Secret Atlas co-founder Andy Marsh has spent plenty of time exploring the most remote corners of the planet from Antarctica and South Georgia to Greenland and the high Arctic. 

In this post he shares his love for the Arctic along with his top reasons for taking a trip to Svalbard during the summer months.

andy marsh on south georgia island

Svalbard: An Overview

If you haven’t been to the Arctic before Svalbard is the perfect place to start. It offers everything from diverse wildlife, fascinating human history and some of the most beautiful glaciers and Arctic landscapes on the planet.

Svalbard is an archipelago of remote Atlantic islands situated high above the Artic circle six hundred miles north of mainland Norway.

During the summer months the sea ice resides and the coast becomes clear of ice and navigable to ships. Svalbard has no roads outside the main settlement of Longyearbyen so the best way to see Svalbard during the summer is from the coast.
There are a number of operators offering cruises on larger vessels, and here at Secret Atlas we just offer trips on small expedition vessels with small passenger numbers (the best way to experience the nature in our opinion).
One of the most exciting things is that no journey to Svalbard is ever the same. There is no set itinerary and a flexible approach to exploring, making a journey here a real Arctic adventure. 
If you are thinking about joining us on a trip here is a list of my favourite reasons Svalbard should be your next destination. 

1. Svalbard Is Really Far North

In fact, it is as far north as it is possible to fly on a domestic flight anywhere on the planet. Longyearbyen, the main settlement, is the most northerly town on the planet and Ny Alesund, a scientific research community we often visit is situated even further north. When you land at Longyearbyen the north pole is only eight hundred miles away.

2. Diverse Wildlife

The thing that originally drew me to Svalbard was the stories I had heard about the abundance of wildlife that can be seen from a boat during the summer months. And I have to say it has never disappointed!
Whales migrate here to feed off the rich waters. I’ve seen blue whales pass close by and a highlight was watching a pod of Beluga whales swim under the stern when we were at anchor. Svalbard has numerous walrus colonies which are accessible to small expedition vessels. It offers a chance to get a good look at these curious creatures close up and is perfect for wildlife photography.
Polar bears hunt on the sea ice and around Svalbard’s coastline. With over 100,00 km of total coastline and no roads, the best chance of seeing a polar bear in its natural home is from a boat. Although a polar bear sighting is never guaranteed, to see one in such a serene place away from other tourists is worth the trip itself. 
Some of the wildlife you are likely to encounter on a visit to Svalbard:
  • Polar bears
  • Walrus 
  • Beluga Whales
  • Arctic foxes
  • Blue Whales
  • Svalbard Reindeer

3. Get up close to some of the largest Glaciers in the northern hemisphere

Nearly 59% of Svalbard’s land is covered in ice with over 2,100 glaciers in total. If you want to witness the raw beauty of a glacier close up Svalbard is one of the best places on earth to do it.

A great example is the Lilliehöökbreen glacier, one of the largest in Svalbard, located 14 km inside the Lilliehöökfjorden. I’m always spellbound as I watch the ice calve from the glacier face and cascade into the water below. A magical, natural sight that words can’t do justice to.

Small expedition vessels are a great way to get close to the glacier faces. If the conditions allow it is possible to approach by Zodiac landing craft. It is an awe-inspiring experience to stare up at the walls of ice and breathe in the majesty of the raw nature. Due to the risk posed by falling ice a minimum distance of 350 meters is kept from the glacier face.

4. Experience the Arctic Sea Ice first hand

Have you imagined what early explorers felt when they first entered the sea ice and stared out at the mysterious white wonderland? Luckily things have changed a bit since then. Modern small expedition vessels are equipped with radar, ice-strengthened hulls and satellite ice maps which allow them to travel to the ice in a safe way.

The sea ice north of Svalbard extends all the way to the north pole, some 800km north. Polar bears hunt on the sea ice and can often be spotted making their way across the ice flows. A trip to the sea ice is a once in a lifetime experience and on longer cruises it is possible if the weather conditions permit.

5. Hike In The Untouched Arctic Wilderness

All the small expedition vessels we work with are equipped with Zodiac landing craft used for taking guests to the shore. Stepping ashore is a great way to experience the pristine Arctic wilderness. I have been fortunate to go on many hikes in Svalbard and every time I am blown away by the ever-changing landscapes, dramatic scenery and the silence of the Arctic.

Every hike offers a different perspective. On previous hikes, I have been approached by curious reindeer and even had a Walrus pop up next to me when I was walking along a shore.

Early in the season in May, the mountains are still snow covered whilst later in the season the snow recedes revealing the tundra.

When going ashore you will be accompanied by a professional armed guide who is trained in polar bear protection for your safety.

6. Follow in the Footsteps of Famous Explorers

Today the mast still stands at Ny Alesund which marked the starting off point for Italian aviator Umberto Nobile’s daring quest to fly to the north pole in an airship in 1928. Nearby is a statue of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who became the first person to reach the south pole and traverse the northwest passage, two incredible achievements in polar exploration. Amundsen later died when his plane became lost in thick fog in the Barents Sea on a mission to rescue Nobile after his airship Italia crashed after reaching the north pole.

Svalbard is scattered with the remains of human history. From exploring abandoned buildings in the deserted Russian ghost town of Pyramiden to the visiting the derelict machinery in the mining outpost of New London, Svalbard is full of fascinating places to see.

7. Witness the Midnight Sun

From April 20th to August 23rd the sun doesn’t set in Svalbard creating twenty-four-hour sunlight. If you haven’t experienced it before it is an interesting phenomenon. The great benefit is that exploring and wildlife watching is on the cards at every hour of the day. One of my favourite experiences was photographing a glacier in bright sunlight only to look down at my watch and it was 3 am. If you are adventurous don’t expect a great deal of sleep here during the summer.

8. In the Summer it is Warmer Than You Would Think

People imagine the Arctic as a desolate and hostile place, but in the summer months the climate is much more forgiving than you would think. The temperature is a few degrees above freezing in the summer months making it feel more like a north European winter. When the sun shines it’s possible to be out hiking in a t-shirt, and it is a beautiful sight to see the sun reflecting off the ice in the fjords. Make sure to bring sunglasses!

The weather in Svalbard during the summer is typically cloudy with sunny days mixed in between. Rain is fairly uncommon and the wind conditions are usually light as Svalbard has a high pressure system over it.

9. Swap Your Device For Nature

Where else on the planet can you spend days on end without a mobile phone signal? In our over connected world with prolonged screen time, there has never been a better time to escape the digital realm. The good news is that once you are outside Longyearbyen the mobile phone signal ends and the peace and tranquillity begin. Part of the Svalbard experience is taking some time away from you everyday life to experience the raw beauty the area has to offer.  But don’t worry all our boats are equipped with satellite communication devices in case there is an emergency.

If you would like to explore Svalbard on a small expedition vessel please take a look at our forthcoming trips below.

Thanks for reading and safe travels.

Andy

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