Polar bear sign HGR 162997 Eveline Lunde

Nature and wildlife in Svalbard

Svalbard is one of the planet's most extraordinary natural habitats. This beautiful archipelago is home to an amazing array of wildlife that has adapted to thrive in the frozen landscapes and extreme climate of the Far North.

The Svalbard archipelago is characterized by snow, icy seas, the Polar Night and the Midnight Sun. It’s a harsh environment, but it would be even harsher if it weren’t for the warm waters pushed this far north by the Gulf Stream.

Thanks to that balmy current, rather than being ice-bound year-round, Svalbard is home to wildlife and habitats you won’t find anywhere else on Earth. Where else can you spot roaming polar bears, hear glaciers creak and calve, and watch a colorful carpet of flowers blossom across the tundra in a matter of days?

The landscapes of Svalbard

The archipelago’s fragile ecosystem is a finely balanced mosaic of tundra, glaciers, and permafrost. Each element plays a crucial role in this Arctic environment where the sun doesn’t set for months in summer and darkness rules day and night in winter.

Svalbard's geology tells the story of a landscape forged by ice, wind, and sea over millions of years. To walk across it or cruise around it is to journey through deep time. There are ancient mountains, sedimentary rocks rich in fossils, and coal seams formed from lush forests that once thrived near the equator.

Among its most awe-inspiring features are the glaciers. These slow-moving rivers of ice continue to shape the landscape, carving the valleys and fjords that define the archipelago's topography. You’ll never forget witnessing the calving of a glacier, hearing huge blocks of ice crash into the sea. It’s a reminder of the dynamic and delicate nature of the Arctic environment.

Beneath that awesome surface lies a layer of permafrost: permanently frozen ground that shapes the land and influences the ecosystem. This frozen layer is core to the Arctic environment, affecting everything from vegetation to the construction of human settlements.

But don’t be fooled by appearances. Despite these harsh conditions, the tundra bursts into life during the brief summer, with mosses, lichens, and tough little flowers blooming as far as the eye can see soon after the snow melts.

Smeerenburg glacier Svalbard HGR 163580 Yuri Matisse Choufour

The Arctic wildlife of Svalbard

Svalbard’s wildlife has adapted to survive the extremes of the Arctic. On land, animals have developed thick insulating fur, specialised feeding behaviours, and other evolutionary strategies to endure the long, cold winters and make the most of the short, bright summers.

The marine ecosystem around Svalbard is equally remarkable. Far from being a frozen desert, the archipelago’s cold, nutrient-rich waters are home to a diverse range of marine species. This abundance of life is supported by the productive seas, which benefit from nutrient upwelling, making Svalbard a hotspot for Arctic marine biology.

Svalbard’s skies are filled with life, too. One of the archipelago’s most notable aspects is its status as a critical breeding ground for millions of seabirds. Species such as puffins, guillemots, and kittiwakes flock here during the brief Arctic summer, enjoying the long days and abundant food to breed and raise their young on Svalbard.

Here are some of the Arctic animals you might see on a Svalbard cruise.

Svalbard polar bear

Svalbard is one of the few places in the world where polar bears can be observed in their natural habitat. These majestic predators embody the wildness of the Arctic. Approximately 3,000 polar bears live in the Barents Sea region, with around 300 living in Svalbard year-round. Most polar bears spend their lives roaming the sea ice in search of seals, their primary prey.

As the archipelago's most iconic resident, they top the wish lists of many wildlife enthusiasts. While seeing a polar bear is a highlight, sightings aren’t guaranteed. Polar bears are an endangered species and any ‘polar bear safaris’ which track polar bears and take tourists to their exact location are strictly prohibited. Instead, the best and least intrusive way to see polar bears is on a small ship cruise to Svalbard in the summer months where you’ll have a chance of spotting them in the wild.

polar bear HGR 164478 Schibsted Partnerstudio
Huset-Restaurant Photo Eveline-Lunde 3226
Seeing a polar bear is not that common. When I first moved to Longyearbyen, I was afraid of meeting one while walking around town, but that happens only very rarely. Most of the time, you only see polar bears from a boat, which is the best way if you ask me. If you go snowmobiling and you spot a polar bear, then you're too close.

Caroline Sund

Travel Designer for Hurtigruten Svalbard

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Svalbard reindeer

After near-extinction in the early 20th century, Svalbard reindeer numbers are up to around 10,000 today. Smaller and stouter than their mainland Norway counterparts, these reindeer have adapted to the Arctic conditions of Svalbard, grazing on the little tundra vegetation there is here.

Encounters with these peaceful wild animals are common – and they’re guaranteed to capture your heart.

“The reindeers walk freely in town,” say Alberto Lozano, Head Chef at Longyearbyen’s popular fine-dining restaurant, Huset. “They will always find some corner here that helps them feel warmer. It's not like we have hundreds around town, but every day you will see some.”

Arctic fox

In winter, the Arctic fox’s pure white coat turns it invisible against the snow. Come summertime, when the snow has melted, its fur is replaced with a blue-brown colour, perfect for hiding among the stones and soil of the tundra. These small predators are therefore elusive, but seeing one is an experience that will stay with you forever.

They’re another great example of the biodiversity that adapts and thrives in Svalbard's challenging conditions.

Kapp Waldburg Svalbard HGR 157765 Jan Hvizdal
walrus Smeerenburg Svalbard HGR 157775 Jan Hvizdal

Walruses

In Svalbard, the Atlantic walrus is a common sight, especially in areas where they haul out on beaches or ice floes to rest. These massive marine mammals, recognisable by their toothy tusks and whiskered faces, are a marvel to behold.

“They're so much bigger than I expected,” agrees Caroline. “And pretty smelly! They don't care too much about humans, they are just living their own life!”

