Explore Svalbard, the land of the polar bear!
- Cost: £5,750 per person (inclusive of all costs: expedition vessels, guides, permits, food).
- Start Point: Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
- End Point: Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
- Dates: We are running two Svalbard trips in 2018, each trip is identical and follows the itinerary below, and uses the same two vessels (see below):
- Trip 1: Monday July 16th, 2018 to Monday July 30th, 2018 (15 days / 14 nights).
- Trip 2: Wednesday 1st August to Wednesday 15th August, 2018 (15 days / 14 nights).
- Group Size: 12 plus staff (6 per boat).
- Bespoke Tour: If you do not wish to join a group tour, we can customise a private trip to fit your dates and interests. Please email us for details and a quote.
*** NOTE - this is a complex trip. Please download and read the PDF (see red tabs to the right and below) for full information.
SVALBARD is unique. It is home to many of the most impressive sea bird, marine mammal and reindeer populations in the northern latitudes. In particular, it is widely regarded as one of the best places in the world to see wild polar bears, while the archipelago boasts some of the most spectacular glacial and fjord scenery on Earth.
Many large commercial cruise ships “visit” Svalbard, allowing you to stand on-deck amongst hundreds of fellow passengers to watch Svalbard pass you by. This expedition offers the very rare opportunity to join a private charter expedition to see Svalbard up close and personal, with extremely experienced guides and specialist boat crews! Go where the big ships cannot go, and see the majesty of Svalbard in all its raw, rugged, natural beauty!
This expedition will take place using two specialist expedition yachts, skippered by expert crews, carrying 6 tourists in each vessel. Unlike other polar destinations, the sailing distances are relatively short in Svalbard, so little time is spent in transit. Each yacht’s crew consists of one skipper and one expert guide. At least one guide will accompany the expedition group on shore at all times and will be responsible for ensuring group safety (by law, the expedition party must carry firearms, which the guides will solely be responsible for). The guides on both yachts have extensive experience and are specialised in leading wildlife tours.
This expedition focuses on visiting the north western corner of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago.
The north western sector of Spitsbergen harbours the greatest concentration of animals, many of the most beautiful landscapes, the only permanent settlements, and the most interesting historic and cultural sites that Svalbard has to offer.
PLEASE NOTE: the following itinerary is the intended plan, but all expeditions with small, private-charter vessels in high latitudes are dependent upon the weather. We, as a group, may choose to adapt the itinerary to take advantage of wildlife movements, weather conditions and movement of sea ice. We will discuss the itinerary frequently as a group and adjust the itinerary accordingly. It is strongly recommended we proceed as far north as weather will allow relatively quickly, and then work our way south to Longyearbyen in latter part of the expedition.
ALSO NOTE: there are approximately 3,000 inhabitants on Svalbard and at least 3,000 polar bears (some say as many as 4,500). This island is wild and truly the realm of the polar bear. All participants must, at all times, respect this powerful predator and obey all instructions from the specialist guides which will be accompanying us throughout the expedition. The polar bears are very much in charge in this icy polar land! Travel outside the few inhabited settlements is forbidden without a gun and the knowledge of how to use it in the event of a bear attack. Our very experienced guides will carry firearms and be aware of group safety at all time.
Day 1: Participants are recommended to arrive in Longyearbyen at least one day before our expedition begins. Meet at Longyearbyen docks at 9.00 am to board the yachts. Depart for Trygghamna. Onboard briefing concerning the vessels’ facilities, practical information and safety in Svalbard’s wilderness (including safety procedures relating to polar bears).
Reach Trygghamna - a spectacular bay with “pointed peaks” of the Alkhornet Mountains, which looms like a castle. The slopes of the mountains are home to one of the most spectacular bird cliffs of Spitsbergen, as well as a series of cascading glaciers to the west.
The huge bird cliffs are famous for common guillemots, black guillemots, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, puffins, little auks, and the masses of breeding birds provide fertilizer for an affluent green tundra vegetation, feeding geese and reindeer, while foxes and skuas look out for easy prey.
