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Europe (and its islands)

SVALBARD (SPITSBERGEN): A POLAR WILDERNESS – The Ultimate High Arctic Wildlife Destination


Birdquest’s Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding tours are surely our most unusual European birding and wildlife journey. Our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding tour is a fabulous wildlife adventure in this remote Arctic wilderness, offering regular Polar Bear encounters, Walruses, Ivory Gulls, Little Auks and much more besides.

The remote archipelago of Svalbard (commonly referred to as Spitsbergen, after the largest island in the group), 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.

Svalbard, in the form of Spitsbergen island, 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 Svalbard (which means ‘northern frontier’), although the treaty powers, which include Russia, Germany and Britain, retain equal economic rights.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Svalbard (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 Svalbard 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 Svalbard 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 Svalbard (Spitsbergen) is an environmental showcase, having the highest proportion of national parks and nature reserves of any equivalent landmass on earth (the great majority of the archipelago is now protected), and it is the absolutely stunning Arctic scenery and rich Arctic wildlife and plant life 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 is a rich array of birdlife, including teeming seabird colonies (notably including large numbers of Thick-billed Murres or Brünnich’s Guillemots and delightful Little Auks), beautiful Arctic shorebirds (including the stunning Red Phalarope), the ice-loving Ivory Gull, Pomarine, Parasitic and Long-tailed Skuas (or Pomarine, Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas), nesting Barnacle, Pale-bellied Brent and Pink-footed Geese, and King Eiders.

There are also as a host of beautiful Arctic wildflowers including Svalbard Poppy, Spider Plant, saxifrages, Polar and Moss Campions, Boreal Jacob’s Ladder, Mountain Avens and arctic buttercups.

The star attraction is of course the huge and powerful Polar Bear, and on this round Spitsbergen tour 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) 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 Svalbard (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!

Birdquest has operated Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding tours since 2004.

The Nature of Svalbard (Spitsbergen) Birding Tours: Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tours are very different from most birding tours, as we expect you to realise, but it is important to understand this and accept how Svalbard birding and wildlife tours roll before signing up for one.

There are, of course, rather few bird species in this High Arctic archipelago, and almost all are easy to find. For this reason, most landings are not about seeing some key avian speciality (those few there are get seen easily on our expeditions), but instead enjoyable walks, most in pristine wilderness areas, with a mix of birds, mammals, arctic wildflowers, scenery, history and geology to enjoy. Some focus on birding at teeming seabird colonies. Our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) expedition is definitely one of those where a partner who is not a keen birder but has a general interest in nature, can have a wonderful time.

At most landing sites it is not allowed to split up the group, owing to the potential presence of Polar Bears. Some of the expedition leaders will carry a rifle and thunderflashes, although it is exceedingly unlikely they will ever have to use either during our tour! The usual procedure, if a bear is sighted approaching (as opposed to wandering along in the distance ignoring the group), is to retreat to the ship. This only rarely happens.

Accommodation & Transport: We shall be sailing on the MV Plancius, a converted, ice-strengthened former Dutch naval vessel of 3434 tons and 89 metres in length operated by the well-respected Oceanwide Expeditions, who are based in the Netherlands. Plancius is a very well-loved expedition ship and nowadays one of the relatively few smaller (100 or so passengers) ships available. While comfortable and modern, this is still not a ‘cruise ship’ in the traditional manner. She is specifically designed for exploring wild places and enjoying wild nature, rather than carrying huge numbers of people, with multiple restaurants and all the rest!

Plancius can accommodate a maximum of 108 passengers in 52 passenger cabins, all with private toilet and shower. Cabins consist of quad cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and two upper, triple cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and one upper, twin cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds, twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds, somewhat larger deluxe twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds and superior twin cabins which are almost 50% larger than a standard twin, with at least one window and one queen-sized bed. Cabins have ample storage space and an outside view.

