Circumnavigating Spitsbergen

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Our Around Spitsbergen voyage circumnavigates the principal island of the ruggedly beautiful Svalbard archipelago.

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Svalbard

Experience a full circumnavigation on our Around Spitsbergen voyage

Many of our expedition cruises focus on specific areas of the Arctic or Antarctica, going deep into local wildlife and other such natural highlights. But there are other programs that seek to make more of a survey, visiting a variety of sites in the hopes of showing guests a wider area.

One such program is our Around Spitsbergen voyage, which circumnavigates the principal island of the ruggedly beautiful Svalbard archipelago. This is one of the planet’s best locations for spotting polar bears, along with a variety of other far-north animals: walruses, bearded seals, reindeer, and a truly exceptional range of Arctic birds.

Not all Around Spitsbergen trips are created equal, however, as some emphasize the Arctic summer or include lesser-visited islands like Kvitøya. But all Around Spitsbergen voyages provide a full circumnavigation of this wildlife-rich island. Here we describe some of what you might experience on our standard “Around Spitsbergen, in the realm of polar bears and ice” expedition.

Picture by Martin Anstee

There and back again: how to circumnavigate Spitsbergen

As with our other Svalbard voyages, we start in the administrative center of Longyearbyen. This former mining town is a delight to explore on foot, whether you’re visiting the local museum or parish church or the world’s northernmost brewery.

The surroundings may appear barren and inhospitable, but over a hundred plant species live around Longyearbyen. You might even see the first minke whale of your voyage when the vessels sails out of Isfjorden, beginning its Spitsbergen circumnavigation by heading north along the west coast.

Your first stop is likely to be a morning visit to Krossfjorden, where the plan is to board the Zodiacs for an excursion near the jaw-dropping Fourteenth of July Glacier.

Picture by Mikhail Barabanov

Near this awesome site you can see green slopes blooming with colorful Arctic flowers. Flocks of Brünnich’s guillemots and kittiwakes nest of the nearby cliffs, and your odds are good to spot a bearded seal in the fjord or an Arctic fox searching for fallen chicks.

Your next stop will be Ny Ålesund, Earth’s northernmost settlement. Like Longyearbyen, Ny Ålesund was once a mining village and even boasted the most northerly railway in the world. You can still see its tracks there, but these days Ny Ålesund is a research center.

This area is not without its own wildlife: Arctic terns, pink-footed geese, and barnacle geese breed nearby. And for those interested in the history of Arctic exploration, you can visit the anchoring mast used by polar explorers Amundsen and Nobile in their airships, Norge (1926) and Italia (1928).

Picture by Sara Jenner

Weather and ice conditions (especially early in the season) will determine your next destination, but you will probably sail into Liefdefjorden. This will bring you within sight of the 5-kilometer-long (3.1 miles) Monaco Glacier. Thousands of kittiwakes feed in the water near this glacier, and we sometimes see polar bears hunting along the base of the ice.

Your next stop will be the most northern point of your entire circumnavigation: Nordaustlandet, near the Seven Islands, where you will reach or be near to 80° north, just 870 km (540 miles) from the geographic North Pole. This is a great area to see polar bears, so we’ll probably anchor among the pack ice for a few hours and see if one (or more) shows itself.

Picture by Sara Jenner

This part of the circumnavigation is subject to change, depending on the month and degree of ice withdrawal. Sometimes in July we turn to Sorgfjord, where we might see walruses near the graves of 17th-century whalers. Ptarmigans are also common in this area. And in August, we may spend a second day near Nordaustlandet if the ice edge is withdrawn enough.

Hinlopen Strait is next on the agenda, a splendid place to look for polar bears as well as ringed and bearded seals. At the entrance to the strait, we sometimes even see blue whales. There is nothing quite like witnessing the grace and power of these majestic marine mammals in person.

But there’s always the chance Hinlopen, like Liefdefjorden, is too blocked with ice to enter. In this case, we will try an alternative route.

The ice floes of Lomfjordshalvøya make for a fine Zodiac outing, affording magnificent views of the Alkefjellet bird cliffs. Thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots nest here, along with kittiwakes and gulls. Doleritic intrusions from the Jurassic or late Cretaceous period, these cliffs rise to around 100 meters (330 feet) tall in some places and are one of the most memorable sights in Svalbard.

Picture by Martin Anstee

Assuming we can enter Hinlopen Strait, we will next continue to the east side. There we may attempt landing in a place we might see walruses, reindeer, and pink-footed geese. And near Torrelneset, we may visit Nordaustlandet’s polar desert area next to its impressive ice cap – the world’s third largest. Walruses may even appear as we make a walk over the area’s raised beaches.

Another notable area we plan to visit on our circumnavigation of Spitsbergen is Freemansundet, where the abundance of polar bears might actually prevent us from landing. Barentsøya is another goal of the trip, as there is a fascinating trapper’s hut at Sundneset, a large kittiwake colony at Kapp Waldburg, and a great tundra walk opportunity at Rindedalen.

We hope to also visit Kapp Lee, which offers the possibility of seeing a walrus haul-out and Pomor ruins, and if possible we’ll make a scenic hike along Edgeøya.

Picture by Martin Anstee

Cruising the side fjords of Hornsund, with its spire-like peaks, will illustrate why Spitsbergen (meaning “pointed mountains”) got its name. Not only are there 14 sizable glaciers in the area, but bears, seals, and beluga whales sometimes appear.

The final site of our circumnavigation is Bell Sund, one of the largest fjord systems in Svalbard. In this area, you can see the sobering remains of 19th-century whaling and also enjoy local reindeer and bird populations. If you’re lucky, you may even see a beluga whale pod.

It’s hard to believe you can see so much in such a short time, but that’s exactly what our Around Spitsbergen circumnavigation does. If an expedition cruise is in your future and you enjoy going the distance, check out our Around Spitsbergen itineraries among our current Svalbard trips.

Main image by Alexander Romanovskiy

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