Destination Svalbard – A Visitor’s Perspective With Secret Atlas
Situated in the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard archipelago is made up of a number of remote islands. It is the focus of Secret Atlas’s programme of Expedition Micro Cruises and we caught up with some previous guests to see what they loved most about Svalbard…
Julia, from Switzerland, recalls her Svalbard visit with Secret Atlas on a micro cruise last year: “Each day delivered unique memories, but certainly, the main highlights are seeing whales, polar bears, going through the ice flows and watching a glacier calve! We saw a massive chunk of ice fall from a glacier and it was very exciting.
“Beyond the sights, however, I’ll remember the moments of silence as well. It is impressive to not see anyone else, be fully disconnected and really soak in the beauty of your slowly changing surroundings. I think we only saw one other boat in the ten days.”
Julia up close to a calving glacier front on Expedition Vessel Togo
Spitsbergen is the largest and is the only island with a human population – the majority of which live in Longyearbyen. Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg and the research station on Ny-Ålesund. Mining and research are joined by tourism to make up the three main industries of Svalbard.
Located just 800 miles from the North Pole, Svalbard is home to the world’s most northern airport – accessible via Norwegian and SAS passenger flights from mainland Norway. By far the best way to see the Arctic gem is by boat – the smaller, the better.
When you bear in mind (pun intended) that it’s home to 3,000 polar bears, 2,500 people and 2,000 glaciers, you get a feel for just how remote and wild this landscape is.
With no strict immigration rules, people from many different countries around the world have made Svalbard their home – usually temporarily; the majority come from Norway and Russia, with others from Ukraine, Sweden and Thailand.
Each year, Svalbard welcomes around 30,000 tourists – some on large cruise ships, others as independent travellers and some on Secret Atlas micro cruises (by far the best way to experience the region).
History of Svalbard
Svalbard has an interesting and varied history and continues to play an ongoing role in world history.
It was first discovered by Vikings in the 12th Century but remained unknown to the rest of the modern world until Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz came across it in the 16th Century and named it Spitsbergen, or ‘pointy mountain’ in Dutch. The 17th and 18th Centuries saw it as a base for whalers, with coal mining taking over as the main industry in the 20th Century – paving the way for the establishment of permanent mining communities.
Svalbard has been part of the Kingdom of Norway’s since the 1920s.
During World War Two, Svalbard was initially not impacted by the German invasion of Norway in 1940, but settlements were evacuated the following year and facilities destroyed. German invaders re-established a weather station there but were forced off the island by an Allied attack in 1942. They returned to establish a presence in 1943, but soon left leaving Norway to return in 1944 – with some Germans still manning a weather station. This became the final frontline of World War Two when, on 4 September 1945 – almost four months after VE Day, were the last German troops to surrender.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen during the polar night
Svalbard is now home to the hugely significant Global Seed Vault, which was opened in 2008 and is known as the Doomsday Vault – a place to store seeds from almost a million plants worldwide, housing 13,000 years of agricultural history.
The archipelago’s geological diversity is unique and you can find rocks from almost every geological period there. The ice provides the perfect environment to preserve fossils and skeletons and palaeontologists have excavated many over the years, including an impressive 10 metre long Ichthyosauria fossil.
What is the weather like in Svalbard?
Svalbard is so far north that the sun doesn’t set for the entire summer, from mid-April through to mid-August.
Anna, Flavio and other guests going ashore by Zodiac landing craft in Svalbard
“It was a dream for us,” says Anna from Italy. “I woke up in the middle of the night to see the landscapes around me in 24 hours of daylight. It is a landscape that is so totally different from what you’ve seen before. I have travelled a lot in South America, Africa and Europe, but this is an experience for everybody. You must go there once in your life.”
And it’s not as cold as you might think, thanks to the North Atlantic Gulf Stream which keeps temperatures milder than other places in the Arctic Circle such as Northern Canada and Siberia. In July 2020, the weather station in Longyearbyen noted a record high temperature of 22 degrees celsius – during a month when it’s usually around 7-8 degrees celsius.
It’s a different picture altogether in winter (September through March), when 24-hour darkness facilitates temperatures as low as minus 20 or 30 degrees celsius. The dry climate on Svalbard lends itself to more clear nights during the winter months, making it the ideal location to see the Northern Lights.
“Svalbard is a photographer’s dream,” says Andy – who has added photography trips to the Secret Atlas programme. “From the spectacle of the Northern Lights in winter to the amazing wildlife visible in the summer months. The wildlife is abundant. On an eight-day trip, we often see several polar bears, blue whales, belugas whales, walruses, arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer and a whole array of arctic birdlife – including eider ducks, arctic terns, kittiwakes and northern fulmars.”