Public facilities include a restaurant/lecture theatre, an observation lounge/bar with panoramic views, a library and a small shop. Food is plentiful, of good quality, waitress-served and prepared by experienced chefs. The ship carries a small complement of expedition staff who, as well as guiding excursions ashore and zodiac cruises, double up as guest lecturers and give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the areas visited. The bridge is normally open to all (except when the ship is docking) and provides a great viewpoint whenever it is too breezy to stand comfortably outside.

Much of the sailing is done at night (or what passes for ‘night’ in summer in high latitudes), thus maximizing opportunities for going ashore and enjoying the harsh but beautiful landscapes of Antarctica to the full. Landings are carried out using a fleet of zodiacs/naiads, the rugged, fast-moving type of inflatables first developed by Jacques Cousteau for expedition work which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions.

Further information about the ship is available on the Oceanwide Expeditions website:

Walking and Landings: The walking during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour 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.

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 during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour are good (and scenic photography is simply outstanding).

Important: You need to bear in mind that circumstances may be encountered during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour 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 Svalbard (Spitsbergen) at its best: there are always alternative areas with excellent scenery, birding and wildlife to visit if the ship is thwarted from getting to a particular place.

Getting to Longyearbyen in good time: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would strongly recommend that all participants on our Svalbard birding and wildlife tour have at least one hotel night at Longyearbyen prior to the expedition start. Kindly note that in the event you do not arrive in time, the ship will not wait and neither the cruise operator nor ourselves can make a refund in such circumstances. Arriving early also has the advantage that your luggage should still catch up with you, should it be delayed. We can make hotel bookings in Longyearbyen for you on request.


  • Watching the incomparable Polar Bear, the king of the Arctic and its shadow, the ethereal Ivory Gull
  • Walruses, sometimes at close range on their beach haul-outs
  • An intimate experience, sitting next to Little Auks at a boulder-scree colony or two
  • Cetacean encounters, often against stunning snowy mountain backdrops and sometimes including Fin and Blue Whales, as well as the fast-swimming Beluga
  • Cute Arctic Foxes and the endearing, goggle-eyed Svalbard form of the Reindeer
  • Towering bird cliffs teeming with tens of thousands of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots)
  • Beautiful, tame Arctic Shorebirds including stunning Red Phalaropes and Purple Sandpipers
  • Four species of skua: Great Skua plus Parasitic, Long-tailed and (with luck) Pomarine Jaegers
  • Nesting Barnacle, Pink-footed and Pale-bellied Brent Geese. See where our winter visitors spend the summer in the High Arctic!
  • Stately drake King Eiders among vast numbers of Common Eiders
  • The lovely carpet of miniature Arctic flora, including a plethora of saxifrages, Svalbard Poppy, Boreal Jacob’s Ladder, Polar Campion (or Nodding Lychnis), Woolly Lousewort and more
  • Endless, jaw-dropping scenery, day after day, including blue icebergs and calving glaciers
  • The thrill of passing 80 degrees latitude (ice conditions permitting!), when there will not be many people further north in the world than you!
  • Discovering the fascinating history of Arctic exploration and whaling (happily long since discontinued!) at a number of historical sites in Svalbard
  • Numerous extended landings on a genuine expedition-style cruise: we reach the places where the bigger cruise vessels cannot go!
  • Outstanding photographic opportunities for both Arctic wildlife and landscapes


  • Day 1: Afternoon tour start with embarkation and departure.
  • Days 2-9: Exploring Spitsbergen and the other islands that make up Svalbard. Precise routing depends on ice conditions.
  • Day 10: Morning disembarkation and transfer to Longyearbyen airport, where our expedition ends.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.


Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals (except lunch in Longyearbyen on arrival day) and entrance fees.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form. Kindly note that as this is a special whole-boat charter, which must be fully paid for far in advance, the tour invoices will be sent out approximately five months before the tour start date.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)



For Longyearbyen/Longyearbyen arrangements:

Dates and prices are provisional

£3880, $4880, €4650 in a Quadruple Porthole Cabin with 2 upper and 2 lower berths and private bathroom

£5540, $6980, €6650 in a Triple Porthole Cabin with 1 upper and 2 lower berths and private bathroom

£5540, $6980, €6650 in a Twin Porthole Cabin with 2 single beds and private bathroom

£5960, $7500, €7150, in a Twin Window Cabin with 2 single beds and private bathroom

£6420, $8080, €7700 in a Twin Deluxe Cabin with 2 single beds and private bathroom

£7170, $9030, €8600 in a Superior Cabin with double bed and private bathroom

Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew 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 most passengers give gratuities of around €200-250 at the conclusion of the cruise.

Single Cabin Supplement: Single occupancy of twin-berth cabins can be obtained in return for a 70% supplement on top of the twin-share cabin 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.

This tour is priced in Euros. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.


Svalbard (Spitsbergen): Day 1  If the weather is good, it will be a spectacular introduction to the tour start to fly to Longyearbyen, probably via Tromsø in Arctic Norway, as one first crosses the mountains, lakes and fjords of Norway and then the even more impressive mountains of Spitsbergen, which stretch away far into the distance. This will be just a foretaste of the magic to come.

Our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour begins at Longyearbyen in the afternoon.

You should in our view take time to explore Longyearbyen, the only place on Spitsbergen that qualifies for the term ‘town’, although it is very small. Originally established to serve the Norwegian coal mines, which still exist but are unused, the town now serves as the administrative centre for the islands and has a growing tourist business, as well as a university. The gaily painted wooden houses and the small but modern shopping centre look strangely out of place amidst the looming, snow covered fells and the waters of the Isfjorden.

You can walk out of town to admire one of the world’s most unusual and charismatic road signs – a red triangular warning sign with a Polar Bear silhouette and the wording ‘applies to all Spitsbergen!’ Although Polar Bears are usually wary of humans, there have been exceptions over the years and even hikers and kayakers here are expected to carry flares and a rifle – just in case! You should see your first Snow Buntings in the town itself, and you can also expect to come across cooing Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks in their beautiful summer plumage, Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin and some very tame Purple Sandpipers, while Arctic Terns will be constant companions. Glaucous Gulls are the common large gulls here, but occasionally they are joined by a vagrant Iceland Gull or one of Spitsbergen’s few resident Great Black-backed Gulls.

The town’s husky kennels are situated nearby and you can go up and see these interesting wolf-like animals at close quarters: perhaps they will start howling in unison, making that wolf-like impression all the stronger. Sometimes an Ivory Gull or two lingers here into summer.

After we board our ship this afternoon and settle in to our cabins, there will be a briefing and then we will set sail towards the mouth of the magnificent Isfjorden and the open sea, accompanied by the first of many Northern Fulmars (most of the dark morph, characteristic of these high latitudes).

Svalbard (Spitsbergen): Days 2-9  Our itinerary will be determined by the present position of the heavy drift ice. The general intention is to circumnavigate Spitsbergen, as long as ice conditions permit. At this season the chances of completing a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen are about 70%. If drift ice prevents a circumnavigation we will concentrate on north Spitsbergen, the best accessible area for polar bears and most other wildlife. Every cruise in Spitsbergen is different: the locations mentioned below are some of the places that we will be hoping to visit, but there are many others that are undescribed, but equally wonderful.

Some cruises are operated in reverse order, heading to the south of Spitsbergen first and v isiting the north last.

To the north of the long island off northwest Spitsbergen known as Prins Karl Forland are Krossfjorden and Kongsfjorden, two spectacular fjords full of glaciers and snowy mountains.

Blomstrandhalvøya makes for a fascinating landing site in Kongsfjorden during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour. Here a rather roguish English entrepreneur started up marble-mining operations in the early years of the 20th century, only to discover, once the ice thawed after shipping the slabs south, that the marble was cracked and so of poor quality! The owner’s hut and various rusting pieces of machinery still bear testimony to this financial disaster. Behind the shoreline the stony tundra rises towards a high, partly snow-covered range of hills.

