Svalbard Arctic Wildlife – 21 Animals To See during an Expedition
There are many reasons to visit Svalbard, but for lots of people, it’s a chance to spot rare wildlife in its natural habitat – from polar bears and walruses to beluga whales and Arctic foxes. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast array of animals that call this remote archipelago home.
Guests on our Secret Atlas expedition micro cruises to Svalbard are often treated to an array of wildlife sightings during their voyage and return home with memories and photos you just couldn’t make or take elsewhere.
Svalbard is an Arctic desert and these are all wild animals which are, and should be, wary of humans so we cannot guarantee sightings, but you’re in with a good chance on an expedition micro cruise, which is much less intrusive than larger vessels and can get closer to the action.
Here are 21 animals you may see during your Svalbard cruise.
1. Arctic Fox
While the Arctic Fox is endangered in mainland Norway, in Svalbard they’re doing much better and are often visible on coastlines around the archipelago where they prey on birds. They’re also known as a ‘white fox’, ‘polar fox’ or ‘snow fox’. Similar in size to a regular fox, they have a white coat which alters in tone with the seasons – from a blueish tinge to a more yellowy colour. They’re incredibly resilient and can survive in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees celsius, living in burrows and tunnelling into the snow for shelter. Female Arctic foxes give birth in spring to litters or around 14 pups.
2. Bearded Seal
Svalbard wildlife isn’t just confined to the land. The largest of the Svalbard resident seals, a fully grown female bearded seal can weigh up to 425kg (males slightly less at 300kg). It’s a relative of the grey seal and harp seal. Bearded seals tend to reside in areas of shallow water and on drifting pack ice. Also known as the ‘square flipper seal’, the bearded seal is named such due to its abundant whiskers which help it hunt fish and crustaceans on the ocean floor. They have distinct mating rituals and the male bearded seal’s song can be heard up to 20km away.
3. Svalbard Reindeer
As the name suggests, this is a type of reindeer native to Svalbard for the past 5,000 years. They’re very common on the archipelago and you’ve got a really good chance of seeing one during your voyage. It has a small head, short neck and legs and thick winter coat which sets it apart from other deer. They can be seen across the archipelago, including in and near settlements. Like several other local animals, they were over hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century but populations are now thriving with an estimated 22,000 on Svalbard today. One of the many Svalbard wildlife highlights.
4. Humpback Whale
One of the larger whale species, the humpback whales grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh over 40 tonnes. They have a small hump in front of their dorsal fin which gives them their name and a massive tail fin, which helps them travel up to 16,000 miles a year – feeding on small fish and krill in polar waters and heading to tropical climates to breed. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, humpback whales are now found in every ocean in the world and frequent the Arctic sea around Svalbard. They’re known for their magical songs which last for hours on end which many a scientist has tried to decipher.
5. Little Auk
The smallest of the European auks (hence the name!), the little auk or ‘sea dove’ is a similar size to a starling and spends summer in Svalbard before overwintering in the North Atlantic. They travel in huge groups and their swarming chorus is quite a sight and sound. There are an estimated 1 million little auks in Svalbard in the summer, with over 200 colonies identified across the north west and south west parts of Spitsbergen.
6. Polar Bear
‘The King of the Arctic’ – also known locally as Isbjørn or “ice bear” – is the most well-known animal in the Arctic and is often what prompts people to visit the region. There are hundreds of polar bears in Svalbard, with most seen on the northern parts of the archipelago and on the islands on the east coast. They’re natural predators and proficient swimmers and hunt on both land and in the sea – with seals forming the main part of their diet although they will munch through other food if available from whale carcasses to bird eggs. Seeing a polar bear in the wild is the ultimate Svalbard wildlife experience.
Join an Expedition Micro Cruise or a Photo Tour in Svalbard with Secret Atlas and experience Svalbard’s Wildlife first hand.
Walruses were once hunted to near-extinction but, as a protected species, there are now thousands of Walruses on Svalbard so you’ve got a good chance of seeing one. Most of the walruses visible on Svalbard are fully-grown males weighing up to 1700kg. The tusked sea mammals tend to congregate in large groups and can often be seen resting on land after searching for mussels on the sea-floor. The marine mammals are great swimmers and can move surprisingly fast.
Svalbard is the northernmost home of the Atlantic Puffin. Also known as ‘sea parrots’, puffins are small black and white sea birds with very colourful beaks of bright orange (to match its legs) and grey. It’s deemed a vulnerable species and it is hard to know how many currently live in Svalbard, but estimates put it at 10,000 pairs over 15 colonies. Each pair will produce a single egg. They spend most of their lives at sea, hunting fish alone, and only head for dry land to breed and raise their young. The female birds will usually return to the colony where they hatched to do this.
9. Beluga Whale
You’ve got a good chance of seeing (and hearing – also known as the ‘sea canary’ due to its distinct high-pitched call) this unique looking white whale in Svalbard; they’re very social and hang out in sex-segregated groups not far from land. Beluga whales, one of the smallest whale species growing to 13-20 feet long and weighing 1 to 1.5 tons. They start out a greyish colour, which turns white by about the age of seven for females, a few years later for males. They’re popular in zoos and aquariums but there’s no better way to see them than in their natural habitat.
10. Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan
The rock ptarmigan is the largest and only land bird that stays in Svalbard all year round and it can be seen across the archipelago. They are very territorial, with the male cock establishing nesting space in the Spring, protecting it with diversions and burping sounds. Not long after, female hens lay eggs in the area usually resulting in around 10 chicks 21 days later. The chicks learn to fly after just 10-12 days but stick with their mother for a further 10-12 weeks. They are hunted for food by humans too, but there’s a strict cap on numbers and the harvest is limited to three months each year.
