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Colorful homes in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Cruise the Arctic Svalbard Islands

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A Svalbard cruise takes you to an Arctic archipelago north of Norway, only about 600 miles from the North Pole. It was most likely discovered by Viking or Russian explorers in the late 12th century, but was not settled until the early 1600s. Since 1925 it has been a territory of Norway, and today it is home to about 2,700 people, mostly Norwegians and Russians.

The landscape is sparse and rugged, much of it covered by glaciers and ice pack. A variety of wildlife can be seen during a tour of Svalbard, from the millions of birds that breed on the islands each year to reindeer, walruses, seals, belugas, minke whales, and polar bears.

The best time to plan a cruise to Svalbard is during the warmer summer months—but even in summer, temperatures only average around 40°F, so those traveling to the area should dress appropriately. The summers also bring several months of midnight sun, which is experienced between April 20 and August 23 each year.

Visitors to Svalbard can enjoy a number of activities, from hiking through the beautifully remote mountains to snowmobiling, and from dog-sledding to kayaking the Arctic waters. Those wanting to explore cultural artifacts can also visit the Svalbard Museum, the Svalbard (art) Gallery, or historic coalmines.

A Cultural Look into Svalbard Travel

Svalbard’s largest city is Longyearbyen, located on Spitsbergen and home to about 1,800 people. Longyearbyen, though small, has a thriving community. Residents and visitors on a Svalbard tour can enjoy the swimming pool, the climbing wall, the Sunday cinema, and the squash court. There is also a nightclub, three pubs, three hotels, a church, a school, and several tourist shops. Visitors on a trip to Svalbard may also enjoy seeing the art gallery with its permanent and changing exhibitions by local artists, or the Svalbard Museum, which offers exhibits on the history, flora, and fauna of the islands.

For most of its existence, Svalbard’s major employer was the state coal mining industry; Longyearbyen was essentially a company town whose daily life centered on the mining business. In the past ten years, however, there has been a shift from a mining economy to one that depends increasingly on tourism and research.

Island research generally focuses on weather and meteorology, with facilities for ionospheric and magnetospheric research. In 1993, a cooperation of the four Norwegian universities opened a University Center in Svalbard, which currently draws about 300 students per year. The students study geophysics, arctic biology, geology, and arctic technology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. A new Research Centre has just been built, in the hopes that the university will see an increase in enrollment.

Tourism is also a growing sector. Spring and summer are the most popular months for a tour of the islands Svalbard, which have been made far more accessible by the Svalbard Airport, located just outside Longyearbyen. Various tour operators provide guided trips from February to November, offering activities such as hiking, snowmobiling, dog-sledding, kayaking, and even coal mining.

Svalbard’s Arctic Environment

Those enjoying a tour to the remote islands of Svalbard will be greeted with austere beauty, which includes a land whitened by vast glaciers and ice fields. The mountains are stark and rugged, and Newtontoppen, the archipelago’s highest peak, rises 5,650 feet above sea level on Spitsbergen, the largest island. Western Spitsbergen is also the location of unusual stone structures, which scatter in labyrinthine circles across the landscape. While these intricate patterns are intriguing enough to be the work of fairies or elves, they are actually the result of the cyclic freezing and thawing of the ground, a process called ‘frost heaving.’

Though Svalbard’s climate is moderated by the warm North Atlantic Current – keeping the surrounding water open and mostly navigable – the Arctic ice pack still surrounds the islands in some of the colder winter months. Deep and jagged fjords punctuate the western and northern coastlines of the islands of Svalbard, forming excellent breeding grounds for the millions of birds that migrate there each year. During your Svalbard tour, keep an eye out for the five different species of trees found on the islands; four are willows and one is a dwarf birch. Because of the Arctic climate, the trees stay very small—travelers will not find the towering oaks or Douglas firs they may be accustomed to. At times, in fact, the grass of these northern islands grows higher than the trees.

Summers are short and cool on Svalbard, giving the flora little time to make seed. Instead, most of the plants propagate by stolons or rhizomes. While the flowers, like the trees, are dwarfed by the climate, tiny bits of color spread across the summer landscape, scattering purple and yellow and white blossoms. A tour of Svalbard also offers stunning views of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), which dance green and blue and red in the sky on long winter nights.