The only accessible Long-tailed Jaegers in Spitsbergen usually nest here, so we may be able to enjoy watching one of these elegant birds guarding its nest while the off-duty partner patrols past, keeping a wary eye on us. Further into the interior, Rock Ptarmigans haunt the scree slopes. At this time of year the male ptarmigan are still largely white and so they are relatively easy to spot as they survey their territories from the tops of large boulders or rocky crags. The females, however, have already moulted into their amazingly cryptic summer plumage. The curious Svalbard form of the Reindeer, which has short legs that make it appear almost wild goat-like, can also be found here.

Across the fjord is the scientific research base of Ny Ålesund, the most northerly settlement on Earth. Once the site of a coal mine, Ny Ålesund was the jumping off point, or arrival point, for a series of polar expeditions by air, including Amundsen’s almost-successful flight of 1910, Byrd’s successful flight and Amundsen and Nobile’s successful airship voyage on the Norge in 1926, and finally Nobile’s doomed voyage on the airship Italia in 1928. The tall anchor mast for the airships stands to this day.

During our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour, we may also land at the Tinayrebreen, one of the huge glaciers in Krossfjorden, where the rocky slopes hold Rock Ptarmigan and nesting Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, as well as Parasitic Jaegers (or Arctic Skuas). Arctic plants are numerous and diverse, with Purple Saxifrage, Arctic Bell Heather, Moss Campion and several species of arctic buttercups amongst others. Spitsbergen’s only widespread ‘tree’, the mat-like Polar Willow, is everywhere. As we walk on the ridge here we will be able to look down on the surface of the glacier, seeing the dirty marks where rocks and debris lie on the surface. From time to time a large chunk of ice from the glacier front calves into the bay, floating away as a small iceberg.

At the 14th of July glacier (named by a French expedition) near the junction of the fjords, we will take to our zodiacs to explore the seabird cliffs where huge numbers of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) and Atlantic Puffins nest, occasionally joined by a lone pair of Razorbills at the northern extremity of their distribution. Later we will admire the face of the glacier, including the extraordinary pattern of cracks, crevices and recesses in the ice and of course the deep blue colour of the dense glacier ice. We should come across one or more weirdly sculpted blue icebergs in the bay, getting up close to take yet more photographs and see the almost unbelievable colours and ice carvings.

At the northwest corner of Spitsbergen are the small islands of Amsterdamøya, Danskøya, Fuglesongen with its enormous Little Auk (or Dovekie) colony and Ytre Norskøya.

Amsterdamøya was the site of the most famous Dutch (and Danish) whaling settlement of the 17th century, Smeerenburg (‘Blubbertown’). Some of the blubber ovens and the bases of the whalers’ huts still remain, as do some of the graves of those who died here (including, notably, a party of seven who were left to overwinter but died of scurvy). Situated on a bleak spit dominated by a nearby mountain, one can imagine all the activity here at the time when Bowhead (or Greenland Right) Whales were being captured and butchered all through the summer months, but it must have been a very hard life indeed. For those who enjoy birds as well as history there are Red-throated Divers (or Red-throated Loons), beautifully-plumaged Ruddy Turnstones and the occasional Great Skua.

Across the narrow sound is Danskøya and a landing at Virgohamna gives an interesting insight into the expedition period of Spitsbergen’s history. Here are the remains of the hanger that housed Andrée’s balloon prior to his ill-fated attempt on the pole in 1897 (the balloon came down after only three days, due to excessive icing, and the three crew members walked over the ice to Kvitøya in far northeast Spitsbergen but died there, their fate remaining a mystery until their bodies, log and film were discovered in 1930!). There are also the much larger remains of the hanger dating from Wellman’s airship attempts of 1906-1909.

