Wildlife safaris on Svalbard


When the topic of safaris comes up, Svalbard and Arctic in general are never among the first entries on the list, and that is utterly and desperately wrong!

The waters of this Northern archipelago are a favorite haven for many species of whales and seals, steep cliffs that surround the fjords are home to gargantuan bird colonies, and barren rocky mountains, desolate at first sight, nevertheless provide life and food for wild reindeer. Want to see all of this? Read on!

The basics

Regular day trips on Svalbard normally don’t get out of so-called Management Area 10 (in the picture below). Within this area you can meet the following animals: reindeer, Arctic foxes, walruses, different species of birds, seals, and whales.

To maximize your chances of seeing the animals you are interested in, make sure to book trips that go to the corresponding areas – it is that simple! Of course, there is never a guarantee to see wildlife, but the more different areas you cover, the higher your chances are.

Let’s look into how one should try to encounter each of these polar animals 🙂

Birds

Birdwatching in the Arctic is the simplest “safari” of all 🙂 Arctic birds like to live in colonies on cliffs next to the water which makes them very easy to spot from boats. Nearly every boat trip in Isfjorden will make a stop at at least one of the bird mountains.

One of these cliffs can be found right outside Longyearbyen and can be visited during the hike to the Plateau Mountain. If you take the evening hike to this mountain you might be lucky to see the birds enjoying the warm midnight sun (we were not 🙁 ).

Apart from that, birds always accompany boats as they voyage around the fjords and the coastal ocean waters. This is where I saw puffins for the first time and was really excited 🙂

If only I had a better camera

In the end of July, visitors get a chance to witness one really special wildlife event – the “bird jumping”. Every year, strictly on schedule, birds called “Brunnich’s Guillemot” push their chicks out of their nests for the first time. The babies need to make it to the water to be reunited with their parents.

In most of the places, cliffs are located right next to the water which makes it quite easy for the chicks to get to a relatively safe area. However, on Svalbard there is one mountain which is separated from the sea by a wide green stretch of land.

Weaker or just unlucky birds cannot make the full path and often fall on the ground where predators such as Arctic foxes, skuas, and large seagulls already await them. Needless to say, it does not always end well for the chick…

This is actually a different kind of bird but you get the idea

There is a tour that goes to see this spectacle, but keep your expectations low. The birds will or will not jump depending on clouds, sun and wind conditions so you might not even see any of them jump. Then, if the wind is too good, they all might make it which is a bit boring (in our case, there was a single chick that fell and was mercilessly devoured by a seagull). Finally, bring a binocular and/or a powerful zoom camera, otherwise you will not see a damn thing.

A skua is taking a swing at the fallen guillemot chick

The lucky survivors who made it to the water get an opportunity to chill around with their parents in the midnight sun.

Arctic foxes

These small animals (smaller than a red fox) like to live close to the bird cliffs and feed on chicks and clumsy birds that were unfortunate enough to fall on the ground. They are elusive and really hard to spot on the rocks with their grey summer fur so take your binoculars!

Photo: Wikipedia

The bird jumping event increases the chance of seeing them but you need to keep your eyes wide open.

My favorite safari game: spot the animal in the picture

Reindeer

Svalbard reindeer is the smallest of all species of reindeer and is endemic to the archipelago. People did not bring reindeer to the islands – they migrated here on their own many thousands years ago.

That means that they have only known people for ~400 years and have not developed any genetic fear towards humans. They are common everywhere on Svalbard and do not mind coming really close sometimes just hanging around in the middle of the city.

There is no need to organize any trips specifically to see reindeer. In summer they are literally everywhere and you are 99% guaranteed to meet them.

Walrus

This is another species that is only found in Arctic coastal regions and is relatively easy to spot around Svalbard.

There is a slight chance to see them lying around on beaches next to fjords on any boat trip, even ones that go deep inside the island, but for an almost guaranteed sighting take a tour that brings you to a well-known colony spot.

The “Walrus safari” lets you walk on the beach mere 30 meters away from the huge bodies. Walruses are not dangerous for humans and are in fact extremely clumsy and slow on the ground. See these guys that are trying to join their sleeping friends? It took them 40 minutes to walk that far…

Whales

Many species of whale roam Svalbard waters in summer which includes the exotic, Arctic-only beluga and the rare and the biggest of them all – the blue whale. During my short 5-day trip, I was lucky enough to see both of them.

A female of blue whale with her calf

In theory, it is possible to see whales on any boat trips, even those that focus on inner fjords. For example, we met the belugas while kayaking next to a glacier inside one of the smaller branches of Isfjorden.

The best chances, of course, you will have on tours that peek into the open ocean. This includes excursions to Ny-Aalesund, the walrus safari, and targeted whale safaris. It was the walrus safari where we had encounters with blue and humpback whales.

We did not take any specifically whale watching trips this time and I actually doubt that they could be better than what we got. I can imagine it is very disappointing to spend the whole day looking into the horizon and not seeing a single fin or tail. On other tours you at least get the other part for sure (the walruses are usually there, and Ny-Aalesund is not going anywhere either).

Seals and polar bears

Polar bears eat seals. Seals live on sea ice. There is no sea ice on Isfjorden in summer (despite the name).

This all makes an encounter rather unlikely. Probably the best chances are around glaciers – we saw one seal from afar when kayaking next to one of the ice fronts (bonus points if you can spot the little guy in the picture).

I have read that if you want to see a polar bear in the summer season, you should take a cruise around Svalbard. They run at hefty prices and feel like quite a commitment (10-14 days) so we passed on that this time. If anyone ever did such a cruise, please share your stories with us in the comments 😉

Conclusion

Even despite the long history of nature abuse on Svalbard (whaling, hunting, trapping…), the relatively minor human presence still makes these islands a great place to observe wildlife. Sometimes the nature is literally at your door. Come here if you enjoy wild animals and are especially interested in marine birds and mammals 🙂

More Svalbard adventures

  • If you go to Svalbard – you go to Longyearbyen; even the wildest adventures here have to start in this city
  • Rough nature of Svalbard challenges you to hike this majestic mountain

You might also like

  • There are less extreme ways to get acquainted with Northern wildlife; RIB-boat trips from Aalesund will take you to bird cliffs and seal colonies with a chance to spot puffins and Arctic eagles; I wrote a bit about that in my Norway post
  • Nothing can compare to Africa in the realm of safaris; here is a bit about my experience in Kenya – Masai Mara and Samburu parks.
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