Svalbard – polar bear country

At 78° N – a mere 12 degrees from the North Pole – Svalbard is as far north as I’ve ever been. I’m here with my oldest daughter, to have a look at the Russian Arctic mining settlements.

Looks cool and refreshing, doesn’t it?

Svalbard is more commonly referred to as Spitsbergen in English. Spitsbergen is in fact the name of the largest island in the group, but Svalbard is the name of the entire archipelago. And let me hasten to add, it has nothing to do with Philip Pullman’s fictional winter kingdom of armoured bears. That’s a parallel universe.

Hang on one minute… Russian, you ask? Isn’t Svalbard Norwegian? It is indeed. But while the Treaty of Svalbard establishes full Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago, it also ensures all signatory parties the right to do research and commercial activity. Such as mining.

Barentsburg is Russia’s last remaining settlement in the Arctic. However, just as interesting is the ghost town Pyramiden, abandoned on a no doubt chilly winter day in 1998. More on those two outposts later.

Grumant 3, Svalbard, Arctic Norway Grumant 2, Svalbard, Arctic Norway
Grumant, another abandoned Russian settlement

More polar bears than humans

Svalbard is rugged, absurdly beautiful and has more polar bears than humans. This is Arctic wild country and a trip out of town requires a rifle for protection. About ten years ago, two students visiting from the mainland, set off to see a friend in Nybyen on the outskirts of Longyearbyen. The friend wasn’t home, so they decided to take a more roundabout, scenic walk back to town. Bad decision! As it was an impulse, they didn’t bring guns and when a bear showed up, one of the girls became dinner. The other girl saved herself by jumping down the mountainside. According to the local newspaper, the victim had tried to lie still and play dead. That doesn’t work with polar bears. Consider yourselves warned!

Svalbard has strict rules against killing polar bears, though. Self-defense is the only acceptable reason to shoot at these large, Arctic animals and a scrupulous regimen must be followed: first, fire warning shots to give the bear a chance to come to its senses and back off. If the bear still advances, it’s you or teddy. A rifle is required; no mere shotgun will do. If you do kill a bear, the incident must be reported to the sysselmann (governor of Svalbard) immediately, preferably with witnesses corroborating your story, and the carcass must be surrendered. The governor then launches an investigation.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway

The sight of guns, even if ever so casually slung across a shoulder, unsettles me somewhat. In mainland Norway, not even the police carry guns. But at least you can’t take the guns inside with you.

Kroa, Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway

Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital, is an affluent city of about 2 000 residents who enjoy not only extraordinary nature and a healthy, outdoorsy lifestyle – but also very high salaries and low taxes. Naturally, the majority are Norwegians. Perhaps more surprisingly though, the largest minority group is Thais. And unlike many Western countries, Svalbard is not just home to Thai women. This miniature diaspora also counts several Thai men and whole families.


A few more Svalbard photos for you to enjoy:

Skansebukta 4
Skansebukta (Skanse Bay)

Esmarkbreen (Esmark Glacier), Svalbard, Arctic Norway
Esmarkbreen (Esmark Glacier)

Sel, Esmarkbreen 2
Lazy seal at Esmark Glacier

Alex, catching some sun. Or perhaps an Arctic nap.

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  1. Wow this is great insight into a part of the world unknown to me. The pictures of the water, snow and glaciers are truly amazing! Thank you for sharing this and if I visit I’ll remember to bring my rifle. Yikes!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 29 June 2011 at 1816 - Reply

      @Debbie – thanks 🙂
      It’s actually possible to rent rifles in Longyearbyen, if you can prove you know how to use one.

  2. Cathy Sweeney 29 June 2011 at 1938 - Reply

    Love this post! Longyearbyen sounds fascinating. You really give good insight into what it’s like to visit and what it might be like to live there. Looks so beautiful, too.

  3. David Bennett 29 June 2011 at 2114 - Reply

    It looks cold, fresh, and inviting – with a touch of ‘The Russians are coming!’.

    78˚north is a long way north – sounds great.

  4. Vera Marie Badertscher 29 June 2011 at 2129 - Reply

    You’re once again in an off the beaten track place with gorgeous photos to prove it. Wow! Thanks for introducing this beauty to me.

  5. Richard Powell 29 June 2011 at 2330 - Reply

    I hope to be visiting Longyearbyen next April for some last minute training before walking from Camp Barneo to the geographic north pole. It was great to get some insight in to the area. Thanks

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 30 June 2011 at 0003 - Reply

      @Richard – how exciting! Best of luck with that!