In mid-late July onwards, the Brünnich’s guillemot chicks are ready to take off for the first time. With a little help from their parents the chicks jump from their nest. At the most, hundreds of birds will take off at the same time. During this event, all the predators are gathering for a free meal. They will catch as many chicks as possible during this jump, so they can fill up their storage for the winter. We observe from the water, or (if the group wishes) we go ashore, hike up to the foot of Alkhornet mountain, and here our guide will find a good spot to spend some time bird watching. We need to be extremely careful of nesting birds and may only trek where our specialist guides indicate!
In addition to the wildlife and dramatic scenery, Trygghamna hosts fragile traces of earlier human activity: scanty remains of old whaling and walrus hunt, and ruins of Russian and Scandinavian trappers.
Day 2: We sail up the Forlandsundet – an 88 km long sound separating Prins Karls Forland and Spitsbergen. We pass spectacular scenery and beautiful glacier fronts, and there are several options for landing to observe other bird cliffs if the weather or conditions were not ideal at Trygghamna (or simply if the group wish to see more of the fascinating bird cliffs). The waters of Forlandsundet offer excellent whale watching opportunities in July and August.
In the afternoon, we will reach Fjortende Julibukta (14 Juli Bukta), a good place for sighting walruses. The bay of Fjortende Julibukta boasts magnificent scenery, a glacier that calves into the sea. A cliff on the north side of the bay teems with breeding birds, and many Arctic fox dens. The glacier of Fjortende Julibukta calves into the sea along a three-kilometre-wide glacier front.
At the north side of the bay of Fjortende Julibukta, a steep mountain ridge rises from sea level to a height of almost 1000 m. Here lies a great bird cliff housing northern fulmar, kittiwake and Brünnich’s guillemot and other species. A considerable number of Atlantic puffins and black guillemots are also found here. Pink-footed geese nest in the slope beneath the bird cliff and outwards on the beach ridge toward the point of Redingerpynten. Kittiwakes often sit atop of lumps of ice that have calved from the glacier snout.
Day 3: This morning, we land at Magdalenefjorden – a particularly picturesque fjord that is 5 km wide and 8 km long. Cruise through some of the most beautiful scenery in Svalbard, then visit Gravneset to view ancient graves and a very early whaling station.
Dutch explorer William Barents was the first to explore Magdalenefjorden in 1596. Here he found walrus tusks, which caused him to name the fjord Tusk Bay. The English explorer and whaler Robert Fotherby entered the fjord in 1614, claiming it for King James I of England. The English subsequently established a whaling station in Trinity Harbor, on what is now called Gravneset. It was later taken over by the Dutch. The remains of four blubber ovens or furnaces have been found on Gravneset, as well as a graveyard containing about 130 graves dating from the 17th to the late 18th century.
Funerals took place over a period of almost 200 years, with the earliest graves dating from the early 1600s and the more recent ones dating from the late 1700s. On the beach by the cemetery there are four blubber ovens which mark where the whaling station once stood. It is not permitted to walk within the burial ground, which is fenced off, nor close to the blubber ovens, but we can see them from the fence area.
Gravneset was visited by tourists as early as the 1800s. The French traveller Léonie d’Aunet gave the place its name when she visited it in 1838. Through her stories we can make out a vivid picture of the cemetery and the gloomy scenery, strewn with whale and walrus bones, like eerie, white remains of enormous extinct species in a far away land. In the cemetery she found that several of the coffins had made their way through the snow, heaved up to the surface by the permafrost, half open and empty on account of polar bears. Other coffins remain untouched, covered in rocks.
Day 4: We land at Virgohamna, a small bay on the northern coast of Danes Island, close to Spitsbergen. The Dutch used the bay as a whaling station, as well as a series of incredible attempts to reach the North Pole by balloon. The remains of the balloon expeditions, their bases and wreckage is still visible today.
