Wildlife in Svalbard: 10 Animals You Could See on Your Trip

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When people visit Svalbard, I am 99% sure that most of them visit there for the nature and wildlife. I was the same on my initial trip (but then I kept going back for that reason and that I loved the small-town feel and delicious food).

I have been to Svalbard five times and have had the luxury of seeing quite a bit of wildlife there throughout my trips! In this guide, I will highlight the different types of wildlife in Svalbard that you may encounter when there.

Are you planning your trip to Svalbard last minute?

If youʻre booking your trip to Svalbard last minute, I have you covered. Below are some of the top tours, and more!

❄️  Top tours and activities in Svalbard:

  1. Speedboat tour to walrus colony (one of my summer favorites)
  2. Nature and wildlife tour on a boat (a Svalbard top-seller in summer)
  3. Snowmobile to the land of the polar bear (Feb-May top seller!)

🛌  Top hotels and places to stay:

  1. Haugen Pensjonat Svalbard (my favorite place to stay!)
  2. Radisson Blu (good base for activities!)
  3. Coal Minerʻs Cabins (budget option, further from town)

In addition to discussing what you COULD see there (never a guarantee!), I will discuss how I saw the animal(s), which tour I was on, and how likely I think it is that you will see it when you visit Svalbard.

Belugas are some of the unique wildlife in Svalbard
Belugas are some of the unique wildlife in Svalbard

Please do note that there is never a guarantee that you will see anything below. Several animals are seasonal and others are endangered or extremely elusive. So, fingers crossed you will get to see something on your trip!

✏️ GOOD TO KNOW: This guide is primarily for those visiting Longyearbyen and taking day tours around Svalbard. If you go on an overnight cruise or an expedition around Svalbard, it is easier to see many of these animals. Please keep that in mind as you are reading this guide!

Let me know if you have any questions about Svalbard wildlife and the animals that call the archipelago home in the comments. Thanks!

Wildlife in Svalbard

1. Polar Bears

🐻‍❄️ When can you see a polar bear in Svalbard? Year-round. Better chances in summer as you can navigate waters a bit deeper into remote areas. I saw one in September.

👀 How likely are you to see a polar bear in Svalbard? Not that likely. Unless you take a multi-day trip around Spitsbergen.

Polar bear in Svalbard on one of my tours
Polar bear in Svalbard on one of my tours

Often referred to as the ‘King of the Arctic’, polar bears are one of the largest carnivores in the world, and it’s estimated that there are around 3,000 individuals in the Svalbard archipelago (and the Barents Sea).

Due to the sheer amount of polar bears here, you can’t leave the capital of Longyearbyen without a guide (or a firearm, but only locals can get a permit for these).

Polar bears can be viewed all year round in Svalbard, although the best time to see them is typically May to August/September. They can be encountered anywhere in this area of Norway, but sightings are most common on the islands east of Spitsbergen.

🐻‍❄️ GOOD TO KNOW: When I say that there are 3,000 or so polar bears in Svalbard, this does NOT mean to Spitsbergen alone. Spitsbergen is the island where Longyearbyen is and Svalbard is the entire archipelago. Spitsbergen has an estimated 200-300 polar bears living there.

As polar bears are protected by law, no polar bear safaris take place in Svalbard. However, some tours and activities may increase your chances of seeing these amazing creatures.

My Experience Seeing a Polar Bear in Svalbard

I have only seen a polar bear once when visiting Svalbard! It was in September and I actually had no intention of taking day tours around Svalbard. I was only visiting to stamp out of Schengen for visa purposes.

When I arrived, the manager of Haugen Pensjonat (where I was staying) told me that a polar bear had been spotted the day before near Pyramiden by boat tours that had gone out there. She was snacking on a beluga by herself on a beach.

I looked to see if any Pyramiden tours were available the following day and there was one with Henningsen, so I booked and took my chances.

Snowmobile tour to East Spitsbergen (didn't see any, sadly)
Snowmobile tour to East Spitsbergen (didn’t see any)

She was still on that same beach eating her beluga! It was pretty remarkable. I had been to Pyramiden twice before and had no interest in leaving the boat while everyone else was on their excursion there. So, I worked a bit and enjoyed the beautiful nature.

Here are some tours where you have a ‘chance’ of seeing a polar bear (and one where you can simply learn about them):

Pyramiden tour with Henningsen Transport (yes, this goes to a Russian mining town so please take note of that). This was the exact same tour I took when I saw the bear. Seeing bears is rare on this tour, but the nature is so incredible that it makes up for it. This tour runs through the summer months (it goes as early as February but you don’t get far into the fjord then due to sea ice).

Snowmobile trip to the land of the polar bear. This snowmobile tour is with Better Moments and was one of my favorite tours I have ever taken. However, it is not for the non-adventurous. It is a long day and you will snowmobile to East Spitsbergen, an area that is frequented by polar bears (I didn’t see any, though). This tour runs from February to May.

Camp Barentz evening. You will not see a polar bear (most likely) on this evening excursion, but during the summer months, you have the chance to learn more about polar bears! It was a worthwhile evening and taught me a lot about the King of the Arctic.

2. Walruses

🇳🇴 When can you see a walrus in Svalbard? Year-round. There are colonies not far from Longyearbyen in the summer months that you can take a tour to. You can see them on sea ice during the winter months.

👀 How likely are you to see a walrus in Svalbard? Very likely in the summer months. There are established colonies that tours go to. I also saw tons of them in winter on the sea ice.

Famous for their huge size and impressive tusks, seeing walruses in the wild is quite the experience. They can be seen in Svalbard all year round, but viewings are often better during the summer months (May to August).

