Wildlife Holidays with Secret Atlas
Secret Atlas’s wildlife holidays are like no other. Step aboard a small expedition vessel to explore Svalbard on a once in a lifetime wildlife holiday. Taking just 12 guests, our expedition micro cruises are a fantastic and intimate way to encounter Arctic wildlife in its natural home.
Svalbard is one of the best places on the planet for seeing polar bears in their natural polar environment. The archipelago is also home to an abundance of other wildlife including walruses, beluga whales, blue whales, reindeer, Arctic foxes, and many bird species. On our wildlife holidays, we regularly encounter a wide variety of wildlife and every trip is different.
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Svalbard: the perfect polar wilderness for wildlife holidays
The polar wilderness of Svalbard archipelago is a haven for Arctic wildlife during the summer months. As the long, dark winter draws to an end, the sea ice surrounding Svalbard opens up – making it possible to navigate the waters safely and visit remote places that are home to polar wildlife.
Travelling on a comfortable small expedition vessel with 12 guests lets us get close to nature and wildlife. We’ll be able to reach areas that larger cruises can’t get to. Of course wildlife sightings can’t be guaranteed, but we regularly spot polar bears roaming as we explore the coastline and sprawling fjords of Svalbard. We’re also frequently lucky enough to see walruses, beluga whales, and thriving birdlife.
Wildlife watching in Svalbard
On our wildlife holidays, we frequently encounter a wide range of wildlife. Svalbard’s waters are home to 19 species of marine mammals, including polar bears, walruses, five species of seals, and 12 specials of whales. Of these, polar bears, walruses, narwhals, white and bowhead whales stay in the area all year round. The others tend to visit more sporadically during the summer when there is more food available on Svalbard.
There are only three species of terrestrial mammals on Svalbard – the Svalbard reindeer, Arctic fox, and sibling vole. The vole was probably introduced to Svalbard in animal fodder at the Russian mining settlement of Grumantbyen. Attempts to introduce other species like Arctic hare and muskox have failed to establish and they have gone extinct. But, there is plenty of birdlife to see on the archipelago. Over 227 different bird species have been recorded on Svalbard, of which 41 are considered annual breeding birds including the pink-footed goose, the red-throated diver, and the northern fulmar.
Polar bear watching in Svalbard
Approximately 3000 polar bears live in Svalbard and the Barents sea. It’s one of the best places on Earth to witness polar bears in their natural habitats. Polar bears spend a lot of time hunting on the sea ice, and along the shores of Svalbard’s fjords. So on the occasions when we are lucky enough to encounter, the backdrop is stunning, perfect for capturing wildlife photos – although sightings are never guaranteed.
The safest way to observe polar bears is from the safety of the deck of our vessels. But we follow the strict Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) when observing these magnificent creatures, and other wildlife too.
Bird watching in Svalbard
The dark, extremely cold winter months are tough on Svalbard’s wildlife. Which is why most of the birds that breed on the archipelago migrate south for the winter, where food options and climate are more favourable. The lone land-bound bird species that sticks around and overwinters on Svalbard is the rock ptarmigan. A small number of seabirds overwinter on the archipelago – including a few black guillemots, northern fulmars, and glaucous gulls.
Conditions are tough for land mammals too, due to permafrost and a lack of vegetation. This is the reason that rodents like mice, rats, and lemmings don’t venture so far north. The only exception is the sibling voie, which was introduced on Svalbard, and resides on the grassy slopes of Grumantbyen and Bjørndalen on the southern side of Isfjorden.
Summertime is hectic for Svalbard’s mammals and birds between June and August. Lower coastal areas tend to be snow-free, there is 24-hr daylight, and temperatures are warm enough for rearing young. The sea ice and under-ice are vital feeding grounds for polar bears, seals, and seabirds.
There are several bird sanctuaries on Svalbard, and lots of great opportunities for birdwatching, particularly on Spitsbergen. The largest island of the archipelago is home to many bird species including the puffins, Arctic terns, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, and Brunnich’s guillemots.
