An Introduction to Wildlife on Svalbard
- Svalbard has more polar bears than people - approx. population of 3,000
- One of the first species you're almost guaranteed to see are reindeer which graze like sheep close to Longyearbyen
- There are three species of terrestrial mammals on Svalbard and 19 species of marine mammal, including polar bears and walrus
- While generally low in terms of species diversity, Svalbard’s wildlife tend to be present in abundant numbers
- Summer is the peak time for wildlife activity and the best time to visit to maximise sightings
Month-by-Month Guide to Svalbard Wildlife
In a 2004 survey it was found that the polar bear population of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land numbered around 3,000 animals. Given that this means there’s more bears than humans on Svalbard, the chance of a successful sighting of the King of the Arctic is good. Once heavily hunted, polar bears on Svalbard have been protected by law since 1973 and numbers remain healthy.
Polar bears are seen throughout the archipelago, however in summer they’re more commonly sighted in the north and northwestern parts of Svalbard, and on the east coast where ice remains heaviest. A supreme apex predator, bear viewing from the safety of a ship or zodiac is the safest platform from which to observe these powerful animals.
How to find a Polar Bear
One of the few creatures to remain in the Svalbard area overwinter, the walrus is another iconic and instantly recognisable Arctic animal, courtesy of its impressively long and curved tusks. Svalbard’s walrus population is thriving with estimates of 3,900 animals in a 2012 survey - up from 2,500 in 2006.
Social by nature, walrus are often to be seen aggregated in groups resting on an ice-floe or on land in what’s commonly referred to as a ‘haul-out’. Walrus have a voracious appetite with molluscs being their main staple, which are swallowed whole. They can dive down to a depth of 260 ft/ 80m and stay underwater for up to half an hour. What they may lack in vision, particularly in murky water, they make up with their highly tuned whiskers.
It's far from uncommon to find reindeer wandering through Longyearbyen and as such you are almost guaranteed to see one, even close up. Technically a sub-species of reindeer, Svalbard reindeer are found throughout the archipelago wherever there’s sufficient vegetation for them and have no natural predators. The population of Svalbard reindeer is estimated at 10,000.
The favourite food of polar bears, ringed seal are the most widespread and common seal at this latitude and play a very important role in the Arctic food chain. Svalbard’s population is estimated to be around 100,000.
It’s the ringed pattern in this seals fur which gave it its name. In spite of their small size they’re capable of diving to +1,600 ft/ 500m. Due to the ringed seals dependence of ice, particularly for their berthing lairs, there is serious concern for them in the face of warming temperatures across the Arctic region, and climate change.
Svalbard has a large and thriving population of these charismatic opportunistic scavengers, which means there are good chances of sightings, particularly around bird cliffs where food is plentiful for them during summer and where their denning sites are commonly found.
The Arctic fox is ideally adapted for these high latitudes - being one of the few to remain over winter - with its thick, well insulated coat, fur covered paws and small rounded ears. This animal is unusual in that it appears in two different guises: blue and white. The white is characterised by a brown/ yellowish coat during summer and white all over in winter. To blend in. The blue fox by contrast is a dark brown/ blue colour throughout the whole year.
Svalbard is a magnet for birds every summer when literally hundreds of different species fly north to nest on every cliff and ledge in the archipelago, making it a paradise for birders.
The Arctic Tern migrates 70,000 km, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back again, every year.
The Svalbard rock ptarmigan is the only land-bound bird species that overwinters in the archipelago. Among the seabirds it is normally only the common eider, the long-tailed duck and the black guillemot that overwinter in Svalbard, and only in small numbers along the coast.
The lack of trees and bushes in Svalbard means that the birds nesting here place their nests on the ground, on scree slopes or cliff ledges. Larger birds usually place their nests quite openly, while smaller birds, like the snow bunting, usually choose more protected sites in cracks, under rocks or on scree slopes.
While no accurate figures on the size of Svalbard’s beluga whale population exists, they are in good numbers and are quite commonly sighted by expedition ships and kayakers. These medium sized toothed whales - also referred to as ‘white whales’ - are social and gregarious, and typically spotted in groups around coastal areas.
As with polar bears, it's common to find them near to glaciers where there’s a plentiful food supply.
Three species of terrestrial mammals are found on Svalbard, and 19 species of marine mammal, including polar bears and walrus.
Most Popular Svalbard Wildlife Trips
Designed with photographers in mind, this extended 13 day voyage maximises photo opportunities. Travelling in early summer when ice is still prevalent, a fully flexible itinerary provides the best possible chances of capturing the white bear and other arctic wildlife…
When to Go
Wildlife diversity peaks when migratory birds return to breed and there is intense bird activity at sea, in the bird cliffs and on the islands. Only the hardiest species like Svalbard reindeer, polar bears, Svalbard rock ptarmigan and Arctic foxes can be seen in winter.
How much does a Svalbard wildlife cruise cost?
Svalbard cruises vary in duration from 6 - 13 days which is reflected in the individual voyage cost. The most common trips are 8 - 11 days in length. The following prices are merely just guidelines as there is variation between ships:
- 6 - 8 days trip approx. $USD 3,500 per person
- 8 - 11 days trip approx. $USD 4,600 - $5,600 per person
- 13 days trip approx. $USD 7,500 per person
Specialist Photography cruises
For wildlife enthusiasts who take their travel photography seriously and are drawn to the idea of travelling with like-minded people, there’s a limited number of photography focused departures each season. These tend to be longer in duration to maximise photo opportunities and are designed very much with the photographer in mind - photo workshops, a professional photographer-in-residence and longer landings.
For sheer excitement your first polar bear sighting is hard to beat. I had dreamed of that moment for a very long time and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
John Newby Polar Specialist
FAQs about Wildlife on Svalbard
It’s the question which everyone asks. With more polar bears than humans, Svalbard is prime bear country and offers good chances of sightings. We’ve had lucky past customers who have seen 18 in the course of a week’s cruise. However, as ever with wildlife, sharp eyes and an element of luck are required.
Yes, each expedition ship has an experienced team of polar experts on board who will act as your guides during daily landings and lecturers while on board ship. All these expedition cruises - regardless of which ship you choose - have a strong educational dimension.
The only flights to Svalbard are from Oslo or Tromso in Norway to Longyearbyen.
Plan your trip
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Help Me Choose
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