Svalbard’s natural resources include deposits of coal, iron ore, copper, zinc, and phosphate. There is also abundant wildlife, from walruses to polar bears to reindeer to Arctic foxes, and the surrounding seas are full of fish and other marine life. None of the land is arable, and because of the brevity of the growing season, the region grows no permanent crops.

The Geographic Appeal of a Svalbard Cruise

Svalbard, formerly known as Spitsbergen, consists of a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean, which are situated far north of the Arctic Circle and about 620 miles south of the North Pole. A part of Norway, these islands form both the northernmost part of the country as well as the northernmost part of Europe. Nine main islands make up Svalbard, with various tiny islands within the vicinity. The land surface totals about 24,000 square miles, making is slightly smaller than West Virginia.

Three large islands dominate the territory: Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandlet, and Edgeøya. The other six main islands are Barentsøya, Prins Karls Forland, Kong Karls Land, Kvitøya, Hopen, and Bjømøya. Most of the region’s 2700 people live on Spitsbergen, but Hopen and Bjømøya are populated as well. Longyearbyen is the largest city, and is a popular destination for travelers on a Svalbard cruise. Longyearbyen has a population of 1800 people, and is located on the west coast of Spitsbergen. The second largest settlement is Barentsburg, with about 850 people, most of whom are Russians and Ukranians. Though Barentsburg is only about 35 miles from Longyearbyen, there are no roads connecting the two settlements.

Nordaustlandet is the second largest island, but it is unpopulated, as most of it is covered with ice caps and glaciers, including Austfonna, the largest glacier in Europe. The northern coast is austere tundra, where such animals as reindeer and walruses can be found.

The southernmost island of the archipelago is Bjømøya (Bear Island), and is uninhabited except for the ten people who staff the meteorological and radio station. The rest of this small island (only 12 miles from north to south and 10 miles from east to west) was established as a nature reserve in 2002. The southern third of the land is mountainous, but the land slopes down to the north to form a lowland plain covered by freshwater lakes.

About 60% of Svalbard’s land area is covered by glaciers and snowfields. The land is wild, with high rugged mountains and deep fjords along the north and west coasts. This dramatic geography is one of the reasons that a Svalbard cruise is so desired. The highest peak, Newtontoppen, is located on Spitsbergen and reaches 5,650 feet above sea level. Despite the archipelago’s extreme northern latitude, the North Atlantic Current warms the Arctic climate, keeping the surrounding sea open and navigable for most of the year. However, the area does see extremes in its length of day from summer to winter. In the summer months, the midnight sun lasts from April 20 to August 23, while in the winter, the polar night lasts from October 26 to February 15.

Svalbard Travel: A Historic Look into the Region

To enhance your Svalbard travel experience, learn a little more about the history of the region before you begin your cruise. The Vikings and Russians may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Icelandic accounts from 1194 tell of a place called Svalbaroi, or “cold coast.” In 1596, the Dutchman Willem Barents made the first indisputable discovery of the archipelago. Soon after his rediscovery, the islands were named Spitsbergen, Dutch for “jagged mountains.” As has happened with many Arctic islands, Spitsbergen became a whaling base for as long as it took hunters to dangerously reduce the whale population. Danish, Dutch, English, French, and Norwegian whalers hunted off the coasts from 1612 to 1720. The Dutch alone are estimated to have taken 60,000 whales from Smeerenburg, their base on Amsterdam Island.

After whaling ceased to be lucrative, trapping became popular. Early trappers focused on Arctic fox and polar bear pelts. During your Svalbard travel today you will notice that trapping is still an important part of the local economy. Because of their convenient northern location, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the islands served as a base for many Arctic expeditions. Then, in 1906, the rich coal deposits began to be tapped, and today coal mining remains the major economic activity on Svalbard.

While Svalbard has been used as a base by many in the international community, it has been administered by Norway since 1925, as a result of the Svalbard Treaty of February 9, 1920. However, this treaty is unique in that citizens of other countries have equal rights to the area’s natural resources. At one time, coal companies from the U.S., the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and Sweden mined in Svalbard. Today, only the Russian settlement of 850 people at Barentsburg remains; in fact, the Russian population used to outnumber the Norwegian population, though today Norwegians make up about 60% of the people with Russians and Ukrainians making up the remaining 40%.

