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Svalbard comes from an old Norse word meaning “Cold Coast” and the dramatic coastline dominates this collection of islands, deep inside the arctic circle the temperature is normally below freezing. The island of Spitsbergen makes up over half of the land mass of the archipelago and it contains the administrative centre of Svalbard, the town of Longyearbyen. At over 24,000 square miles in total there are nine main islands of which Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya are second in size to Spitsbergen.
It is thought that Svalbard was first discovered in 1194 but it remained largely unknown to the modern world until just 1594 when it was rediscovered by Dutch explorers. Initial exploration was shortly followed by the arrival of Dutch and English whalers in 1611 to plunder the rich natural resources of this productive arctic area.
The geography of the islands have largely been created through the repeated expansion and contraction of glaciers cutting through the rock to leave dramatic valleys, snow-capped mountains, steep fjords and wind-swept tundra. Around 60% of Svalbard is covered in glacial ice and the largest glacier of Austfonna can be found on Nordaustlandet and measures over 3000 square miles- it is the third largest glacier in Europe.
The wildlife of the archipelago is the main reason that most people will visit, and seven national parks aim to provide a safe, protected haven for the enigmatic species of the region. Svalbard also has 15 bird sanctuaries, one geotopic protection area and six nature reserves.
The polar bear is the undeniable symbol of the region and people in the wilderness are required to have appropriate scare devices in case of an encounter. It also said that within the settlements people will often leave their doors unlocked, in case a hasty place of safety is required. The Svalbard reindeer and the arctic fox are the other two terrestrial mammals you might find along with up to 20 marine mammals including species of whale, dolphin, seals, and walruses. Most of the birds you might encounter are migratory and up to 80 different species can be spotted depending on the time of year, the Barents Sea which is south east of Svalbard is thought to accommodate around 20 million seabirds during late summer, making it ones of the most highly populated areas in the world.
It is possible to visit some part of the Svalbard Archipelago at all times of year, however it is during the cruise ship season from May-August when the islands are most accessible and allow for further exploration. During the winter from September to April visits are more than likely to be restricted to the only permanently populated island of Spitsbergen.
The Islands of Svalbard are included in all of our specially selected cruise itineraries starting with the entry level 7-night Svalbard Essentials trip to the in-depth 13 nights Off-the-beaten-track expedition. For those who are really looking for something incredible and once-in-a-lifetime then a trip to the North Pole might be for you.
We work with a number of specially selected small-ship cruises that explore the mysteries of these arctic waters.