Svalbard: Ice Bears and Ivory Gulls at 80°

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 0: Arrival in Longyearbyen. While the cruise does not begin until tomorrow, it is highly advisable to arrive at least a day early as insurance against travel delays. It is well worth doing some birding around Longyearbyen, where great species can be found including King and Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck in its blackish breeding plumage, Pink-footed and Barnacle Goose, and the omnipresent Snow Bunting. The roadside pools often hold Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstone in their fine breeding dress. This is also an excellent area to search for the only Svalbard endemic taxon, the hardy race of Rock Ptarmigan, which somehow survives the four months of Polar winter darkness. With a little luck you may catch up with some mammals too, including Svalbard Reindeer, and if you are extremely lucky, an Arctic Fox. We can help book you a night in Longyearbyen.

Day 1: Longyearbyen and ship boarding. Depending on embarkation time, there could be time to visit a Little Auk colony, or spend some time seeking out breeding plumage Purple Sandpipers or stunning breeding Red Phalaropes down at the local ponds. Or you may wish to see the impressive Longyearbyen Museum before boarding the very well appointed ship, with the highest ice-breaking capacity in Svalbard.

Days 2 – 7: Northwest Svalbard. We have the better part of 5-days exploring the pack ice. The exact itinerary is highly flexible for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we are uncertain where the pack ice will be, and therefore, that will determine where and how we spend our time. Secondly, the expedition leaders will be making decisions based, primarily, on where they think our very best chances are of encountering Polar Bears and secondarily, other wildlife. Last, weather can always intervene and change our plans; so the modus operandi is to be flexible, and allow the very experienced expedition leaders to do their job. What we do know is that we are bound to explore a variety of pristine and gorgeous fjords, with cool blue glaciers and ice-clad mountains reflected serenely in silvery mirror-like waters. The experience of Svalbard is really more about being there than just seeing things. There is no better time and way to be searching for Polar Bears, and so, with luck, we will encounter several of these apex predators.

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

This trip does not specialize in zodiac cruises and landings, as often the best way to get great encounters with the bears is to remain in the ship and sometimes, the bears come to us. On one voyage a bear tried to climb into the kitchen through a lower deck porthole! In between time looking for bears, we will have chances to see the full gamut of Arctic wildlife, including spending time at a Walrus haulout. These tusked behemoths are slothful at the haulouts allowing close approach and awesome photos. We will also look for Ringed, Bearded and Harp Seals, the favored food of the bears. If we are very lucky we will encounter the Beluga, or other Arctic cetaceans, like Minke Whale. The birds are pretty much everywhere, and Black Guillemots, Little Auk and Thick-billed Murres will be commonplace; the clown-like Atlantic Puffin is the rarest of the region’s alcids.

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

The elegant powder-blue morph of the Northern Fulmar will be a constant companion on the ship. If we call by Blomstrand to see the old building we may well encounter the resident Long-tailed Jaegers. Otherwise we will have to be satisfied with the more common Great Skuas and Parasitic Jaegers, and perhaps Pomarine Jaegers too. On some of the quieter open plains we ought to see Red-throated Loons in breeding plumage. On the ice floes we are constantly surrounded by Black-legged Kittiwakes, and the aggressive Glaucous Gull; we will work through these hoping to encounter the much rarer, and rapidly declining, Ivory Gull. This angelic vision is dainty and tern-like, and certainly the best bird in this region. Arctic Terns patrol the beaches and near shore waters, their bobbing flight only interrupted by a sudden dive for food, or to flee an incoming predator.

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 8: Return to Longyearbyen. We will have anchored just off Longyearbyen the previous night, and will enter the harbor early this morning and disembark right after breakfast. There will be a transfer to take us to the airport where this magical adventure draws to a close, with many happy memories to last for a lifetime.

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.