Petra Jan is here with us today to tell you all about the wildlife of Svalbard! She is the proud owner of the blog Erratic Engineeress and has written many posts about Svalbard. If this interests you, then be sure to check her out!
If you want to learn about finding places to work with animals without exploitation, then check out my blog post here.
I also have some fun posts, like my scariest experiences to do with animals involving buffalo and lions!
Without further adieu, where is Svalbard?
If you’re an animal lover looking for your next travel destination, the Arctic wilderness of Svalbard might not be your first pick, but here’s why it should be!
Svalbard is an archipelago located 78 degrees north, well within the Arctic circle. Its largest town, Longyearbyen, is actually the northernmost permanent human settlement on Earth.
Although it’s an independent province with its own governor and special restrictions, it’s officially part of Norway. However, the fact that Svalbard has more polar bear residents than people is probably where I’ll catch your attention.
Polar bears are also the first on the list of wildlife you can responsibly and safely encounter during your visit to Svalbard.
The rules of seeing polar bears …
Many polar bears roam Svalbard freely, so tourist activities are limited to organised tours. You’re not allowed to leave Longyearbyen without a guide and rifle.
While that might sound a little scary, it is also a great adventure and I promise you that all the professional guides know what they’re doing. Guides are not allowed to needlessly shoot polar bears without warning shots. They refrain from hurting the bears unless absolutely necessary. Polar bear killings are taken quite seriously and must be reported to the governor.
Respect for wildlife is the prevailing sentiment in all animal tours. Guides are not allowed to bait or interact with animals to specific spots, so you need luck to see them.
Ways to see the bears and other animals …
Seeing a polar bear in the wild is actually not as common as you would think. I got extremely lucky and saw one through binoculars during a boat tour to Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal mining town.
Depending on the season, you can look for bears on a snowmobile safari during the polar night winter. Or, you can see them during a boat trip during the summer. Besides polar bears you can also see plenty of seals playing in the water or longing on the floating ice, as well as 12 species of whales.
There are several whale watching tours available, but my personal favourite was a wildlife tour to a walrus colony. Svalbard is home to the large Atlantic walrus species, and they like to keep warm in cuddle puddles on the shore, which is just about the most adorable sight I’ve ever seen!
Companies for wildlife seeing …
There are several companies offering wildlife tours on Svalbard and you can find them listed here along with numerous other activities. Arctic survival gear, warm clothes and some snacks are of course included in all tours.
As you can imagine wildlife tours in a remote place like Svalbard are quite expensive. However, if you can’t splurge for them, you can still encounter some animals.
Svalbard has its own special subspecies of fluffy white reindeer, which roam freely around town. They are easy to spot during the day. If you’re very lucky, you’ll even see an Arctic fox sneaking behind the houses…
If birds are your thing, it is even easier, because there are over 200 species of migratory birds living on Svalbard. Some of them are pretty hardcore, with built-in padded feet for warmth or migrating over 3000 km every year. You can see them pretty much everywhere, but the best bird spotting places are Fuglafjella, a mountain you can hike to, or Alkefjellet, the bird cliffs you can visit on a boat tour.
So, I hope I’ve inspired you to put the incredible Svalbard archipelago on your bucket list and if you want to read more about my visit to the walrus colony and other spots, you’re welcome to check out all my Svalbard blog posts here!