We had such an incredible experience in Spitsbergen and saw everything we wanted to see and more. We absolutely loved it! - Frank
Spitsbergen, the largest island of the remote and rugged Svalbard archipelago, is really only accessible between April and September when the sun reappears, the pack ice melts and ice floes disperse, enabling ships to navigate the icy waters. In April and May there are opportunities for winter sports and husky safaris, and humpback whales and impressive new icebergs can be seen. Although April is peak breeding season for polar bears, you are not likely to encounter any of these magnificent creatures until May when they are more easily reached, but there are plenty of native Svalbard reindeer and Arctic birds. The summer months of June to August are the months of the Midnight Sun. June and July are prime polar bear viewing months and the best months to witness bears hunting on the ice. This is also when the reindeer migration takes place. As the summer season progresses, kayaking and diving are possible and the wildflowers come into full bloom. By August the sun is starting to set again, providing stunning backdrops to the rugged and icy landscape and great photographic opportunities. By September more of the Svalbard archipelago is accessible and by the end of the month, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) start to make an appearance. Polar bears can still be seen as well as Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, walruses and plenty of birdlife.
The Arctic climate of Spitsbergen and the Svalbard archipelago means that summers are short but winters are long and extremely cold. Spitsbergen is still covered in ice in April, with average temperatures of between -9°C and -16°C. May temperatures are slightly higher, between -3°C and -7°C and rainfall is at its lowest during these months, averaging 13 to 16mm. By June, temperatures have increased to between -1°C and 3°C, with around 18mm of rain during the month, but there is still plenty of snow and ice. July tends to be the warmest month in Spitsbergen, with temperatures averaging 3-7°C, sometimes even reaching double figures. Rainfall is a little higher than in June, but usually falls as drizzly rain and sleet. By August the sun is starting to set, but there are still around 20 hours of daylight and temperatures are generally above zero, averaging 2-6°C. Temperatures start to fall below zero by September, averaging between 1°C and -3°C. As summer comes to an end, the archipelago starts to freeze over and by mid-winter Spitsbergen is experiencing the darkness of the polar nights and temperatures as low as -20°C.
Spitsbergen is the wildlife capital of the Arctic and in the summer, Svalbard becomes the land of the polar bear (or ice bear), with polar bear numbers exceeding that of the human population, making Spitsbergen and the Svalbard archipelago one of the best places in the Arctic to see polar bears. Wildlife is protected in Spitsbergen, and abundant in the summer months. In the winter, only the hardiest of species such as Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, polar bears and the Svalbard rock ptarmigan are found.
19 species of marine mammals are found in the waters around Spitsbergen and Svalbard including 12 species of whales and dolphins (bowhead, white beluga, narwhal, blue, fin, humpback, minke, sperm, northern bottlenose, killer and pilot whales, white-beaked dolphins), 5 species of seals (ringed, bearded, harbour, hooded and harp), polar bears and walruses. The only land mammals are the Svalbard reindeer, Arctic fox and sibling vole.
Arctic birds are also abundant in the summer months and some of the most characteristic ones include the following: northern fulmars, pink-footed geese, red-throated divers, barnacle and brent geese, common eider, purple sandpipers, Svalbard rock ptarmigans, Arctic and great skuas, grey phalaropes, Arctic puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, little auks, snow buntings as well as various gulls and guillemots.
Spitsbergen is the only populated island in the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. Norway has had full sovereignty over Svalbard since the 1920 Svalbard Treaty and the Svalbard Act of 1925 made the Svalbard archipelago part of Norway as opposed to it being a dependency. Since 1925 Svalbard has been a region of Norway with a Norwegian-appointed governor who resides in Longyearbyen, the administrative centre. This Norwegian town is the largest settlement on the island of Spitsbergen. The second largest settlement is the Russian coal mining settlement of Barentsburg. The population of Spitsbergen is around 2,750, the vast majority being Norwegian. There are approximately 425 Russians and Ukrainians in Spitsbergen, 10 Polish and just over 300 non-Norwegians living in Norwegian settlements, including people from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
There is virtually no crime in Spitsbergen, in fact it is one of the safest places on Earth. Although wildlife is protected in Spitsbergen, residents going outside settlements are required to carry a rifle, to be used in self-defence and as a last resort, should they come under attack from a polar bear. It is customary to remove your shoes before entering public buildings in Longyearbyen such as hotels, shops and museums.
Longyearbyen is the centre of tourism on the Svalbard archipelago and 2016 saw Svalbard and Longyearbyen receiving the prestigious certificate of “Sustainable Destination”. Although many visitors experience Spitsbergen aboard a cruise ship, tourism is still an important part of Longyearbyen’s economy and the travel industry of Longyearbyen has worked hard to reduce the negative impact of tourism whilst enhancing visitor’s experiences.
Svalbard is one of the world’s largest areas with untouched nature and processes to protect and preserve not only its nature, but also its cultural heritage have been implemented. The Environmental Act of Svalbard aims to protect the archipelago’s natural environment and its historical monuments. Tour operators, tour organisers and tourist vessels must all adhere to strict regulations. Visitors are also encouraged to take care of Svalbard by not disturbing wildlife, not picking flowers, leaving no litter, leaving cultural remains untouched and not attempting to lure or pursue polar bears.
The official language of Svalbard and Spitsbergen is Norwegian. Russian is used in the Russian settlements.
A high level of fitness is not necessary for Arctic cruises to Spitsbergen, but you need to be in good health as although there is generally a doctor on board the ships, you may be a long way from any other medical assistance. The majority of activities are focused around shore excursions and zodiac cruising and so you need to be agile and able-bodied enough to climb into and out of the inflatable zodiacs from both the ship and the shore. On shore landings you may need to negotiate uneven and slippery ground. Shore excursions generally involve some walking.
All of our tours are 100% tried and tested to ensure that when you travel with us, you’re doing so in a controlled and safe environment with trained experts. We consistently monitor weather conditions and will always provide you with the best possible adventure without risk of injury to you or the vessel. While some activities may need to be rescheduled or cancelled due to weather, every effort is made to have a contingency plan should such conditions become a reality during your expedition. We use our vast experience and knowledge when picking the vessels we sell to provide you with an adventure that’s unforgettable for all the right reasons.
Spitsbergen is a visa-free area. If you are flying into or out of Longyearbyen via mainland Norway, a pre-arranged visa is not required to enter Norway for citizens of the following countries:
- United Kingdom
- The United States
- New Zealand
- European Union
For other nationalities, please visit the website of the relevant consulate.
Most Arctic cruises that include Spitsbergen combined with other Arctic destinations such as Greenland or the Russian Arctic, typically spend 2 to 4 days exploring Spitsbergen. Those cruises that feature Spitsbergen travel only generally spend between 8 and 13 days in the region.