The island of Fuglesongen is a bleak, snow-streaked mountain rising from the sea at the most northwesterly point of the Spitsbergen archipelago. Here the many boulder slopes provide countless crevices for nesting Little Auks (or Dovekies) and once we have made our way slowly along the foreshore from the landing place we will be able to work our way cautiously to the edge of just one section of this enormous colony (tens of thousands strong!). At this time of year it is still early in the breeding cycle and huge numbers of birds are visiting their burrows to lay eggs and gathering to socialize. As we gaze across the slopes we will be able to see thousands of little white and black birds clustered on the boulders and by carefully creeping up on these splendid little alcids we should be able to get stunning views from very close range. Flocks of birds are constantly coming and going at the colony and just hearing the maniacal cackling of the birds is something special in itself. Every so often a Glaucous Gull (or more rarely a Great Skua) patrols the slopes, creating a frenzy of activity as many thousands of birds take to the air with a deafening roar, the flocks curving across the sky like winter flocks of Common Starlings before gradually settling again. As these fast-flying flocks sweep low over one’s head the sound of their wings and their loud cries fill the air. Indeed, the whole experience here is absolutely awe-inspiring for anyone who loves birds, and is of course unique to the High Arctic. A very different experience all round from seeing a solitary Little Auk in winter bobbing distantly on the water off some headland, or whirring past at extreme range!

Not far away from Fuglesangen is Ytre Norskøya, site of another whaling settlement and complete with the remains of blubber ovens and many graves of whalers who never made it home from this wild place at the ‘edge of the world’.)

Further east are spectacular Woodfjorden and Liefdefjorden. Here we may go ashore at Reinsdyrflya, a huge plain that holds, as its Norwegian name implies, a large population of the short-legged Spitsbergen race of the Reindeer. This is a great area for Polar Bears, which in this area survive the lean summer months by hunting seals on the remaining ice in the more protected bays. We have an excellent chance of seeing several while in this area and we will be hoping that one or two will allow a close approach by zodiac or by the ship. Seeing one of these huge beasts close up as it walks along the shoreline or across the ice is an awesome experience: those cold black eyes, the inquisitive facial expression and the fearless behaviour suggest bear thoughts along the line ‘is this food I see approaching?’! Alternatively, we might come across one swimming between the islands or areas of fjord ice. If we are lucky we will also encounter Northern Minke Whale in this area.

We may also visit some small islands where Red (or Grey) Phalaropes nest in some numbers, enjoying some fantastic, close-up views of these beautifully-plumaged and very confiding little birds as they swim along in the shallows right in front of us, stopping frequently to pick insects from the water’s surface. We will soon learn to distinguish the deep red females from the more pastel-shaded males. Pink-footed and Pale-bellied Brent Geese nest in the area too, as do Long-tailed Ducks, Common Eiders, the beautiful King Eider, Purple Sandpipers, Great Skua and Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua). Ivory Gulls are regular here and probably breed in the stark mountains nearby. Watching one flying over the equally white ice, with the blue-black and white peaks behind, is a highly evocative Arctic experience. Further from the sea, at the head of Liefdefjorden, is the huge Monacobreen (Monaco Glacier). If ice conditions permit, we will sail through the broken floes until we are quite close to the spectacular front of this immense glacier and its smaller but equally impressive neighbour the Idabreen. Wild, snow-covered peaks line the glaciers and the fjord sides, adding to the majesty of this extraordinary place.

On our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tours we sometimes also visit Moffen, a low-lying island with a shallow lagoon off the north coast of Spitsbergen. This is a favoured haul-out area for male Walruses and we are likely to observe several groups resting on the beach, perhaps amounting to 100 or more. The island is also one of the few places in Spitsbergen where the small but beautiful Sabine’s Gull nests, and we should see a number flying around the island. Moffen is situated at over 80°N and so seems almost within striking distance of the pole!

In this far northern region of Svalbard we can even entertain thoughts of another of those special birds of the Arctic, Ross’s Gull, although, as this elegant little gull mainly frequents the icy waters far to the east of Spitsbergen (as a non-breeding visitor) and so is only seen on about one ‘round Spitsbergen’ cruise in ten or less, you should not get your hopes up too much!

