Svalbard is a ruggedly beautiful Arctic archipelago that lies directly between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It encompasses a chain of islands that contain some of the most incredible snow-covered landscapes, fjords, towering cliffs, snow-capped mountain peaks, glaciers, and icebergs in the Norwegian Arctic.
Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen, is known as the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic. And if you go, it’s important that you pack the right gear for the adventure.
In addition to the incredible nature scenery, Svalbard is inhabited by an impressive diversity of wildlife. Among the most interesting animals near the Arctic Circle are the whales in the ocean waters around the islands. Svalbard whale watching is one of the region’s most popular activities, and the pastime is one of the top attractions for wildlife enthusiasts who seek to witness animals in their natural habitats. Polar bear-watching is another enticement to Svalbard.
Best time to visit Svalbard
Since Svalbard lies on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, timing is everything when it comes to booking your ideal vacation in the region. The winter months can be extremely cold in this area and may even cause unsettling sea conditions that make it difficult to reach or navigate your way around the islands.
For that reason, it’s best to book a summer adventure to Svalbard. One of our avid adventure travel experts enjoyed a trip to the island of Spitsbergen which he documented for other adventurers to use as a guide. He recommends Svalbard in the summer as it provides a colorful Arctic tundra that casts the islands in a beautiful light. You’ll also get to see all kinds of wildlife, including polar bears and, yes, whales.
How to visit Svalbard
We’ve created a detailed explorer’s guide for how to get to Svalbard. In this guide, you’ll find a detailed account of the history of the archipelago; recommendations on where to visit and what to do; how to spot some of the most incredible wildlife on the islands; and even suggestions on how to capture excellent photographs to document your adventure.
One of the best ways to get to Svalbard is to book a passage on the Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic itinerary. This is an amazing 12-day voyage that begins in Oslo, Norway, and flies you to the city of Longyearbyen on the shores of Spitsbergen. From there, you’ll board your vessel and sail throughout the western archipelago as you navigate around polar deserts and beautiful glaciers.
You’ll also have the chance to book a Zodiac adventure where you’ll get the chance to see ice formations and have many wildlife encounters with Arctic animals like walruses, whales, musk oxen, arctic foxes, puffins, and polar bears as they prowl the ice edge hunting for seals.
When does whale watching season begin in Svalbard?
Whales, unbound by border restrictions, go wherever they find enough food to feed their entire pod. For that reason, they tend to swim towards areas of the world that are largely untouched by humans but have a bountiful supply of fish and other animals that can sustain them.
That’s why the warmer months of the year are prime whale-watching season. In Svalbard, this means the months from May to September are ideal times to book a trip to observe whales swimming around the archipelago. As an added benefit, the summer months also happen to be the best time to view the stunning Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.
When it starts to get too cold in the northern hemisphere, many whales will swim down towards Antarctica where they’ll spend the winter (our summer in the southern hemisphere) eating and sustaining themselves off the coast of the southern continent.
What whale species can you see on Svalbard whale watching tours?
You may spot many whales in their natural habitat around Svalbard. Some of the most common whale species found in the waters around the Northern Norway archipelago are:
- humpback whale
- blue whale
- minke whales
- beluga whales
- sperm whales
- bowhead whales
- northern bottlenose whale
- fin whale
- white whale
You might also see oceanic dolphins like white beaked dolphins, orcas (killer whales), and pilot whales.
Svalbard cruise trips
You can choose from several of Svalbard cruises to witness whales in the archipelago. One of the popular voyages is our Intro to Spitsbergen: Fjords, Glaciers, and Wildlife of Svalbard itinerary. This is a 10-day voyage that combines stunning scenery, ice-laden fjords, expansive glaciers, and wildlife watching—polar bear, reindeer, whales, and seals, to name a handful.
One of the greatest experiences you’ll have is to witness the towering cliffs of Alkefjellet that are home to thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots (thick-billed murres). You’ll also come upon walruses that play along the shores of western Spitsbergen so make sure you have a video camera on hand to capture those spontaneous entertaining wildlife moments.
Finally, you can join a Zodiac cruise off the coast of the islands for some Svalbard whale watching as whale pods emerge from the ocean in a stunning display of carefree fun.
In addition to the seafaring experiences, you’ll have the opportunity to disembark your vessel and explore the islands on foot. Some of the best things to do in Svalbard include bird watching at rustic cliffs near the shoreline, and even visiting the 14th of July Glacier, Smeerenburg, Alkefjellet, and the Hinlopen Strait along the northern shores of the island.