The species you’re most likely to see are the Arctic fox (also known as the polar fox) and Svalbard’s unusually squat reindeer.
Svalbard’s reindeer are genetically akin to their distant Canadian cousins and some have been found bearing Russian tags, proving that they walked in over the ice.
Unlike their cousins on the mainland, they don’t live in herds but in family groups of two to six animals.
Since they have no predators other than humans they thrive and the estimated population of around 10,000 is kept constant by an annual cull.
Most Svalbard reindeer starve slowly to death when they’re about eight years old, their teeth having been ground to stumps by the stones and pebbles they mouth along with sprigs of edible matter.
Despite having been hunted to the brink of extinction in centuries past, whales can still be seen on occasion in Svalbard’s waters, while seals are also common.
Walruses, too, suffered from relentless hunting, although a population of between 500 and 2000 still inhabits Svalbard.
For more on Svalbard’s fascinating bird life,Click here .
Dangers & Annoyances Don’t let your desire to see Svalbard’s symbol, the polar bear, blind you to the fact that a close encounter with these iconic creatures rarely ends well.
As the signs on the outskirts of Longyearbyen attest, polar bears are real danger almost everywhere in Svalbard.
If you’re straying beyond Longyearbyen’s confines, you’re strongly advised to go with an organised tour.
Walk leaders carry a gun and know how to use it.
Standard equipment too, especially if you’re camping, are trip wires with flares and distress flares too – to fire at the ground in front of the bear, not to summon help, which could be hours away.
The last bear fatality was in 1995, but it happened only 2km from Longyearbyen… Tours For reasons of security and sheer logistics, it’s difficult to arrange independent trips on Svalbard and we endorse the governor’s advice that you should book organised tours through recognised operators.
Fortunately, there’s a huge range of options.
The official tourist information website (www.svalbard.net) lists dozens of tours and we detail but a sample of the most popular ones.
SVALBARD TOUR COMPANIES The following are the main companies offering tours around Svalbard, starting with day excursions from Longyearbyen to longer boat cruises and multiday expeditions out into the wilderness.
All of the following operate in both summer and winter.
Arctic Adventures ( 79 02 16 24; www.arctic-adventures.
no) Small company offering the full range of activities.
Basecamp Spitsbergen ( 79 02 46 00; www.basecampexplorer.com) Basecamp Spitsbergen mainly offers winter activities, including a stay aboard the Noorderlicht, a Dutch sailing vessel that’s set into the fjord ice as the long freeze begins each autumn.
It also offers winter and summer stays at Isfjord Radio, the ultimate remote getaway on an upgraded, one-time radio station at the western tip of Spitsbergen.
Poli Arctici ( 79 02 17 05; www.poliartici.com) Poli Arctici is the trading name of Stefano Poli, originally from Milan and with 13 years of experience as a Svalbard wilderness guide.
Spitsbergen Tours ( 79 02 10 68; www.terrapolaris.com) The owner of Spitsbergen Tours, Andreas Umbreit, is one of the longest-standing operators on the archipelago.
Spitsbergen Travel ( 79 02 61 00; www.spitsbergentravel.
no) One of the giants of the Svalbard travel scene, with a staggering array of options.
Svalbard Hestesenter ( 91 77 65 95) Kayaking, horse riding and hiking.
Svalbard Husky ( 98 40 40 89) Year-round dog-sledding.
Svalbard Sn?scooterutleie ( 79 02 46 61; www.scooterutleie.
no) Winter snowmobile safaris as well as a handful of summer activities.
Svalbard Villmarkssenter ( 79 02 17 00; www.svalbardvillmarkssenter.
no) Experts in dog mushing , whether by sledge over the snow or on wheels during summer.
Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions ( 79 02 56 60; www.wildlife.
no) Offering many of the usual and several unusual trips.
Longyearbyen POP 2000ard’s only town – indeed, only centre with more than a handful of inhabitants – Longyearbyen enjoys a superb backdrop including two glacier tongues, Longyearbreen and Lars Hjertabreen.
The town itself is fringed by abandoned mining detritus and the waterfront is anything but beautiful, with shipping containers and industrial buildings.
The further you head up the valley towards the glaciers, the more you’ll appreciate being here.
Even so, Longyearbyen is a place to base yourself for trips out into the wilderness rather than somewhere to linger for its own sake.
History Although whalers had been present here in previous centuries, the town of Longyearbyen was founded in the early 20th century as a base for Svalbard’s coal-mining activities; the town’s gritty coal-mining roots still show through, commemorated in the statue of a grizzled miner and his pick near the Lompensenteret.
For decades, Store Norsk, owner of the pits, possessed the communal mess, company shop, transport in and out, and almost the miners’ souls.
Then in 1976 the Norwegian state stepped in to bale the company out from bankruptcy.
Today, most of the few people who live here year-round enjoy one- year tax-free contracts.
There are at least seven mines dotted around Longyearbyen and the surrounding area, although only one, Mine No 7, 15km east of town, is still operational.
Reflecting the days when miners would remove their coal-dust-encrusted boots at the threshold, local decorum still dictates that people take off their shoes upon entering most buildings in town.
Exceptions include the majority of shops and places to eat.
Sights In addition to the following sights, keep an eye out for wild reindeer and even the Arctic fox in and around the town.
Svalbard Museum MINING & NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM (adult/child Nkr75/40, combined ticket with Spitsbergen Airship Museum Nkr130/60; 10am-5pm May-Sep, shorter hr rest of yr) Museum is the wrong word for this impressive exhibition space.
Themes include the life on the edge formerly led by whalers, trappers, seal and walrus hunters and, more recently, miners.
It’s an attractive mix of text, artefacts and birds and mammals, stuffed and staring.
There’s a cosy book-browsing area, too, where you can lounge on sealskin cushions and rugs.
Spitsbergen Airship Museum EXPLORERS’ MUSEUM (www.spitsbergenairshipmuseum.com; adult/child Nkr75/40, combined ticket with Svalbard Museum Nkr130/60; 10am-5pm mid-Jun–Aug, shorter hr rest of yr) This recently opened museum is a fascinating complement to the main museum, with a stunning collection of artefacts, original newspapers and other documents relating to the history of polar exploration.
With labels in English and intriguing archive footage, you could easily spend a couple of hours here reliving some of the Arctic’s most stirring tales.
Galleri Svalbard ART GALLERY (adult/child/concession Nkr60/20/40; 11am-5pm Jun-Aug, shorter hr rest of yr) Galleri Svalbard features the Svalbard-themed works of renowned Norwegian artist K?re Tveter, so pure and cold they make you shiver.
It also has interesting reproductions of antique maps of Svalbard, historica