seals and perhaps some whales too.

At these dizzying latitudes the diversity of birds is low, but the sheer spectacles are awe-inspiring. Millions of alcids, including Little Auk (Dovekie) and Thick-billed Murre are scattered throughout the serene waters while the ghostly prize of high Arctic birds, the amazing Ivory Gull, will undoubtedly be the avian highlight of the trip.

How close do you want one?!
How close do you want one?! (Keith Barnes)

Day 1: Longyearbyen and ship boarding. You touch down in Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Enjoy strolling around this former mining town, whose parish church and Svalbard Museum make for fascinating attractions. Though the countryside appears stark, more than a hundred species of plant have been recorded in it. In the early evening the ship sails out of Isfjorden, where you might spot the first minke whale of your voyage.

Snow Buntings are ubiquitous in the archipelago
Snow Buntings are ubiquitous in the archipelago (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: Route to Raudfjorden. Sailing to Raudfjorden, on the north coast of Spitsbergen, you take in an expansive fjord spilling with glaciers – and maybe even visited by ringed and bearded seals. The cliffs and shoreline of this fjord also support thriving seabird colonies, rich vegetation, and the possibility of polar bears.

One of the most attractive avian distractions is likely to be breeding dress Red Phalaropes
One of the most attractive avian distractions is likely to be breeding dress Red Phalaropes (Keith Barnes)

Day 3: The massive Monaco Glacier. Depending on the weather, you could sail into Liefdefjorden and cruise within sight of the 5-kilometer-long (3.1 miles) face of the precipitous Monaco Glacier. The waters in front of this glacier are a favorite feeding spot for thousands of kittiwakes, and the base of the ice is a popular polar bear hunting ground. If ice conditions prevent sailing here early in the season, an alternate route along the west coast of Spitsbergen can be implemented.

Giant mammals take center stage; bears AND Walrus
Giant mammals take center stage; bears AND Walrus (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Highlights of Hinlopen. Today you sail into Hinlopen Strait, home to bearded seals, ringed seals, and polar bears. At the entrance there is even the possibility to spot blue whales. After cruising among the ice floes of Lomfjordshalvøya in the Zodiacs, you can view the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet with their thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots. On the east side of Hinlopen Strait, you may attempt a landing on Nordaustlandet. Here reindeer, pink-footed geese, and walruses are likely sights. You can take an alternate route if ice prevents entry into Hinlopen.

An "Ice Bear" guards his seal kill from a lurking pack of Glaucous Gulls (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Stop at the Seven Islands. The northernmost point of your voyage may be north of Nordaustlandet, in the Seven Islands. Here you reach 80° north, just 870 km (540 miles) from the geographic North Pole. Polar bears inhabit this region, so the ship may park for several hours among the pack ice before wheeling around west again.

A Northern Fulmar reflects on Arctic life
A Northern Fulmar reflects on Arctic life (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Sailing the continental shelf. While retracing your route west, keep watch for polar bears and elusive Greenland (bowhead) whales. About 40 nautical miles west of Spitsbergen, you sail the edge of the continental shelf. Here fin whales forage during the summer in the upwelling zones (where cold, nutrient-rich water wells up from below the sea’s surface) that run along the Spitsbergen banks. At the mouth of Kongsfjorden, you have a good chance of sighting minke whales.

At this latitude birds are few, but the ones that can exist there, are handsome indeed
At this latitude birds are few, but the ones that can exist there, are handsome indeed (Keith Barnes)

Day 7: Reindeer, foxes, and so many seabirds. Walruses sometimes haul out in Forlandsundet, your next stop. Alternatively, you might sail into St. Johns Fjord or south to the mouth of Isfjorden, landing at Alkhornet. Seabirds nest on these cliffs, Arctic foxes search below for fallen eggs and chicks, and reindeer graze the sparse vegetation. You arrive in Longyearbyen later at night.

Day 8: Return to Longyearbyen. Every adventure, no matter how grand, must eventually come to an end. You disembark in Longyearbyen, taking home memories that will accompany you wherever your next adventure lies.

The Ghost of the Arctic: Ivory Gull
The Ghost of the Arctic: Ivory Gull (Keith Barnes)



CLIMATE: This is a polar region, so it is cold, even in mid-summer it hovers around zero; wind chill can make it feel like -10 to -20. The ship is warm inside and layered clothing is essential.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. The zodiac trips are fairly relaxed, boarding and disembarking from the dinghies being the only challenge. There are several short walks on land, but these can be enjoyed by people with only a moderate level of fitness.

ACCOMMODATION: The cabins on the ship are excellent, and food is wonderful throughout the voyage.