Do you know where Svalbard is?
Do you know where Svalbard is?
I do like to mix my travel destinations between “normal” and slightly “unusual”… and Svalbard was certainly one of the latter. Remote, wild places can be just as fascinating as major cultural and historic centres! My trip here was possible by Zegrahm Expeditions.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that lies in the Arctic Ocean about halfway between mainland Europe and the North Pole. Svalbard (or Svalbarð), literally means “cold shores” in Old Norse. I was exploring this group of islands in July – or in the midst of summer if you will- and from these photographs I am sure you can tell that it was rather chilly… Cold shores for sure! In fact, about two thirds of the archipelago is permanently covered by snow and ice.
The Svalbard archipelago was officially discovered in 1596 by Dutch seafarer Willem Barentsz, who at that time was looking for the Northeast passage to Asia. Following reports that the islands were swarming with whales, as well as seals and walrus, Svalbard became the base for whaling in early 17th century, and it continued to be so until the mid-18th century. Many courageous men, mostly from the Netherlands and England, came here in the pursuit of wealth, willing to put up with the harsh conditions of the Arctic in order to make their fortunes. Whale oil was very much in demand in Europe at that time; it was used in oils and lighting, and in preparation of leathers and textiles. In addition, whalebone (baleen) was used in corsets and parasols. The unrestricted whaling industry ultimately resulted in the collapse of the bowhead whale population around the archipelago.
Northernmost settlement in the world…
Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent population, estimated at just over 2,500 people, consisting of mostly Norwegians, some Russians, Ukranians and a few others. Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of the archipelago, is the world’s most northernmost town; and the majority of Svalbard’s population actually lives here. Nowadays, this town is the base for exploring the many islands of Svalbard. View my full post on Longyearbyen here.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault…
Longyearbyen is also home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault; the vault was created to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds, which are duplicate samples of those held in gene banks all around the world. The idea is to hedge against the potential loss of crop diversity in case of some global crisis; and Svalbard’s remote location, cold climate, and geologic stability make it a perfect place for such a storage facility.
The barren beauty and the spectacular wildlife…
The landscapes of Svalbard are both rough and exotic; here, you are able to appreciate the raw beauty of nature. Here also, you really experience the sublime power of nature: expanses of rugged snow-capped mountains surrounded by seas of burnished silver; lovely stretches of beaches composed of the softest grey sand; majestic glaciers unhurriedly making there way downhill and, as they reach the water, the accompanying thunder of glacial calving as huge pieces fall into the water; soft, plush carpets of moss and grass, interspersed with massive rocks in the southern parts of the archipelago.
At first glance, the islands might seen barren; but if you spend a little time looking, you will ultimately realise that Svalbard is actually full of wildlife. The archipelago is home to polar bears, arctic foxes, reindeer and a variety of marine mammals including walrus, seals, whales. In the short summer months, the sparse but pretty little flowers are in bloom, adding a slight, but welcome touch of colour.
And now for polar bears…
The Arctic is synonymous with polar bears, creatures much admired and feared by both local dwellers and visitors. One of the main reason I decided to go to Svalbard was the hope of finally laying my eyes on one of these majestic creatures; we always talk about polar bears, but how many of us actually get to see them in real life? I must say that my first spotting of a polar bear was one of the most exciting things to happen this summer!
Polar bears are fascinating creatures: they are excellent swimmers, capable of swimming distances of over 200 kilometers; they catch and kill seals on ice; and they are one of the very few mammals that hunt and kills humans for food. Unlike brown bears, all of which hibernate during the icy winter, it is only the pregnant females that hibernate over winter. And the pelage of a polar bear is actually creamy yellow rather than white, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when seen against the white backdrop of ice and snow.
All in all, Svalbard is one of the most ‘other-worldly’ places I have ever visited, and a destination well worth considering when one is looking for something on the “unusual” end of the travel spectrum.