Tag Archives: Svalbard

Wild Scandinavia: Spotting a Polar Bear

Once considered a great sporting trophy, the polar bear is the unofficial symbol of the Arctic, the cuddly-looking giant who could tear you to shreds in an instant.

Not many creatures have been so fascinating to us humans for the past centuries as the polar bear. Once hunted with guns, today the great white bear is hunted with cameras and binoculars for a different kind of shooting. Seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat is something that features on many a pioneering soul’s bucketlist, but what is it like when you are able to fulfil that wish?

“It’s almost like a dream – finally on my way to a place and a life that I’ve read so much about. Even a few years ago, I couldn’t have dreamed that I would have a chance to take a trip like this.”

– Polar bear hunter Knut Bjåen, 1946, from Birger Amundsens’ book Without Mercy, on hunting in the Arctic.

Svalbard sightings of Polar Bears

Imagine you are on an excursion at Gnålodden, Hornsund, southwest of Spitsbergen, Svalbard, famous for its population of sea birds and the almost legendary polar bears. Picture thousands of sea birds wheeling around in the sky above you, creating a cacophony of noise.

Wanny Wolstad, a polar bear hunter of old, would have looked out at this same sight from her small hut, sitting perched on the stones and surrounded by snow. It was in this tight space that she raised her two sons in the 1930s and began her thrill-seeking search for the polar bear, the great ‘trophy’ that it was considered. Inside the hut the beds still stand and it is not too difficult to imagine her sitting on her bed writing to a magazine in Tromsø about her hunting experiences. Rugged up against the cold, the wooden slats barely keeping out the harsh winds and with a chorus of bird shrieks as her soundtrack, she recounted this of her time in Svalbard:

“Wonderful! Despite the danger, tension and difficulty, it’s ideal. I wouldn’t trade it for anything…Svalbard is in my blood.”

In spite of the harshness of life on Svalbard, Wolstad was not alone in her enthusiasm. Now follow us east in your minds eye towards the fjord, scanning the ground for signs of the elusive giant. Suddenly you spot something in the snow, some disturbance – could they be animal tracks? Excitement builds as you easily fit your foot into the imprint and then look out to the east, following the line of the trail. The expedition team leader confirms what you already know – a polar bear was here not so long ago. And so the hunt begins.

The first glimpse

Imagine only hours earlier as the Hurtigruten ship slowly made its way into a fjord on the southwest side of Svalbard, there was a loud exclamation followed by the shutter of camera lenses that follows wildlife-hungry travellers everywhere. ‘There! A polar bear!’ It is then that you felt lucky to even spot one from afar, looking dwarfed against the large mountains.

You have just emerged from a storm across the Barents Sea, and feeling woozy after the ship’s rocking but like a true explorer, you revel in your first sighting of a wild polar bear. ‘Can it get better than this?’ you ask yourself.

The bubble is burst when Manuel Marin, ornithologist and Hurtigruten expert shakes his head ruefully. “I’m afraid you are looking at a stone!”

You can’t help but chuckle despite your disappointment. “The art of seeing has to do with the ability to identify unnatural shapes and colours against the background. That is much too dark against the white background.”

“Listen to Manuel! He was raised by eagles!” shouts one of his colleagues. You all try your hardest to engage in the art of seeing, fine tune whatever innate hunting sense you might have in your DNA, a throwback to times of survival of the fittest. Here, on the thin sea ice stretching 200 metres out from the land, there are seals and where there are seals, there is usually a polar bear nearby. With Arctic wind whipping against your hands and face, your senses are all alert, fingers gripping binoculars at the ready for a glimpse of yellow white movement.

You’ve dreamed about this moment since you booked in your Arctic exploration – heck, this was one of the reasons you booked the Arctic exploration! And then, just as the tension is building to bursting point, there is a cry from someone on the lower deck and a loudspeaker crackles into action.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on the portside, at 11 o’clock, we have…a polar bear. Right to the left of the small island in the ice, you can see blocks of ice. One meter to the right, a polar bear is lying and sleeping. He just moved!”

Now that you have seen it, you hardly know what to do! Everyone stares, bustles on decks with camera in hands, the contagious excitement coursing through the crowd. When you lay eyes on the bear you forget your camera and just watch him, sleeping rather peacefully. A streak of gold amongst the white. The majestic, ferocious predator looks like a friendly pet, a big version of a child’s prized teddy. The only thing that reveals his hunting instincts is a smear of red on his muzzle.

Now imagine that this is not a daydream at all: you’re not staring at your screen in the comfort of your home or on your commute from work, but you are onboard your Hurtigruten cruise, in the Arctic Circle, a polar bear laying on the ice right in front of you.


Make your dream a reality and contact us today about booking your Hurtigruten adventure!

Svalbard SolFest Week

March 8th marked the beginning of Sol Fest week in Svalbard – a celebration of the return of sunlight to the archipelago! Locals gather at the old hospital’s stairs in Longyearbyen to watch the ‘solas return’, or return of the sun. When the sun’s rays light up these stairs, the sun is declared to have returned for the year.