Whale Watching in Svalbard
There are several species of whales in the area, and there’s a good chance of seeing them. Here’s who we might spot on our travels:
The Beluga Whale
The beluga is a medium-sized toothed whale. Males can grow to 4.5 metres in length and weigh 1500 kg, but females are much smaller. Calves are light grey at birth, females appear white at the age of 7, and males turn white later, at the age of 12. The white whale population number of Svalbard isn’t known, but they can often be spotted in groups in coastal areas, or sometimes in areas with dense pack ice. In summer they can often be found in front of glaciers where there is a good supply of food.
The Blue Whale
The mighty blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have existed It grows up to 30 metres in length, and weighs a massive 150 tonnes – it’s tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant, and its heart is as heavy as a car.
The blue whale’s colossal size is incredible considering it lives mostly on krill, which are tiny shrimp-like creatures. Although at certain times of the year, an adult can consume four tonnes of krill in a single day! Sightings are rarer in the North Atlantic than in other oceans, but they do swim as far north as Svalbard and can be spotted around the island of Spitsbergen.
The Humpback Whale
Humpback whales spend their winters in tropical breeding areas, but migrate back to the chilly Svalbard waters in summer, when there is plenty of fish and plankton to feast on. It measures up to 18 metres and weighs around 30-40 tonnes. The humpback whale is easy to spot with humps on its head and jaw, and they communicate through their distinctive song, which is mostly made underwater.
The Fin Whale
The fin whale is the second-largest animal in the world. It’s close relative to the larger blue whale but is slimmer and faster, and is nicknamed ‘the greyhound of the sea’. Fin whales can grow to around 24 metres in length, and weigh around 75 tonnes. They’re generally found alone or in pairs, and during the summer months, they can be seen around the west coast of Spitsbergen.
The Minke Whale
The minke whale also known as “Minkie” is the smallest of the baleen whales, measuring around 8-10 metres. It can be easily identified by the sickle-shaped dorsal fin on its head, which is large relative to its body. There isn’t an abundance of minke whales around Svalbard, but they can be spotted in fjords, coastal and offshore waters, and close to the ice edge.
Wildlife watching on land in Svalbard
Wildlife in Svalbard isn’t just confined to the ice and the sea. Svalbard is home to a variety of wildlife on land as well, including:
One land mammal you’re almost guaranteed to see is the Svalbard reindeer. They’re very common, and in some places, like Longyearbyen (where many of our expeditions begin), it’s possible to see them up close.
The Svalbard reindeer is a subspecies that only lives on the archipelago. It’s smaller than other types of reindeer, with short legs, a short neck, a small round head and a thick coat, although males are bigger than females. They can be found across Svalbard, particularly in areas with decent vegetation. The total population is estimated at 10000, and the most dense populations are found at Nordenskiöld land, in the valley of Reindalen and on the islands of Edgeøya and Barentsøya.
During the winter, Svalbard reindeer tend to stay close to the ridges and plateaus with little snow cover and some vegetation. Options are better in the summer, when the reindeer move to the lower areas like the sand flats, bottom of cliffs, and the lowland plans to feed on lush vegetation and build up their fat. Females are dispersed during June as this is when they give birth, and are extremely sensitive to disturbance. If you see one close by, it’s best to sit down and let them come to you.
The Arctic fox is endangered in mainland Norway, but there is a large and thriving population on Svalbard, and there is a high chance of spotting them along the coast. Foxes are widespread across the archipelago, and even in areas where the population has been re-established like Bjørnøya. The Arctic fox is well adapted for extreme cold, it is short legged, with a short snout, short and rounded ears and a small body covered by a thick, well-insulating coat. The bottoms of its paws are covered in fur too.
There are two colour variations of Arctic fox, blue and white. White foxes appear white in winter, but are brown and yellow in the summer. Blue foxes appear dark brown/blue all year round. Arctic foxes roam both inland on the coast, particularly on under the bird cliffs where it can hoard food for the long, harsh winter months including eggs and seabirds.
Arctic foxes mate between February and April, and cubs are born in May-June, typically in litters of 5 or 6. Cubs are born in underground dens, and they emerge to play in the outside world from the age of 3-4 weeks.