Svalbard is home to two types of guillemot – common and brunnich. Both have dark upperparts and white underparts, but the common guillemot’s bill is longer and thinner. They nest on or near sheer cliff faces but spend the rest of their life at sea. They’re much more manoeuvrable underwater than they are in the air. There are a couple of key breeding areas for common guillemots, including Alkefjellet – ‘mountain of the guillemots’ – which is a likely visiting place on our Svalbard Pioneer tour.
One of the most elusive animals in Svalbard, the male Narwhal is easily identifiable thanks to its 3 metre long spiralled tusk – that is actually a tooth! Females have much smaller tusks/teeth. Also known as the ‘Unicorn of the Sea’, narwhals travel in groups of 15-20, surviving off a diet of fish. While it’s rare to see a narwhal in the wild, they are present in the fjords of Nordaustlandet and in the strait of Hinlopenstretet and there have been reports of sightings of hundreds together in one group.
13. Red-Throated Diver
A common site in lakes, ponds and sheltered coastal areas, the red-throated diver has a long neck – particularly visible in flight – with a red colour visible in summer. They jump up to dive underwater, where they can stay for up to a minute and a half at a time. Red-throated divers are migratory birds that make Svalbard their home in summer – from May to October – heading south for winter. You may hear its call before you see it, it sounds a little like a cat’s miaow – which they use frequently in flight.
14. Barnacle Goose
Over 30,000 barnacle geese arrive in Svalbard in May from mainland Norway, leaving in August or September to head south to warmer climes. They have a black head and neck, with a white face and fly in groups (packs) and can be quite noisy. Barnacle geese build their nests high on cliff faces, away from natural predators but the chicks are taken down to the shore to feed – meaning around half will die from falls and in the clutches of Arctic foxes and polar bears. 100 years ago there were just 300 barnacle geese in Svalbard so it’s one of the real success stories of wildlife conservation from the archipelago.
15. Ringed Seal
The ringed seal is identified by its rotund appearance with a fur pattern of dark spots and light grey rings. It is the most common seal spotted in Svalbard and indeed the smallest, they’re rarely longer than 1.5m. Ringed seals live a solitary life and can often be seen on their own. They can live up to 30 years if they’re lucky, though they are the main prey of polar bears, sharks and whales.
16. Snow Bunting
The tiny snow bunting is the only songbird in Svalbard and can be seen (and heard) from April through to September, when it heads south to Russia and a few other locations in Europe for winter. It is the most northerly perching bird in the world. Their plumage changes from black and white contrast in the summer to a more sandy tint over winter. The males will start singing as soon as they approach the breeding grounds and will only stop once they have secured a mate. They combine this with a ceremonial flight.
17. Blue Whale
Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the blue whale remains an endangered species but has been seen off the coast of Svalbard. Blue whales are the largest known animal ever to have lived on earth and can grow up to 100 feet long and weigh up to 200 tonnes. Its tongue alone weighs as much as an elephant and its heart is the size of a car. They can eat up to 4 tonnes of krill a day and can blow water out of their blowhole to heights of over 12 metres. Their low-frequency song can be heard for hundreds of miles and is used to communicate with other blue whales.
18. Fin Whale
Formerly known as the herring whale or razorback whale, the fin whale has a distinct ridge along its back behind its dorsal fin and is the second largest species on earth after the blue whale. It grows to around 85 feet long, but weighs around 170 tonnes and can live for up to 100 years. Fin whales are distinctive with a long slender body with a white lower right jaw and a black lower left jaw. They’re fast swimmers and are usually spotted in groups of between 2 and 7. The best place to spot them in Svalbard is off the west coast of Spitsbergen.
19. Common Eider
Also known as St Cuthbert’s or Cuddy’s Duck, the common eider is a large sea duck that builds its nests from eiderdown plucked from the female duck’s breast – the same stuff used for bedding by humans. They’re fast fliers and are confident in the water, diving into the sea to feed off crustaceans and molluscs and are themselves prey for Arctic foxes and polar bears. Svalbard is home to tens of thousands of common eiders in the summer months with dense colonies visible on the west coast, in the north and on Tusenøyane. They over-winter in places such as the UK.
20. Black-Legged Kittiwake
One of the most common birds on Svalbard, with a population of over half a million spread across more than 200 colonies in the archipelago. The black-legged kittiwake gets its name for the colour of its legs (obviously!) and its distinct call which sounds a bit like ‘kitte-waaik’. They tend to stay near the sea and cliffs and are very graceful in flight despite – or maybe because of – only having three toes.
21. Arctic Skua
Along with the Arctic tern, the Arctic Skua are aggressive birds which will not hesitate to attack anything they feel threatened by – including humans. They’re excellent fliers, swooping low and fast in pursuit of other birds to steal food from and, of course, hunting for fish themselves. They will also eat eggs and other young birds as well as feed off dead mammals. They can be seen in Svalbard in the summer months, and head south to mainland Europe for the winter.
This is just a selection of highlights from the vast array of Svalbard Wildlife you can see on one of our expeditions. The best way to witness these magnificent creatures is in their natural habitat and with a Secret Atlas expedition micro cruise, you can do just that. For details of our next voyages, see here.
For further reading on Svalbard wildlife please visit here.
Did you enjoy this Svalbard wildlife article? Sign up below to receive new articles to your inbox and be the first to know about new tours and the occasional offer.