The Swedish balloonist Salomon August Andrée proposed a voyage by hydrogen balloon from Svalbard to either Russia or Canada, which was to pass, with luck, straight over the North Pole on the way. Andrée built a balloon hangar at Virgohamna in 1896 and set off, but adverse winds forced him to return home on his first attempt, and he returned to Virgohamna in the summer of 1897, leaving the bay again early in July 1897 in what would be a fatal attempt to reach the pole. His balloon leaked hydrogen and was unable to steer, and quickly crashed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a gruelling trek south across the drifting ice. Inadequately clothed, equipped or prepared, and shocked by the difficulty of the terrain, they did not make it to safety. As the Arctic winter closed in on them in October, the group ended up exhausted on the deserted Kvitøya (White Island) in Svalbard and died there. For 33 years the fate of the Andrée expedition remained one of the unsolved riddles of the Arctic. The chance discovery in 1930 of the expedition’s last camp created a media sensation in Sweden, where the dead men had been mourned and idolised.
Andrée’s expedition was followed by three attempts by the American journalist Walter Wellman, who wanted to reach the North Pole to create the biggest possible sensation for his newspaper, the Chicago Record Herald. Previous attempts with strenuous sledge journeys over the pack ice from north Spitsbergen (1894) and Franz Josef Land (1898-99) had all failed. Wellman’s first attempt set off from Virgohamna in 1906 in the airship America, but failed despite considerable costly preparations and the construction of a hangar.
For his second attempt in 1907, Wellman could make use of the hut and hangar from the year before. But he did not get further away than approximately 24 kilometres when the airship crashed. Wellman and his crew survived and were taken back to Virgohamna.
Wellman made a third attempt, and returned in 1909. This time, his airship flew about 40 miles north of Spitsbergen before it crashed onto the sea ice. Wellman and his crew were rescued – again – practically without injuries. He abandoned any plan for further attempts when he heard that his fellow countryman Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole.
Remnants of houses, sheds, gas tanks, machines, equipment, the wooden remnants of the collapsed hangar and the remains of the airship America are visible. The traces of this unique chapter of polar exploration are faint, but fascinating.
Day 5: We land at Sallyhamna, a former Dutch whaling station and much later Norwegian hunting station on the Cape William small peninsula in northern Albert I Land (in the northwest of Spitsbergen). We explore the ruins of a trapper’s cabin, two Dutch blubber ovens and Pomor dwellings. The bay is a famous for sighting polar bears, as well as little auks.
Day 6: We land at Liefdefjord in Haakon VII Land on Spitsbergen. The fjord is famed for spectacular views and the dramatic Monaco glacier. We can trek overland to a cabin called Texas Bar, with excellent wildlife spotting opportunities along the way. The Monaco glacier is spectacular - being approximately 40 km in length, and ending in a 5 km wide snout that calves frequently, moving forward up to 5 m per day (recorded in 1994)! The scenic beauty of this location is really incredible, and well worth spending time to explore.
Day 7: We land at Mushamna and can arrange a visit to a modern trappers cabin. The cabin is well equipped, and built out of driftwood. Large piles of firewood and a rack where seal and reindeer carcasses are hung out of reach of the polar bears lie within. The cabin’s inhabitants vary from year to year: the landlord is the Governor of Svalbard, and each tenancy is for one year only. The cabin was built in 1987. It is abnormally large compared to older hunters’ cabins in Svalbard. It has an outer room for hanging game and furs, a room in the middle with a workshop and an inner room with a lounge, a kitchen and a bedroom. If the tenant is willing, we can speak to him and hear his stories.
Hunting takes place both ashore and on the ice. The main prey is the Arctic fox, which is captured using traditional trapdoors or hit traps. Seals, ptarmigan, pink-footed geese and a small number of reindeer are also captured. In addition to this, fishing for Arctic char takes place in both freshwater and in the sea. Common eiders and Arctic terns nest by the beach and around the cabin.
We spend the rest of the day exploring Woodfjorden and surrounding fjords. Many of the surrounding peaks are bright red and made of Devonian sandstone. The fjord is home to hot springs and large glacier fronts that calve in the sea. The area is a good place to spot polar bears hunting for ringed seals and birds eggs.
