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Polar bear on sea ice

Svalbard Cruises & Expeditions

The Realm of the Polar Bear

Population
2,667
Size
14,545 square miles (37,673 square km)
Terrain
Glaciers, mountains, icebergs and fjords
Highest Elevation
Newtontoppen (Newton Peak) at 5,620 feet (1,713 meters)
Svalbard

Overview

Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, which also includes the two smaller islands of Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. It’s often called “The land of the midnight sun.” It’s also known as “The Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.” Spitsbergen, about 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, is dark four months of the year, but when the sun returns in April, the days lengthen until sometime in June when the sun never sets—all the better for viewing the wildlife that has made Spitsbergen so popular with travelers on a quest to observe polar bears and other wildlife, such as walruses, reindeers, arctic foxes, beluga whales, seals and seabirds.

Up until the 1920s, the Svalbard archipelago (the combined population is 2,667) was essentially a no man’s land until it was officially recognized as belonging to Norway by the Spitsbergen Treaty. Longyearbyen, the administrative center of the archipelago situated on Spitsbergen, began as a coal mining town. Today the focus is on wildlife, glaciers and fjords.

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Svalbard

Destination Highlights

Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city, is located on Spitsbergen and is the capital of the Svalbard archipelago. It started as a mining operation in1906 but much of the original town was burned down during the Second World War and the coal mines are gone. Today, Longyearbyen (population: 2,111) is a jumping-off point to explore the Norwegian Arctic, offering the amenities of art galleries, museums, pubs, a school, university, and sports complex. (The North Pole Museum, which focuses on the history of North Pole exploration, is worth a visit to learn about the Arctic territory you’re visiting.)

Smeerenburg

The name Smeerenburg means “Blubber Town” and that’s precisely why the town was originally established. It was a whaling station in the first half of the 17th century. The most obvious sign of its bygone era are the large cement-like remains of blubber from ovens where the whale carcasses were boiled. Much care has been taken to preserve what remains of the town’s whaling history. The surrounding area is scenic: fjords, tall glacier fronts and steep, rugged mountains. There’s a memorial in Smeerenburg that honours whalers who lost their lives in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Monaco Glacier

Monaco Glacier (or Monacobreen) is one of the largest glaciers in Spitsbergen, and is located in Liefdefjorden. It owes its name to Prince Albert I of Monaco who discovered the glacier on an expedition in 1906-7. The foot of the glacier is about 7km wide,and 60 metres high and often impresses people by its eye-catching bluish tint. Visitors on a Zodiac cruise along the fjord are apt to witness glacier calving. Polar bears frequent the area, mostly to prey on the seal population.

14th of July Glacier

The 14th of July Glacier is a 16-kilometre long glacier (covering a total area of 127 square kilometres) in Haakon VII Land in the northwestern part of the island. The glacier attracts purple sandpipers, common eiders, barnacle geese and arctic terns.

Top Things to See

South Spitsbergen National Park

Alkefjellet

Alkefjellet, which is loosely translated as "Bird Mountain," is one of the most spectacular bird cliffs in all of Svalbard. The towering basalt cliffs rise vertically from the waters of the Hinlopen Strait between Spitsbergen and Nordauslandet, and are home to approximately 60,000 Brünnich’s guillemots. The sheer rock faces, which reach 100 metres high, provide protective nesting habitat for birds who are preyed on by Arctic foxes and Glaucous gulls.

Wildlife

While Spitsbergen is known for its polar bear population, the island and its waters are also home to walruses, whales, seal, arctic foxes and Svalbard reindeer. Polar bears tend to roam the northern part of the island – but they can be spotted anywhere. They typically eat seal but reindeer, muskoxen, walruses, crustaceans, caribou, birds, bird eggs and whale carcasses are also fair game. The polar bear is the largest of the bear species. Females typically weigh between 150 and 350 kg while males generally weigh in between 300 and 700 kg.

Birds of Spitsbergen

Birds of Spitsbergen

Seabirds are particularly abundant in Spitsbergen.  About 30 bird species are known to breed here. The most prevalent are Little and the Brunich’s Guillemot. Gulls, such as the Kittywake, thrive on the island, as do three types of Skuas (Arctic skua, the rare Pomarine skua and Long-tailed skua). Other frequently sighted birds include Northern fulmar, Common eider, Barnacle and Pink-footed geese, and shorebirds such as the Grey phalarope and Purple sandpiper. Red throated divers tend to inhabit areas near small tundra lakes. Arctic Terns – which can be aggressive – are easily spotted but it’s best to give them wide berth.

Points of Interest

Zodiac boat with bird cliff in background
South Spitsbergen National Park

South Spitsbergen National Park encompasses the southern end of Spitsbergen island and includes Wedel Jarlsberg Land, Torell Land and Sørkapp Land. The park contains four bird sanctuaries, one of which is the Isøyane Bird Sanctuary, a wetland area that's home to breeding populations of barnacle geese, common eiders, black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed guillemots.

Zodiac boat with bird cliff in background
Puffin in water
Northwest Spitsbergen National Park

This national park, rather surprisingly for some visitors, is home to two hot springs, the Troll and Jotun hot springs which are located along the edge of the Bockfjorden fjord. At almost 80 degrees north latitude, they are the most northernmost documented hot springs on earth. Arctic bird species such as puffins, arctic terns and purple sandpipers are found in the park.

Puffin in water

When to Go

Best Time to See Polar Bears

May to August. The ice melts sufficiently during this period for ships to navigate the still icy waters. Polar bear sightings are common as the majestic creatures follow the pack ice on the hunt for food. The round-the-clock natural lighting is ideal for photography.

Special Insights from Our Guests

I hoped to see wildlife on the expedition and this voyage exceeded my expectations, not only in that area, but with the expedition crew. They gave us the “wow” factor on a daily basis and kept us busy, informed and well-fed the entire time. Their enthusiasm and knowledge just enhanced the experience and we could all sense how much they love their jobs. Now I’m hooked on Quark and am considering going to the Antarctic next year.

— Guest

Special Insights from Our Guests

Spitsbergen is a magical place to visit. The Quark Expeditions staff is fantastic. The guides are capable, enthusiastic and informative. They do an amazing job keeping guests safe, comfortable and engaged. Having 'experts' in different fields made the trip that much more interesting. The photography guide Acacia Johnson, for example, is excellent.

— Guest
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Want More Information about Svalbard?

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If you'd like to speak to one of our Polar Travel Advisers about an expedition to Svalbard we would be happy to put you in touch.