During World War II, the islands were evacuated. Even so, the Germans bombed the three largest settlements, Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, and Sveagruva, in 1943 and 1944. After the war, the residents were allowed to move back and rebuild, and along with them came teams of geologists from Cambridge and other universities, visiting Svalbard in order to do the first comprehensive and detailed mapping of the area.

Coal mining remains Svalbard’s major economic activity. Sixty percent of the Norwegian population is employed by the state-owned coal company, which also provides much of the local infrastructure and runs the local services in the settlements. The settlements on the islands are more company towns than actual cities. Hunting is also a significant part of the economy, as seal, reindeer, and fox are quite plentiful. In recent years research activities and travel to Svalbard and tourism have been making up a growing sector of the economy.

Today, one of the major news items in Svalbard is the seed bank that the Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are planning on building in 2007. Into a hollow cave will go a copy of all the seeds and genetic material currently available around the world. The repository will be built to withstand natural and man-made catastrophes, from nuclear war to earthquakes.

Svalbard’s Local Island Politics

Svalbard became an official territory of Norway in 1925, as a result of the Svalbard Treaty of February 9, 1920. It is now administered by the Polar Department of the Ministry of Justice through a governor living in Longyearbyen. There are no elections, as Norway’s monarchy is hereditary, with Harald V the current king. The governor and assistant governor are responsible to the Polar Department.

The Svalbard Treaty gave Norway the right to administer the islands. Part of the treaty, however, gives all signatories—of which there are currently more than 40—equal rights to run commercial activities. Those commercial activities have primarily been limited to coal mining (though fishing and hunting fall under the category as well); currently only Norway and Russia are operating mines on Svalbard.

Experience Arctic Weather on a Svalbard Cruise

Travelers may be surprised to find that Svalbard is warmer than its extreme northern latitude might suggest. The North Atlantic Current runs along the western and northern coasts, moderating the Arctic climate and keeping the waters open and navigable for a Svalbard cruise for most of the year. The summers are cool and the winters cold, with the average temperature in the summer months staying around 43°F and the winter average hovering around 3°F, though winter temperatures have been known to plummet to 20° below zero. Svalbard averages about eight inches of precipitation per year, making the area an Arctic desert climate. The west coast has a stormy but relatively mild climate, while the eastern side is both quieter and chillier.

Its northern latitude does mean that Svalbard experiences long light days in the summer and long dark nights in the winter. The midnight sun shines on the archipelago from April 20 to August 23, while the polar night lasts from October 26 to February 15. Visitors to the area will enjoy the novelty of long summer days when the sun never dips below the horizon.

The Wild-side of a Svalbard Cruise

Both novice and advanced birdwatchers will find much to enjoy during their Svalbard cruise. Thirty species of seabirds make Svalbard their breeding grounds, including black guillemots, puffins, little auks, fulmars, and kittiwakes. The arctic tern, skua, and ivory gull can also be seen throughout the archipelago. The snow bunting and the wheatear are the only two songbirds to breed in the area, and Svalbard’s only resident species is the Svalbard ptarmigan.

Mammals on the islands range from tiny creatures to large, including the Svalbard field mouse, the Arctic fox, the Svalbard reindeer, and the polar bear. The latter are so common that residents of Svalbard know to take their rifles for protection when they venture outside the inhabited areas. However, polar bears are protected by the law, which forbids anyone to harm or disturb them. During a trip to Svalbard one can also find several species of seal on the land and in the surrounding waters, from the bearded and ringed seals to the harbour and harp seals.

The seas around Svalbard are filled with a variety of whales, and a cruise offers plenty of viewing opportunities. Most commonly seen is the vocal and social white beluga, whose population is estimated in the thousands. The white-beaked dolphin and the minke whale are also fairly common. Greenland whales used to be found in abundance, but have been driven nearly to extinction. The Northern Right (or Bowhead) whale is also endangered, with a population of only a few hundred. Several other whales that are rare but may still be seen are the handsome black-and-white orca, the long-horned narwhal, the bottlenose dolphin, the sperm whale, the humpback whale, and the fin and blue whales. At a massive 65-100 feet long, the blue whale is the largest animal on the planet, and an awesome sight to see, whether from land or ship.

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