The bears can often be observed on ice floes in front of the glacier fronts. Each spring there are female polar bears with yearlings in Liefdefjorden and Woodfjorden, which indicates that the area may be a denning area.
Bearded seals and ringed seals are a common sight in the fjord. Smaller groups of harp seal can also appear here. Reinsdyrflya is an area known for its dense population of Svalbard reindeer, with approximately 300 reindeer here and in the north and west of Liefdefjorden, and a further 150 reindeer in the east of Woodfjorden.
There are several bird cliffs and a healthy population of Arctic fox, as well as eider ducks, Arctic terns, Arctic skuas, great skuas, glaucous gulls and black-legged kittiwakes. The kittiwake bird cliff in Hornbækpollen is well known, but other, smaller cliffs with kittiwakes occur in the west of inner Woodfjorden and south of Mushamna. Reinsdyrflya is one of Svalbard’s most important breeding sites for king eiders, with an estimated 1000 or more individuals in the area. Red-throated diver can often be found around Reinsdyrflya’s many small lakes, and the grey phalarope can be found in the same places. Pink-footed geese can be found breeding on the islands of Måkeøyane in Liefdefjorden. If you are lucky you may get a glimpse of the rare brent goose, which breeds sparsely in the areas around Woodfjorden. As for terrestrial birds, snow buntings, Svalbard rock ptarmigan and, of course, the purple sandpiper can be easily observed.
Day 8: It is likely that we will have seen walruses by this point in the itinerary, especially at Fjortende Julibukta, however we have the opportunity to visit Moffen Island, north of Mushamna, where a large walrus haulout is found. We must stay 300 m from the haulout (because the adults can trample young when scared). At other locations earlier in the itinerary, we may have been able to photograph walruses at closer quarters, but the sight of the masses of walruses from a distance offshore is well worth the visit! We cross the 80°N line of latitude and can have a glass of whisky chilled with 30,000 year-old glacier ice! We can spend the rest of the day visiting the bay of Alicehamna, to the east of Raudfjorden and south of Bruceneset, and (if there is time), Raudfjorden itself.
Alicehamna has been used by hunters for centuries. It was named after the Princesse Alice, the ship Prince Albert I of Monaco used during his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907. This is a trapper’s cabin and an old whaler’s grave on the slope between Raudfjordhytta and Brucevarden. The coffin was once covered by stones, but the solid boards have been well preserved and are now partly visible due to frost action in the ground. A skull and other bones can be spotted between boards and the rocks that are in the stone pile.
There is another grave by a cairn, which belongs to skipper Erik Zakariassen Mattilas, who died of scurvy in the spring of 1908 having overwintered at the main station here in Raudfjorden together with four others.
In Raudfjorden, we can see red cliffs, and have good chances to see whales, seals a wide variety of birdlife and possibly polar bears.
Day 9: Today is left deliberately vague, so that it can be adapted according to the group’s priorities. We have the opportunity of visiting several stunning fjords into which glaciers pour, including Lillehöökfjord (home to the Lillehöök glacier). We can focus on wildlife and undertake further whale watching, polar bear and seal spotting or visit bird colonies at Signehavna and Krossfjord. Or we can trek overland (also with good wildlife spotting opportunities) at Möllerfjord (the northeastern branch of inner Krossfjord) to a local icon called “Lloyds Hotel” - a bright orange hut built in 1912 by the shipping company North German Lloyd.
For over a century, visitors have left plaques with their names and dates inside of the hut, turning it into a kind of little museum for the cruise ship history in Spitsbergen, which dates back well into the 19th century. Lloyds Hotel is surrounded by one of the finest mountain and glacier panoramas in northwestern Spitsbergen, and is a spectacular place to visit.
Day 10: Today we explore Krossfjorden, a prominent, 30 km long ford and series of bays and mini-fjords north of Forlandsundet. The area is known for its magnificent scenery that includes glaciers and nunataks. Today too, we can focus on the group’s collective priorities. Krossfjorden has excellent wildlife spotting opportunities, with good chances to see walruses, seals and whales, as well as several bird cliffs and nesting areas.
