Rearing from the Arctic Ocean, about halfway between Norway and the North Pole, Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. Few places stir your wanderlust more. An expedition voyage in this High Arctic wilderness is not only supercharged with the possibility of polar bear sightings – you’ll also fall under the spell of some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery, feel the warmth of the midnight sun and experience the unique silence and tranquillity of the polar summer. Read on for nine reasons to embark on a small-ship expedition voyage at the top of the world…
Svalbard is the kingdom of the Ice Bear. In fact, there are more polar bears here than people. Longyearbyen, the mini-Arctic metropolis on Spitsbergen where you board your ship, is home to around 2,100 residents, while a further 450 or so live in the mining community of Barentsburg. Polar bears, meanwhile, number about 3,000 and roam far and wide.
To glimpse one patrolling the pack ice beneath Spitsbergen’s dragon-back peaks, or foraging along rocky tundra at the foot of a blue cliff of glacial ice is a heart-stopping moment. Polar bear sightings can never be guaranteed, but Svalbard is one of the very best places to see the world’s largest land carnivore. An expedition voyage on a ship with an ice-strengthened hull can take you to prime locations, including their preferred hunting grounds at remote spots like Phippsøya and Isbukta. It's important to select the right expedition company — one with a highly skilled navigational team like Quark Expeditions' — to offer these candid encounters with wildlife.
The clarity of the Arctic air has something to do with it. And the vivacity of the midnight sun certainly helps. But whichever way you look at it, Spitsbergen’s scenery will take your breath away: the meringue-whip of mountains, cerulean tongues of glaciers curling beneath them; the sparkling fjords and flower-speckled tundra; icebergs, towering seabird cliffs, deserted rocky shores. It’s a photographer’s paradise, an escapist’s utopia, an adventurer’s dream. You might even recognise it from shows like Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and Planet Earth.
Polar bears might be foremost in your mind (and top of your wishlist), but you’ll quickly realise that an expedition voyage to Spitsbergen opens a treasure chest of other wildlife watching treats – including a birding bonanza. Breeding activity reaches its peak around late June when cliff-face seabird citadels (like Alkefjellet) are thronging with millions of guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and little auks. Several species of geese, gull and wader also breed in Spitsbergen, along with eider duck, red-throated diver and Arctic tern. As well as birdwatching from deck, Zodiac excursions and coastal hikes led by expert guides provide wonderful opportunities for training your binoculars on this avian spectacle.