Walruses generally feed in shallow water and we may encounter one or two hauled out on slabs of ice amongst the fjords of Spitsbergen, particularly if there is too much ice onshore for them to haul out easily on a beach. Seeing a large male Walrus at close range is truly impressive, especially when one can count every bristle on that amazing face! We may also see these bizarre creatures in the water, watching them roll around or rear their heads up to see what is happening, squinting along those huge tusks. We should be able to make a landing or two at favoured Walrus haulouts where these strange creatures look for all the world like a heap of gigantic brown slugs as they sleep away the ‘heat’ of a summer’s day while wallowing in decomposing kelp! If a new arrival turns up there may be a brief kafuffle as the newcomer shuffles its way into the midst of the heap, causing some rearing up and tusk stabbing, not to mention some outraged bellowing!

Eventually we will reach the Hinlopen Strait, which separates the main island of Svalbard (which is called Spitsbergen) from the largely ice-covered Nordaustlandet (or Northeast Land). Here we can visit the stark, sheer and dramatic cliffs at Alkefjellet (‘Auk Fell’). Even as we approach the cliffs, which are surrounded (indeed almost overwhelmed) by a huge icefield, the sheer numbers of auks (or alcids) will have become apparent and the noise and characteristic smell of a vast seabird colony will soon surround us. Somewhere of the order of 30,000-50,000 pairs of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) nest here, alongside much smaller numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes. As we sail underneath the cliffs thousands and thousands of guillemots can be seen cramming every snow-free ledge, while thousands more wheel overhead or swim on the waters below the cliffs. Pieces of drift ice provide platforms for guillemots to haul themselves out on, where they look for all the world like penguins in the Antarctic!

Being amongst the sea ice is one of the joys of a polar voyage and here in the Hinlopen the floes often lie jumbled at random across the surface of the sea, sometimes widely spaced, with just small pieces of ice in between, and sometimes crammed together. Our skilful captain, an expert in polar navigation, will take our boat safely through this stark landscape. Being amongst the ice is one of the very best times of any Spitsbergen journey, and as we gaze out across floes of every shape and size, ranging from brilliant white to an incredibly deep blue, we will be reminded that it is truly good to be alive when one can experience such extraordinary wonders!

It is not just the ice which is fascinating, but the wildlife that survives and prospers here. Bearded Seals haul themselves up on the floes and can often be approached closely by the ship. If the ice nearer the coast is suitable, we have a fair chance of coming across a Polar Bear trying its luck with Bearded Seals. Black-legged Kittiwakes dip down to feed on small Arctic Cod and shrimps and Little Auks (or Dovekies), Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) and smart Black Guillemots fish in the leads or haul themselves up onto the ice floes. Non-breeding Pomarine Skuas (or Pomarine Jaegers) with spectacular ‘spoon-ended’ tail projections sometimes gather here to harry the kittiwakes in the hope they will disgorge their last meal. Here also, while amongst the ice, we have another chance to encounter the superb Ivory Gull.

Back on the western side of the strait, the island of Wilhemøya there are raised beaches littered with subfossil whale skeletons. Polar bear encounters are regular here and in the southern entrance to the Hinlopen we have a slim chance of encountering Bowhead (or Greenland) Whale.

As we head southwards we come to the wild landscapes of Barentsøya and Edgeøya (‘Edge Island, named after an English whaler), one of the most remote and rarely visited parts of Spitsbergen and another fantastic area for Polar Bear sightings. Our expedition team will be doing their best to amass an impressive total, although numbers vary greatly from year to year. If the current permits, we will sail through Heleysundet, between Barentsøya and Spitsbergen, but if not we will sail through Freemansundet, between Barentsøya and Edgeøya instead. We may head for Diskobukta on the western coast of the latter. Here we will go ashore and visit a huge Kittiwake colony which nest in a gorge. Arctic Foxes have their dens in the gorge and the delightful greyish pups can often be seen playing outside while their piebald mothers scavenge for fallen Kittiwake chicks. Even more exciting, Polar bears with cubs often come here to scavenge as well!