We can visit Blomstrandbukta (Blomstrandhalvøya), famed for its groves of alpine plants, or we can journey to Peirsonhamna to traverse beautiful mountain slopes and to visit New London (Ny-London) and Camp Mansfield; the ruins of a marble mine. The marble deposits were discovered in the summer of 1906 and described as “no less than an island of pure marble”. The English adventurer Ernest Mansfield organised the Northern Exploration Company and was lured by a marble “gold rush”.
The marble quarry was established in 1911. In a few years, intense labour was invested to get the plant and operation up and running. The marble seemed promising, and experts from around the world praised the quality and beauty of the stone. Expectations were high and great economic yields were anticipated. Machines, railway, wagons, cranes, winches, heavy steam engines, tools and equipment for operations were brought in. Private houses for up to 70 people, workshop buildings and storage facilities were built. But the facility came to ruin once it was found that the beautiful marble crumbled and turned to dust outside the Arctic conditions. The ruins of the factory and the heavy industrial machinery ironically rust in same the Arctic air that bankrupted the operation. It is an eerie but fascinating site.
Day 11: Exploring the south of Krossfjorden, we have lots more wildlife spotting opportunities (particularly bird life), and also the opportunity to visit the world’s most northerly town, Ny Ålesund, a research settlement founded in 1913. We can explore “the town”, see an old railway with steam train from a disused mine and colliery, and visit the Ny Ålesund museum. A popular tradition is to send a postcard from the Northernmost post office in the world! Polar bears often visit the edges of the settlement. Arctic foxes are also a common site nearby.
Days 12-14: These two days can be used as buffer days should the itinerary need to be shunted backwards due to weather conditions or if the group wish to spend longer at any of the locations visited up until this point. If unused, we can spend these two days visiting impressive bird cliffs near Farmhamna, whale watching or looking for seals.
We can also visit Barentsburg - the second largest settlement on Svalbard (with about 500 inhabitants) that are almost entirely Russians and Ukrainians. Visiting this Russian town in Norwegian Svalbard is surreal.
100,000 tons of coal are exported yearly. The mine closed in 2006 due to concerns over an underground fire breaking out, but resumed production in late 2010. Despite this, the population of the settlement has been steadily decreasing in the recent years. Many buildings are not inhabited, and some are left to decay. Combined with a truly stunning setting for the town when the weather is clear enough to see across the Isfjord, and the black smoke from by the old coal power plant, the visit leaves an eerie impression on the few who visit.
Even more strange and eerie is the village of Pyramiden, run by the Soviet Union as a mining town since 1927 and closed in 1998. Pyramiden once was home to over 1,000 people, but now is an uninhabited ghost town. Not far from a monument to Vladimir Lenin, we can see a Soviet swimming pool and the northernmost grand piano (a “Red October” piano). The buildings appear as if they were abandoned yesterday. It has been said that Pyramiden is one of the best preserved and most spooky of Soviet settlements remaining anywhere in the world, and it is predicted that, due to the low rate of decay in the frigid climate, the abandoned town’s major buildings will be visible 500 years from now.
A further option is to visit Templefjord, with spectacular soaring cliffs and peaks reminiscent of a cathedral. Here, we have a final chance to see reindeer, seals and an exquisite glacier.
Day 15: We return to Longyearbyen to celebrate our adventure through the realm of the polar bear! We disembark and share a group dinner in a local restaurant.
Svalbard Airport Longyear in Longyearbyen is the only major airport on Svalbard. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS Norge) flies to Longyearbyen from Oslo (often via Tromsø) on most days all year round. Longyearbyen is also served by the low-cost airline Norwegian, which most of the year has biweekly flights from Oslo. Finnair is due to begin seasonal flights from Helsinki to Longyearbyen as well.
Adventure Rating: Moderate
As a group, we can organise trips from Longyearbyen before and after the charter trip to visit reindeer valleys nearby, and the settlements of Pyramiden, Barentsburg and other locations. Please email us for details, and to discuss options with fellow group members.