Scuba diving inSvalbard and Jan Mayen Island
- Visit humanity’s northernmost permanent settlement
- One of the best places to see polar bears in their natural habitat
- Spot Arctic foxes, reindeer, walruses, beluga whales, and more
- Activities including kayaking, diving, hiking, skiing, and more
Deep within the Arctic Circle and surrounded by icy open ocean, Svalbard and Jan Mayen are some of the most remote outposts imaginable. About as far north as society has dared to settle, these snow-covered islands are the perfect choice for Polar exploration. With just a few permanent human settlements, Svalbard and Jan Mayen remain under the command of nature, and offer some of the Arctic’s best wildlife encounters set to brutally beautiful backdrops. Watch walruses wallow in frigid waters, spot polar bears patrolling the ice, and embark on all manner of adventurous activities, including kayaking, scuba diving, hiking, and more.
Exploring Svalbard and Jan Mayen
Kelp forestsMay - September
IcebergsMay - September
Seals & sea lionsMay - September
WhalesJune - September
With the main island of Spitsbergen nicknamed the “wildlife capital of the Arctic”, it’s no surprise that the Svalbard Archipelago is one of the Arctic Circle’s most popular destinations. On land, the mountainous peaks and scree slopes are home to dozens of interesting bird species. Popular bird-watching spots include the towering basalt cliffs of Alkefjellet, located within the Hinlopen Strait, as well as the South-Spitsbergen National Park. Avian visitors to this island chain include little auks, puffins, Brunnich’s guillemots, black-legged kittiwakes, and three species of skuas. Arctic terns, northern fulmars and red-throated divers can also be seen, along with and both barnacle and pink-footed geese.
And it’s not just birds that frequent these islands. Other iconic wildlife sightings include Arctic foxes, reindeer, bearded seals, ring seals, walruses, beluga whales, and narwhals. But, for many, the real highlight is the chance of witnessing one of the planet’s most powerful predators – polar bears. These awe-inspiring animals can be spotted throughout the archipelago, as they roam the coast and the ice locked between islands. That said, coastal areas in the north and east of Spitsbergen often offer the most reliable sightings, as well as islands such as Edgeøya and Barentsøya.
Apart from wildlife watching, Svalbard’s incredible environments are the perfect backdrop for exciting activities and experiences, including zodiac cruises, polar plunges, kayaking, hiking, snowshoeing, and more. The archipelago is also home to over 2,000 glaciers – including the beautiful blue-tinted Monaco Glacier in Liefdefjorden and the 16-kilometre long 14th of July Glacier in Haakon VII Land. It also boasts the vast Austfonna ice cap, which stretches for more than 100-kilometres out to sea making it one of the largest ice caps in the Arctic.
Of course, humans have left their mark on the islands. Smeerenburg, or “blubber town”, is an old whaling station dating back to the 17th century where many relics of the era can still be seen. When ice conditions allow, it is also possible to venture to Svalbard’s easternmost island, Kvitøya, located within the Nordaust-Svalbard Nature Reserve. It is here that the remnants of Solomon August Andrée’s ill-fated Arctic balloon expedition were found, more than 30 years after its disappearance.
Scuba diving and snorkeling in Svalbard
As well as diving around icebergs and ice floes, Svalbard's scuba diving highlights include dense forests of kelp that can be found in relatively shallow waters. Climbing up from the algae-covered rocks below, these impressive ecosystems are host to numerous invertebrates and bivalves – such as mussels, shrimp, and crabs – which provide plenty of food for seals and walruses. And for fans of supermacro, the planktonic life is also incredible, featuring a vibrant variety of amphipods, jellies, sea angels, and more.
Advanced, dry suit experience
May to September
5 - 20m
5 - 15m
-1 – 8°C
- Photographers should pack a good zoom lens along with a supply of memory cards and spare batteries since cold temperatures can reduce their lifespan.
- Expedition cruises departing from Norway, Iceland, or Scotland require extended ocean crossings, meaning visitors should consider taking sea-sickness medication.
- Northwest Spitsbergen National Park is home to two hot springs along the edge of the Bockfjorden fjord. They are the northernmost documented hot springs on earth.
- Kong Karls Land boasts Svalbard’s largest concentration of polar bears. As such, there is a ban on traffic to the island and a 500-metre exclusion zone for ships.
About Svalbard, Jan Mayen and Bear Islands
The Svalbard archipelago is a group of Norwegian islands located deep inside the Arctic Circle, several hundred miles north of the mainland. Translating to “cold coast”, Svalbard is a fitting description of this unforgiving archipelago which is covered by the world’s third largest ice sheet, with well over half of its entire landmass permanently frozen. Despite its obvious austerity, Svalbard is home to a handful of permanent residents, including the world’s northernmost settlement.
The archipelago comprises four main islands – the largest, Spitsbergen, followed by Nordaustlandet, Edgeøya, and Barentsøya. Numerous small islets complete this archipelago, including Kvitøya in the far east and Bear Island in the far south. Meaning “pointed mountains” in Dutch, Spitsbergen is a wild contrast of peaks and tundra, creating some of the most spectacular scenery on earth and providing plenty of opportunities for icy- adventures.
Jan Mayen is an active volcanic island located between Norway and Greenland, around a thousand kilometres southeast of Svalbard. Defined by the 2,277-metre tall Mt Beerenberg, this isolated island is renowned for its utterly abysmal weather, which can make landings difficult. But, should the skies clear and the sun shine, Jan Mayen’s exquisite beauty comes into full focus – with the fleeting nature of these opportunities only adding to the mystique.
Located on the east side of Spitsbergen, the settlement of Longyearbyen is the archipelago’s only town, and is the main point of entry and departure. Daily flights operate between Longyearbyen and Oslo, the capital of Norway, taking around three-hours each way. And, as Oslo has great connections to Europe and North America, the Svalbard Archipelago is actually one of the most accessible destinations in the Arctic.
It is also possible to explore Svalbard aboard Arctic expedition cruises departing from Norway, Iceland, or Scotland. But, it’s worth noting that these trips inevitably require long crossings over areas of open-ocean, such as the notoriously bumpy Barents Sea.
Where to stay
Visitors to Svalbard can find a small selection of hotels centred around Spitsbergen’s main settlement, Longyearbyen. That said, an Arctic expedition vessel is essential if you want to see this archipelago in all its glory. Equipped with a fleet of convenient zodiacs and able to relocate overnight, these strengthened polar vessels allow visitors to traverse this island group with relative ease, exploring the extensive coastline and stopping at landing sites wherever possible.
While certainly cold, Svalbard’s climate is less frigid than other areas of similar latitudes, thanks to the Northern Atlantic gulf stream. At the height of summer in July, average temperatures can climb to around 8°C, resulting in a brief period of ice thawing in certain areas. The summer sun shines brightly between April and August, setting for the last time in September, before rising above the horizon once again in February. During winter months, when the sun is absent, it is possible to have extended periods where temperatures drop well below -10°C, reaching lows of -20°C or more in places.
Almost all Arctic expedition cruises to Svalbard take place between the months of May to September. During this period, daylight dominates, the climate is at its most welcoming, and the sea ice recedes, making navigation and access easier. May and June are marked by thick flurries of snow, bringing a fresh coating to the islands, and polar bears have emerged with their cubs and can be seen exploring the ice. As the ice thaws in July and August, whale sightings increase and the land becomes more accessible for longer walks. Towards the end of the season, it is possible to spot ivory gull chicks, harp seals, and even female walruses with their cubs.
Often referred to as the “wildlife capital of the Arctic”, Svalbard is crucially important for a variety of animals. Following a history of unsustainable practices such as whaling and trapping, Svalbard now has seven national parks, 21 nature reserves, and one geotope protected area. Together, these designations safeguard around 65% of the land area and 84% of territorial waters. Natural permafrost, low humidity levels, and several other factors, also helped Svalbard become home to the Global Seed Vault which protects duplicates of more than a million seed samples, originating from almost every country in the world.