The celebrations span from 3 to 12 March and the whole of the community gets involved, inviting visitors along to their events too. Events include a tour of the North Norwegian Art Museum with a historical collections from 1800s to today and painting in the snow with food colouring for primary and kindergarten children as the new sunlight basks the land. There are many musical and cultural events on offer, from rock to blues bands and even a Neon party replete with glowsticks & glow in the dark paint and salsa classes.

If you are lucky enough to be in Svalbard, check out this link (translated from Norwegian) for a list of events.

 

Beautiful and Mysterious Svalbard

The Arctic frontier, the Svalbard archipelago is the playground of intrepid travellers looking to immerse themselves in the land of our most pioneering explorers. One and a half times the size of Denmark, the archipelago is sparsely populated but thrives still, used since the 1700s by whalers and walrus trappers from all over the world.

One of the few pockets of Europe that is more wilderness than civilisation, Svalbard archipelago is home to the Arctic adventure you have been dreaming of. With soaring mountains, sheer icebergs, rare wildlife and colossal ice fields, an escape to Svalbard combines history, wildlife and the welcoming hospitality of Norwegians to create an enriching Arctic experience.

A brief history

Once the domain of intrepid whalers, it was not until the 1920 Svalbard Treaty that Norway gained sovereignty of the archipelago. When coal was discovered in the area the Hurtigruten ships transported supplies, people, freight and mining equipment regularly to the little inhabited land. During the 1920s both Norway and the then USSR established more permanent communities in the area.
Today, the Hurtigruten ships that visit the area in Spring and Summer time carry important cargo as well as the many guests who wish to explore this fascinating archipelago. With an abundance of wildlife and a captivating history, a voyage aboard Hurtigruten offers unique insights into this remote region.

Wildlife roams free in Svalbard

Spitsbergen polar bearsCurrently the population of Svalbard sits at about 2, 700 people with at least 3, 000–3,500 polar bears. In fact, the prevalence of polar bears means that it is illegal to go out beyond the realms of the small towns without a gun for protection!

A visit to Svalbard is truly a nature lovers dream with many examples of unique Arctic flora and fauna to be seen. Walruses, Arctic foxes, reindeer (and of course polar bears) roam the land, while in the sea many species of whales including the beluga, sperm and killer whale can be seen.

During the Springtime, Arctic ringed seals nest on ice floats in the sparkling fjords, ready to spring away at a moments notice when a polar bear comes into sight. There are also a number of puffin colonies that guests on Hurtigruten can see from onboard or up close on one of the Shore Excursions.

Spitsbergen, the largest island

In the Springtime and leading into Summer, while the Midnight Sun hovers above the horizon for two whole months, wildflowers appear on the islands, dotted around year-round glaciers. 60% of the archipelago is covered in glaciers and the largest island is called Spitsbergen, which literally means pointy mountain, after the (yes, you guessed it) pointy mountain that dominates the island.

Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and most guests to the archipelago choose to stay here. One of the most peculiar facts about the people of Svalbard is that they can’t die on the island – in Longyearbyen it is illegal. The last burial in the graveyard was about 70 years ago, nowadays if you are ill you are flown off the island to the mainland. This is largely due to the practicality of the ground being permafrost and the effect this has on bodies decomposing.

Graveyards aside, many activities such as snowmobile safaris, snow shoeing and boat trips out to puffin populations run out of Longyearbyen, so it is a good place to have as a base to explore this sparsely populated land.

The ghost town of Pyramiden

In 1936, the Soviet Union acquired the rights to use Pyramiden, a small settlement at the base of a large pyramid shaped mountain, for their coal mining industry. And so a little slice of the USSR was born, in the far northern reaches of the world! Today the town stands as a relic of the Soviet world, once offering everything a small town would need.

“It was meant to be an ideal Soviet society. It was a town where any foreigner could come without a visa, so it served as an exhibition of the best of the Soviet Union.”

PyramidenStill owned by the Russian state-run coal company, the town has been abandoned since the late 1990s. A village frozen in time and hinting at apocalyptic disaster, the first visitors to Pyramiden could see books still on shelves, sheets folded neatly on beds, and hand fashioned coat hangers waiting for a coat. It has been named by National Geographic one of the top ten ghost towns in the world and provides a fascinating look into recent history.

In the Springtime, a large lawn grown out of imported soil still thrives, dominating the central square, replete with the most northerly bust of Lenin, and flowers that spring up in the often barren icy surrounds. The architecture is classic brutalism and all guides must carry a shotgun thanks to the visiting polar bears.


Whatever you choose to do, Svalbard is at once beautiful yet remote, a wild frontier that will bring you close to the North Pole without the hardship of an Arctic expedition. Hurtigruten runs voyages up to Svalbard through Spring and Summer and still is one of the best ways to see this region – by ship, just as the first polar explorers did.