Spitsbergen & North Cape - Polar Bears and Walrus
What are the chances of seeing polar bear and walrus on your Arctic Voyage?
Each year, Hurtigruten Explorer offers spring expeditions voyages travelling from Tromsø to Spitsbergen, or from Bergen up to North Norway and then across to Spitsbergen. Travelling on one of their expedition ships, you journey deep in the Arctic - a true polar pioneering voyage.
On these exploratory expeditions, the Captain and Expedition Leader will be monitoring conditions at hand closely; where is the ice edge, how they can expect the ice drift, where is the ice landlocked, what is the prevailing winds and currents. At this time of the year we have to expect weather - and especially ice conditions to be highly variable. The ice edge of the Arctic Ocean is now at its lowest latitudes – this is a highly productive area biologically as plankton and algae is growing beneath the ice. This cornerstone biological production is an immensely important part of the web of life and attracts all kinds of other animal- and birdlife that thrives here. At the top of this food web we find the big predators – including the polar bear.
Within the Svalbard Archipelago there are about 3000 polar bears – more than there are humans and probably one of the largest concentrations on Earth. That said; polar bears are solitude animals with no set colony or living area – they roam wherever they can expect to find food and only the pregnant females use denning areas during winter and only when they are expecting offspring.
However; the more eyes scouting through binoculars the higher is the chance of observing the King of the Arctic. The polar bear is a marine mammal hence it is more likely to observe it close to water or even in water. Whenever close to drift ice there is a chance that a polar bear uses this as a platform when at sea.
In very rare occasions dead whales or walrus drift ashore on Svalbard beaches. These tend to attract all kinds of wildlife – including polar bears.
Bottom line is that guests often observe polar bears on these itineraries – not every day and seldom at very close range – there are no guarantees for sure. But; one of the biggest fascinations or this expedition is the chance of being really lucky spotting one.
One of the really nice “by-products” of looking for polar bears is that it sensitizes the observer to other wildlife such as birds and other marine mammals. Be on the lookout!
Since the protection of walrus in 1952 the Svalbard population has grown from being decimated down to only a few animals to a strong population with several haul outs scattered around the whole archipelago.
The two best ways to observe walrus is from the vessel when they are hauled out on ice flows or from shore, close to the well-established haul out places. In order to understand where haul outs may be you’d have to understand that the walrus feeding method; they are shallow divers that feed on benthic fauna that are hiding in sediments on the bottom.
To find these shellfish and molluscs they use their hyper-sensitive whiskers to locate for then to suck in the food with high pressure with the mouth. Gently graduated beaches close to larger shallow areas are good habitats – a landing close to a walrus colony is an experience for all senses (in particular smell), but such places that are suitable for small boat operations are limited and often exposed to wind an swell. No guarantee – but we often see walrus on our expeditions in Spitsbergen.