Best place to spot polar bears in the wild
Svalbard is home to seven national parks, twenty-nine protected areas, fifteen bird sanctuaries and six nature reserves, which provide protection for the wildlife that lives there – including polar bears. Tour operators like Secret Atlas abide by AECO and the WWF’s 10 Principals for Arctic Tourism to ensure we respect the local wildlife and habitats.
Andy recalls his first polar bear sighting on a Svalbard visit: “POLAR BEAR! POLAR BEAR!’. It’s the excitable voice of our expedition leader Andreas. A loud commotion in the gangway outside my cabin. The clock reads 1am. I pull on my clothes over my pyjamas, zip up my jacket and race up on deck where I’m joined by 20 other excited passengers. Bright sunlight reflects off the icy water blinding me for a second.
“We watch, mesmerised. The polar bear breaks the surface of the motionless water and swims towards us, darting between the floating ice. We slow to a standstill. In Svalbard it’s forbidden to do anything that might alter an animal’s behaviour, so boat operators are exceptionally mindful about not disturbing the wildlife. An adult bear can travel up to 60km in a day, so getting this close up and personal is never guaranteed. Luck is on our side. Rarely does a moment have such an impact that you feel compelled to totally absorb it rather than simply capture it on camera.”
Polar bears are the largest species of bear in the world – a fully grown male polar bear can weigh up to 700kg and stand up to 260cm tall. You’ll probably know polar bears as white bears, but their fur can vary in colour from grey to yellow too.
In Svalbard, there are more polar bears than people. Svalbard has a human population of around 2,500 and an estimated polar bear population of 3,000. It is one of the best places on earth to see and photograph polar bears in their natural home. During the summer months, polar bears are commonly sighted on the north-west coast of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island, and hunting on the sea ice to the north. Spotting one of these magnificent creatures is often the highlight of a Secret Atlas Micro Cruise.
Polar bear tracks on an ice floe as captured by Pancrazio on a Svalbard visit
Pancrazio, an Italian living in the US joined a Secret Atlas Svalbard visit last year. He said: “I had always dreamed about visiting the Arctic since I was a child watching polar bears, seals and endless ice on TV. One of the highlights for me was seeing a polar bear in the wild on the east side of Spitsbergen. An arctic fox was following the polar bear and seeing this interaction was amazing – just like in a nature documentary. Another exciting moment was when we saw the tracks of a polar bear on a piece of floating ice that passed the starboard side of the ship.”
Polar bears are an endangered species and are protected by law throughout the Arctic. It is illegal to shoot, kill, chase or disturb polar bears. They are naturally curious and will check out everything in their search for food, which is why there are strict guidelines around what to do if you encounter a polar bear in Svalbard. The safest way to see polar bears is from a small expedition vessel. Secret Atlas’s experienced guides are all well-versed in this and have never harmed a polar bear.
Pancrazio described one of his highlights as seeing a polar bear. You can read the story of his Svalbard visit here
Other rare wildlife – walruses, whales and reindeer
Walruses are a common sight in Svalbard but it wasn’t always the case. For three-and-a-half centuries, walruses suffered from heavy commercial exploitation and were almost hunted to extinction here. Thankfully, in 1952, walruses in Svalbard became protected – like polar bears – saving them from extinction. Today the population has grown to an estimated 3,000 walruses, similar to that of Svalbard’s polar bear population.
Walruses on an ice floe in Svalbard
During the shore landings, Walruses can be observed on the beaches from a safe distance. Walruses are also seen from expedition vessels lying on ice flows and swimming in the waters around Svalbard.
Anna said: “We went to tour the ice edge with the landing craft and we were able to see walruses, many animals, impressive glaciers and wild landscapes of ice on the islands’ edge. Everything was outstanding.”
Many other types of sea mammals frequent the waters around Svalbard, including beluga whales, blue whales and narwhals. Each has distinctive features which mark them out from other sealife – the beluga whale is white and native to Arctic waters, also known as the ‘sea-canary’ due to its high-pitched calls; the blue whale is the largest animal on earth, weighing in at 200 tonnes and growing up to 28 metres in length; Narwhals, known as the ‘unicorn’ of the sea have tusks which grow to almost three metres in length.
Flavio recalls his Svalbard visit on a micro cruise: “We were close enough to see the different types of whales. And we saw polar bears, whales, foxes, walruses and the Svalbard reindeer and a number of birds.”
Svalbard has its own subspecies of reindeer found nowhere else on the planet. Svalbard reindeer have adapted to survive the harsh winters and are smaller than reindeer found elsewhere. The reindeer have lived on Svalbard for over 5,000 years. They can be spotted all over the archipelago and inhabit the non-glaciated areas. Like the walrus, overhunting during the 19th and 20th century decimated to the population to the point of near extinction. Today they are easily spotted along the coast.
