Every travel destination has its own wildlife, and depending on how unusual it is, it can go a long way in reminding travellers just how far from home they’ve come. For those looking to be surprised with unusual and foreign-feeling wildlife, look no further than the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, located halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The animals here speak volumes about how unlike home this place really is.
Among all of the animals on offer here, few have the appeal of the polar bear, and hopefully every trip to Svalbard will include a sighting of these guardians of the north. Polar bears give birth to either one or two cubs (and never more than three at a time), usually in January. They then keep their young with them constantly for the following two-and-a-half years, after which the young bears finally “leave home” and venture out alone. Hopefully, you get a chance to see a mother bear hunting with her cubs. It’s definitely a cool sight.
Kings of the ice. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang.
Another famous beast you’ll hopefully encounter in Svalbard is the walrus. Because they depend on floating sea ice from which to launch their underwater hunting expeditions, you’ll be more likely to spot them earlier in the season before the sea ice melts away. All wildlife on Svalbard is highly respected, but it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve seen a bit of a resurgence among the walrus population here. According to the Norwegian Polar Institute, there were approximately 1,200 walruses on Svalbard in 2006. That number has more than tripled since, with nearly 4,000 animals counted in 2012 – a sign that conservation efforts here are seeing some benefits.
A pod of walruses. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang.
A curious little creature on the smaller size is the bird known as the little auk. This funny little thing was clearly shaped by the same evolutionarily factors that created the puffin and the penguin. (Like the puffin and unlike the penguin, these little ones do fly.) Little auks breed in huge numbers along coastal mountainsides, so if you’re lucky enough to catch sight of a colony, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to capture some incredible photographs. Unfortunately, the little auk population is suffering due to climate change.
Little auks are a little bird with large colonies. Photo by Tony M.
Spotting the arctic fox is another special moment to be had in Svalbard. These adorable (yet fierce) creatures live in monogamous couples for breeding season. They’re also territorial, meaning each family lives within an area they deem home for the duration of the breeding season. Arctic fox young are usually born between May and early June, so a visit to Svalbard later in the summer season will give you a greater opportunity to see smaller fox pups heading out into the world.
A female arctic fox in Svalbard. Photo by Myheimu.
And of course, Svalbard is home to the celebrated Svalbard reindeer which, unlike their relatives throughout the world, are actually quite small in stature (just 1.5m (5 ft) in length from nose to tail). Males develop their antlers during the period from April to July and then lose them in early winter, so you may very well discover some if you’re hiking over Svalbard’s grasslands. Reindeer are vegetarians, so their prime feeding season is later in the summer.
The Svalbard Reindeer. Photo by Michael B.
Svalbard wildlife is nothing less than iconic and the perfect addition to the plans of any ambitious travel calendar. After all, isn’t travel really about interacting with other inhabitants from faraway places? Keep your wayfaring eyes open here and your time away from home will be the better for it.