Far to the north, midway between Norway and the North Pole, lies a remote archipelago so spectacularly beautiful it’s earning a reputation for topping many a "Favourite Destination” list. Introducing Svalbard, population just 2,700.
Known for it’s rugged terrain, spectacular glaciers and frozen tundra that’s home to polar bears, reindeer and Arctic foxes, Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen, is often the starting point for cruises to Greenland or Norway. And what a start it is! There are so many interesting things about Svalbard we can’t put them all down here, but how about a smattering just to whet the travel appetite?
Svalbard is well-known for being a good spot to experience Aurora Borealis (northern lights) in winter, but in summer you can experience all-day sun as the sun doesn’t set for an incredible four months of the year! The average summer temperature is usually 4 to 6˚C, compared to a chilly -16˚C to -12˚C in the winter.
It’s a pretty tough life here for the wildlife of Svalbard. Up to 60% of Svalbard is covered in ice and less than 10% has any vegetation (which justifies the law that you are not permitted to pick flowers in Svalbard!). Luckily the resident polar bears actually have black skin which helps absorb the heat and built in “socks” – stiff fur on the soles of their feet to stop the bears from slipping on ice. These “socks” also allow for sneaky approaches when hunting their prey! In fact, these incredible creatures have been known to swim for 200 kilometres without rest in search of food! Unfortunately global warming means these distances are increasing further still. Polar bears attract hundreds of visitors to Svalbard every year, with tourism being one of the three main industries (the other two being coal mining and research). It’s a good spot to start if you’re intent on seeing polar bears as there are actually more polar bears than people living in Svalbard!
The gorgeous Arctic foxes are also well-equipped for the harsh environment. It has the warmest pelt of any of the arctic animals and can stand temperatures as low as -50˚C! Although it looks a sweet and cuddly wee poppet, the Arctic fox is a voracious hunter and feeds on seabirds and their eggs, seal pups, lemmings, voles and fish. It will also clean up after the polar bears, feasting on anything that is left over.
Speaking of seabirds, Svalbard attracts around 6 million birds that migrate to Svalbard to breed each year. The Arctic tern actually makes the trek from Antarctica to the Arctic and back each year – some 70,000 kilometres!
As well as polar bears, Arctic foxes and seabirds, you’ll also likely see walruses lazing along the coastline. Not so long ago, walruses were all but disappeared from Svalbard with just 50 animals remaining. However after it became a protected species in 1952, the walrus population now stands closer to 4,000.
Recovery programmes have also helped protect the Svalbard reindeer, also called the Spitsbergen reindeer, these are the smallest reindeer in existence, with lighter fur, rounder heads and shorter legs than other reindeer. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s but a recovery programme was put in place in the early 1900s and there are an estimated 10,000 now living in Svalbard.
We haven’t even got into the whaling history, the ghost towns with more than 40 nationalities living in Svalbard or the 150-million-year old Jurassic fossil discovered in Svalbard, but in the interest of keeping this article short let’s leave you with just a couple of other quick and quirky facts:
• If you see people walking around Longyearbyen with rifles slung over their shoulders, don’t be alarmed. Due to the risk of polar bears, you can’t wander around on the outskirts of town without being able to scare the bears off – hence the rifles. You can’t take the rifles into shops or restaurants with you though – there are special lockers in which to put them whilst you are inside. Funnily enough, if you’re dining out you also have to leave your shoes at the door. This came about due to the coal miners bringing in too much coal dust with them!
• You can visit the northernmost brewery in the world in Svalbard – the Svalbard Bryggeri.
• Cat lovers will be disappointed to learn our feline friends are not allowed on Svalbard. There is a story though that there is a cat in Barentsburg but it’s registered as an Arctic fox!
• Cats are not the only ones not permitted here – if you’re pregnant, you can’t give birth in Svalbard. Instead you’re sent to the mainland. Likewise if you’re seriously ill or simply getting too old, you are required to move back to the mainland!
• Due to the low rainfall each year Svalbard is actually an Arctic Desert.
Now if that has started you thinking that Svalbard might be worth a visit (and we didn’t even talk about the other incredible sights you’ll see after sailing out of Spitsbergen!) and you’d like to find out more, how to get there and about cruises visiting Svalbard, feel free to have a chat to our Ultimate Cruising experts by clicking here to request a call. We have some fantastic cruises that visit both Svalbard and Greenland, Norway or Iceland!