Annie, who joined a Secret Atlas micro cruise last year, said: “The wildlife is spectacular. In one day, we saw seven polar bears, countless walruses (which were fascinating), hundreds of reindeer, and thousands of birds of many species, including rare ducks. I felt like I was a part of a Discovery Channel program. What you see and experience is beyond your wildest imagination.”
Taking a moment to appreciate the Arctic Silence
Escape into the wild – nature and the sound of silence
It’s not just the wildlife that makes a Svalbard visit a once in a lifetime, unforgettable experience. Surrounded by hundreds of glaciers, miles and miles of Arctic sea ice and on a voyage with just 12 people, you get a real sense of solitude and peacefulness.
“To visit here is to experience a true remote wilderness where nature is in control and, in our modern technological society, that is an increasingly rare and beautiful thing to witness,” muses Andy. “It’s a step back in time to a forgotten age. The outside world doesn’t exist here. There is no wifi or mobile phone reception. The frozen landscapes outside of the settlements are timeless and remain unchanged by man since the first explorers landed here in 1596 with the exception of the retreating glaciers.”
Pancrazio had dreamed of a Svalbard visit since a young age
Pancrazio added: “In Svalbard, it is a true wilderness and you sense that when you are there. Unlike national parks I had visited before where humans are in control, Svalbard felt very different. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in the wilderness and that we were the real guests not in control of anything. When you visit ashore you see the traces of human artefacts and you see the impermanence of humans.”
The most notable feature for many is the sound of silence. Not an ear-plugs-in silence or even a field-in-the-middle-of-nowhere silence. It’s deeper than that. You’ve ventured to one of the most remote places on earth and you can feel it in your bones.
“It was one of my dreams to visit the Arctic and my husband and I had talked about it for years,” said Anna who joined a Secret Atlas trip with her husband Flavio. “It is a fascinating land of snow and white and you feel like you are living in a dream. I was looking at the horizon and it was so beautiful. Quiet, peaceful and silent.
“It is so different from everything I see around me. You can really focus on yourself and your feelings and you feel well. I think it is difficult to find a similar situation in other parts of the world or to experience that sense of solitude. You cannot ask for more.”
Encountering a glacier face close up is a highlight of any Svalbard visit
Svalbard is a frozen desert made up of mountains and glaciers. Large areas of the land are covered in ice all year round. There are no trees in Svalbard. Due to the short summers and long, cold, dark winters it is not possible for trees to grow. The plants that do grow there rarely reach more than 10cm in height and grow at a slow speed.
“I’ve visited a lot of other countries, like the Himalayas and the Dolomites in Italy,” said Flavio, “I love ice and glaciers, but I’ve never experienced an environment such as Svalbard. It was a terrific feeling of infinite space to be at 80 degrees north, I’ve never seen anything like it. From the ice edge in Svalbard, you can see nothing in front of you except endless wilderness, with the North Pole just 800 miles away. It is a very different feeling than being on a mountain where there is always something in front of you.
“It can be so crowded in many places in the world, but on a Svalbard visit, you can experience real silence, a taste of the place and the true environment. The stillness of the place becomes part of your soul and remains a part of you. It’s something you feel in your heart. You are able to spend time admiring nature, the huge space and the ice.”
Svalbard is a perfect place to witness glaciers. During the summer months, it is quite possible to watch huge chunks of ice calve off the glacier faces into the sea. Many of the glaciers in Svalbard are around 4,000 years old and are currently in a state of retreat.
Andy describes the moment he first witnessed this: “A loud thundercrack. Several tons of ice fall off the face of the glacier into the fjord below. The haunting echo continues out. With Svalbard’s glaciers in retreat, you cannot avoid contemplation of the effects humans are having on the planet.”
A Svalbard visit is better by boat
Micro expedition cruises are the ideal way to experience a fragile environment of the Arctic and Svalbard is the perfect place to start.
“I had never heard of Svalbard before planning this trip,” said Annie. “I had no idea humans could travel so far north in the Arctic for touristic purposes. Setting out with an open mind, not knowing what to expect, I began the most epic trip of my life.”
Most people visit Svalbard to experience the beauty of Svalbard’s nature firsthand. From stunning landscapes to an abundance of wildlife, Svalbard has a lot to offer the keen explorer looking to get close to nature.
On Secret Atlas cruises, guests regularly encounter a variety of wildlife, both in the water and on the land. Smaller vessels create less disturbance in the water than their larger cruise ship counterparts making them ideal for getting close to nature.
Pancrazio said: “Getting up close to glacier fronts and the awe you feel just being there is impossible to sum up in images and words. We were also fortunate that we made it up to the edge of the sea ice which is a truly magical experience.”
Annie added: “Being so near the North Pole and its wonders were simply unforgettable. The Svalbard visit is a privilege. It’s a place only a few people on this earth have seen.”
Find out more about our Svalbard cruises here.