The Kong Ludvigøyane, a group of small islands south of Edgeøya, are a breeding site for Walruses and encounters with Polar Bears are frequent here. There are also some traces of human occupation from the Walrus and Polar Bear hunting periods of Svalbard’s history.

The stunning Hornsund is situated close to the southern tip of Spitsbergen. Landings during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour are often made at the little Polish research station at Isbjørnhamna, close to some impressively rugged and partly snow-covered mountains and a huge glacier that calves icebergs into the fjord. Arctic Terns nest noisily along the shore and we may see a diminutive grey-brown Arctic Fox carefully searching for eggs. Reindeer and Barnacle Geese feed on the boggy lower slopes, the latter placing their nests on cliff edges or rocky pinnacles where they are safe from foxes, or at least better able to defend themselves. The area at the foot of the mountains has been enriched by seabird droppings and as we head further inland we can enjoy the extraordinary greens, buffs and browns of the tundra mosses and the greys of the rocks, spattered with red, green and whitish lichens. Purple Saxifrage is everywhere, sometimes forming carpets of colour, and we can also expect to find many other arctic wildflowers including Mountain Avens and the delightful little Svalbard Poppy. As we reach the slopes we will find Pink-footed Geese, Parasitic Jaegers (or Arctic Skuas) and Purple Sandpipers nesting (the latter visiting the shore to feed), but the big attraction here is a spectacular Little Auk (or Dovekie) colony, perhaps numbering into the hundreds of thousands!

Later we will cruise up one of the side fjords of the Hornsund, enjoying a thrilling journey past some of the most amazing scenery on earth: great icy mountain ridges rising from the icy waters of the fjord, themselves spattered with ice floes and small icebergs, and a series of huge and awesome glaciers carving their way down broad valleys from the interior ice caps until they crack and calve as they reach the sea. Fjord ice will probably still extend far out in front of some of the glaciers and here our ship will cut its way as deep as it can as we try to get better looks at the many Ringed Seals hauled out on the ice, but close enough to their breathing holes to escape quickly if danger threatens, while we may also see some ivory-coloured Belugas, or White Whales, patrolling the ice edge. Ringed Seals are the Polar Bear’s staple diet in Spitsbergen, so we shall be keeping a close watch for these marvellous animals. They can be hard to spot, especially when swimming in the open leads in the ice, or hiding amongst the boulders and stranded ice floes on the shore, but we have a very good chance of finding one or more in the area. If we are really lucky we will have one come ambling across the ice close to the ship out of sheer curiosity. Mothers with small cubs are more wary, however, and usually head in the opposite direction.

Further north, at Ahlstrandodden in fabulous Bellsund, is an old Beluga hunting base from the 18th century. Here, on a remote shingle spit surrounded by beautiful bays and magnificent snowy peaks (the scenery just goes on and on in Spitsbergen, until it becomes hard to remember which area was the most spectacular of all!), two old wooden boats from the period have been almost miraculously preserved by Spitsbergen’s arctic climate and heaps of Beluga bones still lie nearby. Tundra pools provide nesting sites for the stunning Red (or Grey) Phalarope and the birds can often be found feeding along the shoreline. As always with phalaropes, a bit of patience should allow a very close approach, allowing the birds to show off their gorgeous summer plumage to its best advantage. This is also a good area for King Eider and we may find a collection of different plumage types ranging from females to immature males and striking adult males with their extraordinary orange bill shields.

Svalbard (Spitsbergen): Day 10  This morning we will disembark in Longyearbyen, where our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) tour ends at Longyearbyen airport. We will be sad to leave our ship and the splendid crew and expedition staff behind after such an adventure together.


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Other Northern Hemisphere Arctic birding tours by Birdquest include: