With just 2700 people in a region the size of Sri Lanka (population 21 million), Svalbard is overwhelmingly arctic wilderness. In addition to the glaciers that cover 60% of the islands, those who visit often hope to catch a glimpse of the wildlife that far outnumbers the human population. And 2018 is turning out to be an excellent year to see some of the Arctic's most majestic creatures.
Blue whales - the largest animal ever to inhabit the earth - have been sighted repeatedly near the main settlements and surrounding regions. Ecotour operators recently reported seeing 6 blue whales on a single trip and 4 blue whales on another. This in addition to many sightings of fin whales (the second largest whale on earth), minke whales, and humpback whales with their majestic breachings out of the water. Just a couple weeks ago, a humpback whale swam into the waters of Adventfjorden to feed right in front of the main settlement of Longyearbyen for all to see. Beluga whales have also regularly swum by the windows of Svalbarði headquarters this year, reminding us of just how special our home is and how vital preserving the Arctic wilderness and its wildlife is.
Polar bears have also been spotted regularly, in ways both majestic and sometimes sensitive. The region of Tempelfjorden not far from the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden had to be closed to anyone wanting to pass on snow scooters this spring due to the presence of mating polar bears who were originally seen by a local tour guide. Since then, several bears have approached Longyearbyen and either left on their own or were chased off for the safety of both people and bears. Most famously, one particularly rambunctious bear broke into the food storage shed last month at Isfjord Radio (a communications station turned wilderness tourist accommodation) and only fled when it heard the governor's helicopter approaching. The pictures of the bear managing to squeeze out an impossibly small window made headlines far beyond Svalbard.
The most recent sighting near Longyearbyen was just a couple weeks ago when a bear was spotted eating a washed up minke whale corpse. While the limited meat left on the corpse means this isn't likely to be a multi-week visit, its position near a main boat traffic route has allowed many people to safely view the Arctic's apex predator in its natural habit from a safe distance.
But while viewing the wildlife in Svalbard is an amazing (even life-changing) experience, not disturbing nature is vital to the preservation of the Arctic ecosystem. A fact that keeps the Governor of Svalbard (Sysselmannen) busy in ensuring the rules for wildlife viewing are followed. By law, animals are not to be chased, approached too closely, or otherwise disturbed. While reindeer are perhaps the most well known of the animals who freely roam into town (indeed, I was once walking with my head down in deep thought only to look up and see one staring straight at me only a metre away!) deliberately disturbing them is forbidden.
At present, the populations of most of Svalbard's animals are healthy. Polar bears, arctic fox, reindeer, whales, walrus, seals and others are generally doing well. But with climate change rapidly warming the air and water around Svalbard, and sea ice becoming scarcer, the challenges for their habitat and food supply are growing. This makes it all the more important to not disturb them and add new problems. But safely viewing from a distance with responsible ecotourism is a positive that means those who visit Svalbard go away spreading the message of the beauty and importance of preserving Svalbard, the Arctic, and our planet from the threat of global warming.