Arctic: Wildlife Cruises
Svalbard's star species: Polar bear • Arctic fox • Walrus • Bearded seal • Svalbard reindeer • Pink-footed goose
Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen is the departure point for voyages in the breathtaking Svalbard archipelago. Riven by deep fjords, with huge glaciers squatting beneath snow-capped peaks, this Arctic gem is the realm of polar bear, walrus, Svalbard reindeer, Arctic fox and prolific birdlife. The peak time for polar bear watching is late July to early August when pack ice has retreated enough to allow ships access to prime bear habitat along the northern and eastern coasts. Seabird breeding activity, however, reaches its peak by late June or early July.
Key Wildlife Sites on Svalbard
Spitsbergen’s southernmost fjord, Horsund is ringed by jagged peaks, including 1,431m Hornsundtind. Ice shelves at the foot of several glaciers here are good places to look for seals and polar bears. Further north along Spitsbergen’s west coast, Bellsund splits into two fjords and has dramatic seabird cliffs. Just beyond the entrance to Isfjorden, the island of Prins Karls Forland is a favoured haul-out for walrus. In Kongsfjorden, Ny Alesund research centre has nesting pink-footed geese and Arctic terns, while the cliffs above Fjortende Julibukta bay in nearby Krossfjorden are teeming with fulmars, kittiwakes and Brünnich’s guillemots, with pink-footed geese nesting on the slopes below. Arctic foxes also den in this area.
Liefdefjorden, near the tip of Spitsbergen, has a spectacular tidewater glacier. Ice shelves and islets in the area are popular hunting grounds for polar bears. The island of Nordaustlandet – second largest in Svalbard – is also prime territory for polar bears, while smaller Lagoya has high concentrations of walrus. Sailing into Hinlopen Strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet brings the guillemot colony at Alkefjellet within reach. If ice conditions permit, you may also be able to reach the islands of Barentsoya and Edgeoya, deep in the heart of ice bear territory.
Key Species on Svalbard
Polar bear Around 3,000, including Franz Josef. Most often seen in northern and eastern parts of Svalbard, but can be found anywhere that seals are hauled out on sea ice.
Arctic fox Numbers unknown, but widespread in Svalbard, often seen near bird cliffs feeding on eggs and chicks.
Svalbard reindeer Estimated at 10,000. Often seen beneath seabird cliffs, feeding on vegetation. Common in Reindalen Valley and on the islands of Edgeoya and Barentsoya.
Walrus Around 2,500. Groups often encountered hauled out on pebbly beaches or ice floes.
Ringed seal Approximately 100,000. Occasionally seen on drift ice in fjords, but generally move north to the permanent pack ice.
Bearded seal Several thousand. Individuals often spotted on floating ice in fjords.
Harbour seal Around 1,000. Found mainly around Prins Karls Forland.
Bowhead whale Extremely rare, numbers unknown. The bowhead is the only species of baleen whale to remain in Arctic waters year round.
Beluga Numbers unknown. Frequently seen in coastal areas, often near glaciers.
Narwhal Numbers unknown. Most often spotted in the fjords of Nordaustlandet and in the strait of Hinlopenstretet.
Other cetaceans sighted in Svalbard waters include blue, fin, humpback, minke, sperm, northern bottlenose and pilot whales, plus orca and white-beaked dolphin.
Pink-footed goose Over 50,000. Nests in tundra areas throughout Spitsbergen.
Barnacle goose Around 30,000. Breeds on islands along the west coast of Spitsbergen and in the Tusenoyane islands.
Brent goose Estimated at 7,500 (including East Greenland). Most of the Svalbard population of brent geese breeds on the islands of Tusenoyane.
Common eider 17,000 pairs. Nests throughout Svalbard.
Red-throated diver Nests on tundra lakes and ponds.
Northern fulmar Common companion on expedition voyages. Nests on cliffs throughout the archipelago.
Common & Brünnich’s guillemot Several million pairs in around 150 breeding colonies. Nests on sea cliffs in southeastern Spitsbergen, Hopen and Bjornoya.
Little auk Several million pairs in over 200 colonies. Widespread in Svalbard.
Other seabirds include Arctic skua, Arctic tern, Atlantic puffin, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull and Ivory gull; migrant waders include dunlin, grey phalarope, purple sandpiper, ringed plover and sanderling. Migratory snow buntings are the only songbirds found on Svalbard. The Svalbard rock ptarmigan is present year round.