  6. adventureswithben 30 June 2011 at 0031 - Reply

    Seriously, carrying around a rifle? Wow. Did you see any bears?

  7. Jeremy Branham 30 June 2011 at 0118 - Reply

    If you know anything about polar bears, you know how guns are a necessity. Meanest, most aggressive bears on the planet. Fantastic creatures but you don’t want to EVER get too close to one – or you wish you would have had a gun too!

  8. Christy @ Technosyncratic 30 June 2011 at 0123 - Reply

    I know polar bears are supposed to be sort of mean, but I can’t help but love them! I can’t imagine anyone killing such beautiful animals, though (except for, well, self-defense).

    Gorgeous photos!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 30 June 2011 at 0730 - Reply

      @Christy – Thanks 🙂

      I’m not sure if mean is the right word. Polar bears usually only attack if they’re threatened or provoked. Or if they’re hungry – and then not to maim, but to eat. Scary as that sounds, it’s nature. I agree they are beautiful and I can’t imagine killing one either. Hope I’ll never have to.

  9. Turkey's For Life 30 June 2011 at 0803 - Reply

    Wow, absolutely gorgeous photos – although I don’t think I’d be setting off to take any photos on a scenic route in polar bear country. Even the sight of a gun scares me, nevermind the thought of warning shots BEFORE you have to shoot at them in fear of becoming lunch. They’re beautiful animals – at a distance. 🙂 Looking forward to more posts from here. It looks so remote.

  10. Cherina 30 June 2011 at 1043 - Reply

    Beautiful photos, Sophie! Svarlbard is high on my list! I just watched a fantastic BBC documentary a couple of nights ago about the Svarlbard polar bears. It’s called Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice, if you are interested.

  11. robin 30 June 2011 at 1230 - Reply

    Those Russian settlements look ghostly in a very cool way.

    Another fascinating post 🙂

  12. Italian Notes 30 June 2011 at 1611 - Reply

    For someone who has not been further north than Bodø this is really fascinating. Wouldn’t want to meet one of the bear though.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 30 June 2011 at 1623 - Reply

      @Italian Notes: Well, Bodø is well north of the Arctic Circle, so that’s pretty good in itself.

  13. Abby 30 June 2011 at 1825 - Reply

    These are the most breathtaking photos I’ve seen in a long time. Doesn’t seem real!

  14. Laurel 30 June 2011 at 2057 - Reply

    Unbelievably cool! Would love to go to a place where polar bears outnumber people. I’m not scared of other bears, but polar bears really do scare me, although I would still love to see one in the wild – if I was protected.

  15. Sabrina 30 June 2011 at 2207 - Reply

    I love the different shades of ice in the first picture: the one in the front is so clean and picture perfect and the one in the back is much darker/dirtier. Nice shot!

  16. Andrea 30 June 2011 at 2230 - Reply

    Very interesting place. I’d love to see polar bears – have only seen them in zoos or Sea World. Wouldn’t want to get too close, though!

  17. Vi 30 June 2011 at 2253 - Reply

    Nice pictures, but I am not sure I would love to live there even if you can get big salary .

  18. Leigh 1 July 2011 at 0121 - Reply

    What a grand set of photos – especially love the contrast of the colourful houses against a snowy background. In Canada, people head to Churchill, Manitoba to see polar bears in October and November.
    Curious if you’re doing an article on the life of a miner. Mu husband (a geologist) has spent a lot of summers near the Arctic Circle in Canada – with nary a polar bear in sight. Wolves are another matter.

  19. Don Faust 1 July 2011 at 0155 - Reply

    Sophie – nice photos! I especially like the one of the colorful houses in Longyearbyen. Are those small mountains in the back or large hills left over from a mining operation?

    I’ve always wanted to see Polar Bears – thought about making a trip to Churchill in Canada. I understand making a lot of noise and waving your arms does not work like with grizzlies and browns – I guess if they are hungry, you become snack time.

  20. RyukyuMike 1 July 2011 at 0327 - Reply

    Love the photos and information, as always. A polar nap? LOL

  21. Sensibletraveler 1 July 2011 at 0414 - Reply

    I really like the photos of the colorful houses also. Growing up in the Midwest, I guess the sight of guns isn’t that out of the ordinary.