Would you like to know more about Svalbard wildlife?
Our Best Holidays for Wildlife Viewing
Frozen Svalbard – 8 days – April / Early May
Join us in May to experience glacial splendour of Svalbard as it emerges from the winter. We’ll head up the north coast of Spitsbergen, where we’ll land on frosted shores, and witness beautiful snow-capped mountains from the warmth of our expedition vessel. Early in the season is a good opportunity for seeing polar bears on the ice as it’s close. Part of the adventure is adapting to sea-ice conditions, so the exact course may change as we go along.
Natural Wonders – 9 days – June, July, August
Go on the ultimate Svalbard cruise – a 9-day expedition to discover the natural, Arctic wonders of the archipelago in 24-hr daylight during the summer months. We’ll witness dramatic calving glaciers, visit historical sites, spot an abundance of wildlife, and have plenty of time to explore ashore. While we can’t make any guarantees – there’s a good chance of seeing polar bears as we travel up the northwest coast of Spitsbergen and attempt to reach the edge of the sea ice if the conditions are favourable.
On previous trips, we’ve regularly seen walruses, seals, and land-based mammals including Arctic foxes, and Svalbard reindeer. There is also an excellent chance of encountering marine life like beluga whales, fin whales, and the gigantic blue whale.
Svalbard Pioneer – 15 days – July
The more time spent on Svalbard, the better the chances of seeing its incredible wildlife. Our 15-day cruise offers the best chance of seeing polar bears and other Arctic wildlife as we’ll travel longer and further in an attempt to circumnavigate Spitsbergen. With a flexible schedule determined by our experienced leader, we’ll take advantage of the 24-hr sunlight to visit remote and remarkable places. Our voyage will take us to Prins Karls Forland, where we’ll go ashore to see a walrus colony. We’ll also aim to cruise past the majestic Austfonna Ice Cap, one of the largest in the world.
Svalbard Photo Tours – 8-10 days
If you are interested in photography why not consider one of our Svalbard photo tours? These trips are led by world-renown photographers and are designed to allow more time in each location with an unhurried pace.
Ethical wildlife watching on our holidays
Our tours are small for a better experience, but also to help minimise on our impact on this important environment. We also follow strict rules laid out by The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) for wildlife viewing, so our expeditions don’t have a negative effect on wildlife.
- Limiting time around and proximity to Arctic foxes, and keep distances of 500-1000 metres away from known fox dens.
- Adhering to the legal and requirements for entering bird sanctuaries and keeping away from bird cliffs.
- Move slowly and keep our distance when whale watching, watch out for signs of agitation and move away if necessary,
- Keeping a distance from polar bears, and assessing risk when going ashore.
- Avoid disturbance of reindeer and limit spent close by, report any encounters with visibly sick or injured reindeer to the local authority.
- Keep long distances from any seals encountered on the ice, and don’t make landings on certain haul outs such as rocky shores.
- Don’t get too close to walruses, even on the zodiac landing craft. Landings must be at a minimum distance of 300 metres of haul-out sites.
Frequently Asked Questions About Our Wildlife Holidays
What Sort of Wildlife Holidays Does Secret Atlas Offer?
All of our wildlife holidays are on an expedition vessel with just 12 guests. Voyages depart from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, which is accessed by daily flights from Oslo in Norway. New, large expedition cruise ships now take up to 350 passengers, but here at Secret Atlas, we believe that is too much for viewing wildlife in sensitive places, particularly for the animals who are sensitive to noise. Travelling with a group of 12 creates an intimate experience and reduces the impact on the environment. So it’s better for you, and the unforgettable places you’ll get to visit.
Why Should I Choose a Small Group Wildlife Tour?
A small group is the best way to experience the wildlife in Svalbard. And, it’s better for wildlife too. Would you rather go ashore as one of 12 guests, or wait around for hundreds of other tourists disembark from a huge expedition vessel? Travelling on a small vessel allows you to encounter nature first hand, in an intimate and peaceful way.