Welcome to Birdquest
Birdquest's Spitsbergen (or Svalbard) birding and wildlife tour is surely our most unusual European birdwatching trip. Our Spitsbergen tour is the most comprehensive available and is a fabulous adventure in this remote Arctic wilderness, offering regular Polar Bear encounters, Walruses, Ivory Gulls, Little Auks and much more.
Sunday 15th July —
Monday 30th July 2018
Leaders: Mike Watson and an Oceanwide Expeditions leader
Group Size Limit: 19
Tour Category: Easy walking for the most part and relatively comfortable accommodations
The remote archipelago of Spitsbergen (or Svalbard), Europe’s only large High Arctic territory, extends from over 76°N to nearly 81°N latitude, its northernmost point being only about 1000 kilometres (about 600 miles) from the North Pole! Situated at the same extremely high latitudes as northern Greenland, unlike that area it can be explored by ship during the summer months, for the warming effects of the Gulf Stream extend even this far north and melt the pack ice to such an extent that the archipelago can be circumnavigated in high summer.
Spitsbergen may have been discovered by the Vikings, but there is insufficient evidence and so its formal discoverer is William Barents who reached the west coast in 1596 while trying to find a Northeast Passage to China and the Pacific. Barents failed in the attempt, being turned back by the ice yet again, but the news of huge numbers of whales and Walruses resulted in further exploration and then, in the early 17th century, the establishment of commercial whaling bases by the English, Dutch, Basques and others, while in the 18th and early 19th centuries hunting of Arctic Foxes, Polar Bears and Reindeer for pelts became important. Eventually coal mining was established by a variety of nations at the beginning of the 20th century, although only a limited amount of mining continues to this day. In 1925 an international treaty granted Norway sovereignty over Spitsbergen, which they refer to as Svalbard (or ‘northern frontier’), although the treaty powers, which include Russia, Germany and Britain, retain equal economic rights.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Spitsbergen became the focus of polar exploration and science. Starting with the expeditions of Scoresby, Franklin and Sabine between 1806-1823, numerous expeditions either explored the Spitsbergen archipelago itself or used the islands as a forward base for attempts on the North Pole. Nansen’s famous ice-strengthened ship Fram emerged from the ice near Spitsbergen after being trapped for nearly three years and drifting to within a few hundred kilometres of the pole, while the doomed balloon expedition of Andrée left from the northwestern tip of the archipelago, as did Wellman’s unsuccessful attempts by airship, and Amundsen’s by seaplane. Finally, in 1926, Byrd (who was later also to be the first to fly to the South Pole) flew from Ny Ålesund to the North Pole and back.
Today Spitsbergen is an environmental showcase, having the highest proportion of national parks and nature reserves of any equivalent land mass on earth (the great majority of the archipelago is now protected), and it is the absolutely stunning Arctic scenery and rich Arctic wildlife and plantlife that draw visitors intent on more peaceful appreciation of the islands. Here are fantastic pointed mountains draped in snow (the same mountains that gave Spitsbergen its name), enormous interior ice caps, vast glaciers that carve their way down to spectacular fjords, immense areas of sea ice and impossibly blue icebergs carved into weird shapes by the action of wind and sea. Here too are teeming seabird colonies (notably Brünnich’s Guillemot or Thick-billed Murre and the delightful Little Auk or Dovekie), beautiful Arctic shorebirds (including the stunning Red Phalarope), the ice-loving Ivory Gull, Pomarine, Arctic and sometimes Long-tailed Skuas (or Pomarine, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers), nesting Barnacle, Pale-bellied Brent and Pink-footed Geese, and King Eiders, and a host of beautiful Arctic wildflowers ranging from Svalbard Poppy, Purple Saxifrage and Moss Campion to Mountain Avens and arctic buttercups.
The star attraction is of course the huge and powerful Polar Bear, and on this round Spitsbergen itinerary it would be hard to imagine missing this creature that surely epitomizes the threats to the Arctic from global warming. In fact we have an excellent chance of multiple sightings (perhaps 10 or more individuals, with some up close from the ship or zodiacs) as the north and east of the archipelago are the prime areas for the species! The bizarre Walrus is another favourite with visitors and we can also expect the pretty little Arctic Fox, Reindeer (of the distinctive Svalbard form), a series of northern seals and, if we are really in luck, some Belugas (or White Whales).
It is important to stress that one travels to Spitsbergen for the awesome Arctic experience (many people find the entire cruise such an uplifting experience that it ranks as one of the best things they ever did) rather than simply for seeing Polar Bears, Walruses, birds and other wildlife. The species diversity this far north is naturally limited, so you have to be motivated primarily with the idea of seeing a spectacular part of the High Arctic and its natural history – and what an experience it is!