  22. Randy 1 July 2011 at 0602 - Reply

    Wow, this so cool! Polars bears and ghost towns, now that is my kind of trip

  23. Michael Figueiredo 1 July 2011 at 0614 - Reply

    Beautiful shots! I especially love the one with the colored houses. 🙂

  24. Muza-chan 1 July 2011 at 0818 - Reply

    Great article and I love the pictures 🙂

  25. Sonja 1 July 2011 at 0940 - Reply

    Absolutely stunning. Can’t imagine going there.

  26. David Bennett 1 July 2011 at 1114 - Reply

    By coincidence, Channel 4 TV showed a program about polar bears in Svalbard in the series ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ last night.

    The series follows a team of doctors and scientists carrying out autopsies on elephants, giraffes and other big animals, trying to learn more about them – what they died from, what special species characteristics enables their species to live as it does, etc.

    Last night’s programme was different in that it was ‘in the field’ in Svalbard and the polar bears on which they carried out autopsies were ones that the local Inuit hunters had killed for food.

    Some of the things we learned are that a polar bear’s fur is not white – it is transparent and a polar bear skin is black all over.

    The reason the fur looks white is because the light travels through the hollow hairs of its fur and then bounces off the black skin.

    Heat is trapped in the air layer next to the skin while some light bounces off and gives the appearance that the fur is white.

    Also, that polar bears are suffering from biological changes brought on by ingesting materials such as those in the flame retardants used in the plastics in computers and mobile phones.

    When these products are recycled in countries like India – broken down by burning to get at the expensive metals within – the flame retardant chemicals escape into the atmosphere and are carried thousands of miles around the world and up the food chain to polar bears (and I guess to the Inuit who eat the bears).

    Teams of scientists are studying how polar bears are suffering from ingesting these compounds – losing sexuality, developing tumors, becoming weaker, losing offspring.

    The link to the program is here:
    Polar Bear: Inside Nature’s Giant’s Special

  27. Kymri 3 July 2011 at 0235 - Reply

    Great article! I never would have guessed a Thai population there, very interesting!

  28. Andrew Graeme Gould 3 July 2011 at 2248 - Reply

    A very interesting post on a place that I knew nothing at all about. Great images, especially that first one and the photo of the colourful houses.

  29. Tim 5 July 2011 at 1400 - Reply

    Svalbard just about tops my list of travel desires. Interesting about the Russian settlements, haven’t heard much about those. Hope you’ll write about that as well.

  30. Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 July 2011 at 1440 - Reply

    @Tim – I will add posts about the Russian settlements in a bit – both the eerie ghost town Pyramiden and the somewhat livelier Barentsburg.

  31. I love those colorful houses… and I’m a big fan of polar bears. I would love to see one in the wild someday… from far away.

  32. Suzy 11 July 2011 at 0552 - Reply

    That landscape seems surreal! I think seeing rifles everywhere would unsettle me too. It’s pretty strange to find a place you need a gun on your back for fear of polar bears attacking. Thanks for sharing!

  33. Traveling Ted 12 July 2011 at 1930 - Reply

    Most bears attack because they think you are a threat. Playing dead sometimes works in these scenarios as they realize you are not a threat and move on. Polar bears attacks for food. Playing dead just makes it easy for them.

    It is like 90 degrees and humid right now. The cold landscape looks really appealing to me right now.

  34. Jason 15 July 2011 at 1551 - Reply

    You are the only person I know who has ever been to Svalbard. Great photos and interesting commentary on the polar bears and guns. Next time I’m being attacked by a polar bear I will not play dead.

  35. Paul 15 July 2011 at 1727 - Reply

    I’m American, so I’m used to seeing guns 🙂

    I loved this post. Svalbard looks sooo cool and stunning! I’m fascinated by the Arctic.

  36. Louise 1 August 2011 at 1203 - Reply

    Love this article! The nature looks rugged and so stunning, and then those colourful houses such a cool contrast to the stark surroundings.

  37. Danielle 2 August 2011 at 0127 - Reply

    I’ve always wanted to go to Norway! What an amazing trip it must have been. Looking forward to reading more of your blog!! 🙂

  38. Marie 2 September 2011 at 0801 - Reply

    I love Spitsbergen and your photos are absolutely gorgeous!

  39. Polar Bear Pictures 23 October 2011 at 1111 - Reply

    Looks like an amazing place. More polar bears than humans – that’s freaky.

  40. T. Ganesh 16 February 2012 at 0957 - Reply

    Very informative article. Next time I visit Norway this would certainly be in my destination list. Just watched a TV program on Nat Geo HD on the incident that happened 10 years ago as mentioned in the post.

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