The walrus populations in Svalbard are particularly known for their sociable behaviour. You’re likely to see them basking in large groups, which makes for a fascinating spectacle. Their diet primarily consists of benthic organisms such as clams, snails and sea cucumbers, which they forage from the seabed, playing a crucial role in the marine ecosystem in the process.

Giants of the deep: Whales

Svalbard is a prime destination for whale watchers. You’ll never forget seeing one of these magnificent creatures surface among the icebergs, with rugged, glacier-streaked mountains in the background.

The nutrient-rich Arctic seas support a diverse ecosystem, providing plenty of food for these majestic mammals. The waters surrounding Svalbard are home to a variety of whale species – and you might not even need to venture far from Longyearbyen to see them. “Belugas and other types of whales such as minke visit the fjord in front of Longyearbyen. You can spot them with binoculars,” says Caroline.

Here's an overview of the whale species you could spot around Svalbard:

Blue whale Svalbard HGR 156675 Getty Images

Blue Whale

The largest animal ever known to have existed is a frequent visitor to these parts, especially during the summer months. These gentle giants are attracted by the abundance of krill, their primary food source. Blue whales are an unforgettable sight, thanks to their impressive size and graceful movements through the water.

Svalbard Fin Whale HGR 94865 Photo Competition

Fin Whale

The second-largest whale species is also commonly sighted around Svalbard. These whales are known for their speed, which has earned them the nickname "greyhounds of the sea." Fin whales are baleen whales, feeding on small schooling fish and krill by filtering them through their baleen plates.

minke whale HGR 147579 Shutterstock

Minke Whale

The smallest of the baleen whales found in Svalbard, minke whales are curious animals, often approaching boats and vessels. They feed on a variety of prey, including krill, small fish, and plankton.

beluga Hvaldimir Hammerfest Norway HGR 138090 Oscar Farrera

Beluga Whale

With their distinctive white color and sociable nature, belugas are often spotted in the shallow coastal waters around Svalbard. These whales are known for their complex vocalisations and are sometimes called "canaries of the sea." They live in pods and feed on fish, crustaceans, and worms.

humpback whale HGR 161637 Shutterstock

Humpback Whale

Spectacular breaching behaviour and complex songs make humpback whales a favorite among whale watchers. They migrate to the waters around Svalbard in the summer to feed on the rich supplies of krill and small fish. You can easily recognize them by their long pectoral fins and distinctive body shape.

sperm whale HGR 147440 Getty Images

Sperm Whale

The largest of the toothed whales is occasionally seen in the deeper waters around Svalbard. These whales are known for their deep dives in search of squid, their primary food source. Sperm whales have very large heads, which hold the valuable substance spermaceti, historically used for cosmetics, fine wax candles, and as an industrial lubricant.

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Narwhal

Though less common than some of the other species, narwhals, with their unicorn-like long tusks, are also a part of Svalbard's marine ecosystem. They’re known for their deep dives to hunt for fish and squid, but you’re more likely to spot them in the pack ice.

Seals

Svalbard's waters are home to several seal species, each adapted to the Arctic's demanding conditions. Each species plays a vital role in the Arctic food web, as prey for polar bears and as predators of fish and invertebrates. Key species include:

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Ringed Seals

The most abundant seal species in Svalbard, characterized by their small size and the ring patterns on their coat. They are closely associated with sea ice, relying on it for resting and breeding.

Bearded Seal Svalbard HGR 147488 1920 Photo Getty Images

Bearded Seals

Larger than ringed seals, bearded seals are notable for their impressive whiskers and preference for shallow waters where they feed on bottom-dwelling creatures.

harp seal HGR 147070 1920 Photo Getty Images

Harp Seals

Identified by their striking black-and-white patterns, harp seals are mainly found on the ice edge in the eastern parts of the archipelago.

Birds in Svalbard

A critical breeding ground for a diverse array of bird species, Svalbard is a birdwatcher’s paradise from late spring through the summer months. Keep a look out for Svalbard bird species including:

Puffin Bjornoya Norway HGR 140563 Genna Roland

Puffins

With their colorful beaks and comical appearance, the so-called ‘clowns of the sea’ are a favorite among visitors. If you visit from May to August, you might see them in coastal areas, nesting in cliffs during the breeding season.

Barnacle goose Svalbard HGS 10473 Linda Drake

Barnacle geese

Migrating to Svalbard in the spring to breed, Barnacle Geese are commonly found in grassy areas, where they feed and nest.

Thick billed Murre HGR 116320 Karsten Bidstrup

Brünnich's guillemots

These seabirds nest in large colonies on cliff faces. Their densely packed nesting sites are a remarkable sight, and their diving prowess is impressive; just watch them hunt for fish in the surrounding waters.

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Snow buntings

The only songbird that breeds in Svalbard, Snow Buntings are a symbol of the High Arctic. Their melodious songs enliven the tundra during the brief Arctic summer.

Arctic tern HGR 139952 Genna Roland

Arctic terns

Known for their long migratory journeys, Arctic Terns come to Svalbard to breed, filling the skies with their acrobatic flight and sharp calls. They are fiercely protective of their nesting sites, often seen diving at intruders to defend their territory.

A global barometer of climate change

Svalbard's significance extends beyond its biodiversity. This remote archipelago is a critical indicator of climate change. Experiencing some of the most rapid temperature increases globally, Svalbard has been called the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for global environmental changes. The impacts of climate change on Svalbard's ecosystems provide valuable insights into the challenges faced by Arctic species and underscore the urgency of global conservation efforts.

“To be able to live here in the northernmost town in the world a beautiful thing,” says Alberto. “Not many people can say that. But it's a place that will not be with us forever. Climate change is happening quickly here. To be able to experience Svalbard as it is now, before it's too late, is sadly a privilege.”