We shall be sailing on the Noorderlicht (capacity 20 passengers), a lovely two-masted schooner operated by the well-respected Oceanwide Expeditions, which we have chartered for the exclusive use of our group. Built back in 1910 in Germany as a three-master, she long served the lighthouses in the Baltic. Her present Dutch owners completely refitted her in 1991 for expedition cruising and converted her to a two-master. Ships of this class are great favourites with wildlife travellers due to their small size, their ability to go almost anywhere and their friendly and decidedly ‘family’ atmosphere.
Cabins are furnished with upper and lower berths, a cupboard and a washbasin with hot and cold water. There is a frosted glass skylight in the ceiling. There are four shower rooms and five toilets. There is a spacious saloon for meals and leisure time indoors. Food is plentiful and of good quality. The ship carries a small complement of expedition staff who, as well as guiding zodiac cruises and excursions ashore, double up as guest lecturers and give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the areas visited.
As much of the sailing as possible is done during the period that passes for night at these latitudes (of course it is light 24 hours a day!), thus maximizing opportunities for going ashore and enjoying the beautiful arctic landscape to the full. Landings are carried out by means of zodiacs, the rugged, fast-moving inflatables developed by Jacques Cousteau for expedition work which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions. The sheer speed and efficiency with which the crew and expedition staff carry out these landings, coupled with the small complement of passengers, allows everyone plenty of time ashore, a key factor when considering any cruise of this type. Further information about the cruise, including photographs and details of the ship layout, including cabin layouts, are available on the Oceanwide Expeditions website: www.oceanwide-expeditions.com.
The great advantage of taking this particular cruise, if you are especially interested in seeing and photographing Arctic wildlife and flora in all its glory, is that the itinerary, landings and day to day schedule are determined by us and will naturally be very heavily wildlife-orientated, while our two full weeks in the archipelago (substantially longer than most cruises) will give us time for a truly in-depth experience. Our itinerary will differ somewhat from the standard Noorderlicht one, and those of other ‘normal’ cruises (which have a stronger orientation towards visits to ancient whaling stations, healthy hikes and suchlike), and will be concentrating on trying to have as many Polar Bear and Walrus encounters as possible, visits to Little Auk colonies, looking for breeding Ivory Gulls, Red Phalaropes and skuas, and enjoying the wonderful Arctic flora! In addition the group will also benefit by having one of our extremely experienced naturalist guides on board.
Birdquest has operated tours to Spitsbergen since 2004.
Accommodation & Road Transport: For details of the ship, see the introductory section. Not much road transport on this one! Transfers in Longyearbyen are by coach.
Walking etc: The walking is mostly easy (walks tend to be short distance), although there are uphill, boggy or stony areas at times which make some walks moderate grade. Zodiac embarkation and disembarkation are superbly handled by the crew and expedition staff, making most shore excursions straightforward for even very elderly or unfit participants.
Climate: Surprisingly mild for so far north, due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Temperatures average around 5-10°C at all times (there is no night of course), although it can feel much warmer on still, sunny days ashore and correspondingly colder on overcast, breezy days on the ship. There is usually little rainfall and sunny periods are interspersed with overcast weather. Some fog is likely.
Bird/Mammal Photography: Opportunities are good (and scenic photography is simply outstanding).
Important: You need to bear in mind that circumstances may be encountered during the voyage which will make it necessary or desirable to deviate from the planned itinerary. These circumstances include poor weather conditions and unexpectedly heavy drift ice. Sometimes it is not possible to get beyond Hinlopen Strait owing to ice conditions, so a circumnavigation becomes impossible. The expedition leader will provide more information at the start of the voyage and keep you fully informed throughout. You should not be concerned that such changes will prevent you from experiencing Spitsbergen at its best: there are always alternative areas with excellent scenery and wildlife to visit if the ship is thwarted getting to a particular place.
Prices are provisional
Tour Price: £4530, €5350, $5940 Longyearbyen/Longyearbyen.
Price includes all transportation, all accommodations, all meals on board, some soft drinks, all excursions, all entrance fees, leader services.
Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew, and any fuel surcharge that may be imposed by the cruise operator, Oceanwide Expeditions, are not included in the tour price. The level of gratuities is entirely a matter for personal discretion. The expedition staff and crew work very long hours to make such cruises a success, including a great deal of night sailing, and we have been told that most passengers give gratuities of between Euros 160-240 for such a 16 days cruise.
Single Cabin Supplement: Single occupancy of twin-berth cabins can be obtained in return for a 100% supplement on top of the Longyearbyen/Longyearbyen cruise-only price. Please note that if you are willing to share but no cabin-mate is available you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement.
Deposit: 20% of the tour price (including any single supplement).
Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency can arrange your air travel in connection with the tour from a departure point anywhere in the world, or you may arrange your own air travel if you prefer. We can tailor-make your itinerary to your personal requirements, so if you would like to travel in advance of the tour (and spend a night in an hotel so you will feel fresh when the tour starts), or return later than the end of the tour, or make a side trip to some other destination, or travel business class rather than economy, we will be happy to assist. Please contact us about your air travel requirements.
Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: www.atol.org.uk/ATOL Certificate
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