Borebukta walrus colony on Svalbard
Borebukta walrus colony on Svalbard

Overhunting nearly caused this species to go extinct in Svalbard, with only around 100 individuals left in the early 1950s. In 1952, walruses became protected, increasing their numbers to approximately 500 today.

My Experience Seeing Walruses in Svalbard

I have seen walruses on several tours in Svalbard, actually! Here are some of my recommended favorites:

Walrus safari from Longyearbyen. This tour is your best chance to see walruses hanging out in their colony. My trip took me to Borebukta and we got to watch them be obnoxiously loud on shore (and in the water). It was an epic experience! It runs during the summer months.

Henningsen Transport tours. This company runs boat tours from February until around late September. I never saw any walruses on my September trip with them, but I did see heaps on my February trip and we stopped by a colony of walruses near Pyramiden on my June one. I never saw any around Barentsburg, on the other hand.

3. Arctic Fox

🇳🇴 When can you see an Arctic fox in Svalbard? Year-round. They live on the cliffside and are difficult to spot due to their fur color.

👀 How likely are you to see an Arctic fox in Svalbard? Likely if you take a tour (detailed below) or know what you’re looking for.

The Arctic fox (also known as the polar fox) is one of the cutest species in Svalbard, with its fluffy coat and endearing face. This type of fox also has two distinctive color variations here; white and blue/grey.

🦊 GOOD TO KNOW: The colors noted above (white and blue/grey) are due to seasonality! So the same fox will be blue/grey in the summer months and white in the winter months. It gives it a nice camouflage, and makes it a bit tough to spot them!

There’s a thriving population of arctic foxes on Svalbard and they can be found across most of the archipelago.

Arctic fox in summer in Svalbard
Arctic fox in summer in Svalbard

The best chance of spotting them is by heading to some of the local bird cliffs, where food is plentiful (and it’s where their dens are found during the summer).

My Experience Seeing Arctic Foxes in Svalbard

Arctic foxes are quite prevalent in Svalbard but I have only seen them properly twice when there!

Both were on this wildlife tour by See & Explore. I took this trip during winter and summer (you can read my tour recap here) and I saw an Arctic fox both times. It was cool because they were white in winter and blue/grey in summer.

Arctic fox in Svalbard in winter
Arctic fox in Svalbard in winter

Please note that many of the foxes in this area are marked for research by the local university and wear collars around their necks.

4. Svalbard Reindeer

🦌 When can you see a reindeer in Svalbard? Year-round.

👀 How likely are you to see a reindeer in Svalbard? Almost guaranteed.

The Svalbard reindeer is a unique subspecies that can only be found in this Norwegian archipelago. They have specific characteristics to help them survive in such a harsh climate, including a short neck, stocky legs, and stout body.

Svalbard reindeer have no natural predators so aren’t particularly afraid of humans.

Svalbard reindeer in winter
Svalbard reindeer in winter

They can be found all over Svalbard, with some often venturing into the capital of Longyearbyen, where you’ll likely see them strolling in the middle of the road.

The estimated population of Svalbard reindeer is around 10,000 and they can be seen all year round. April to July is a great time to see them, as this is when male reindeer grow their antlers.

My Experience Seeing Reindeer in Svalbard

They are everywhere. You will see them. I always recommend this wildlife tour by See & Explore, however, as you get to learn more about them and get out of Longyearbyen a bit.

5. Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan

🇳🇴 When can you see a rock ptarmigan in Svalbard? Year-round.

👀 How likely are you to see a rock ptarmigan in Svalbard? Pretty likely if you take the tour I recommend below.

This archipelago is a popular bird-watching spot and is home to the Svalbard rock ptarmigan. This medium-sized bird resides here all year round and has two plumages, which depend on the time of year.

During winter, the Svalbard rock ptarmigan’s plumage is white, while they boast a red-brown color during spring and summer (males get this plumage later on). This is to camouflage with their surroundings.

Ptarmigan in Svalbard in winter
Ptarmigan in Svalbard in winter

This bird species is common and you can easily spot them while out hiking or skiing. A lucky few may even spot the Svalbard rock ptarmigan wandering around Longyearbyen. For the best experience, pack a camera and a telephoto lens.

My Experience Seeing Rock Ptarmigan in Svalbard

I have to again recommend the See & Explore wildlife tour if you’re wanting to see the Svalbard rock ptarmigan on your trip! This is how I saw them.

I don’t recall if I saw them when I took the tour in summer, but I distinctively remember seeing them in winter because I have photos and adored their ‘furry’ legs. They were relatively easy to photograph with a telephoto lens.

6. King Eider Ducks

🇳🇴 When can you see a king eider in Svalbard? summer

👀 How likely are you to see a king eider in Svalbard? Not super likely but the tour I recommend below is how I spotted one.

Keen bird-watchers may also get to see the king eider duck. Males of this species are well-known for their unique appearance, as they have a red beak and colorful bulging forehead, while females are harder to recognize.

In Svalbard, sightings are generally pretty rare. However, they can be spotted along Spitsbergen’s west coast and the Reinsdyrflya Peninsula.

King Eider in Svalbard
King Eider in Svalbard

During the breeding season (June and July), king eider ducks are most often spotted in pairs or small groups. Large groups can form at other times of the year, with mounting flocks sometimes having thousands of birds.

My Experience Seeing King Eider Ducks in Svalbard

I have only seen king eiders once on Svalbard and it was, yet again, on the See & Explore wildlife tour! We saw them super close to Longyearbyen alongside a lot of common eiders.

I didn’t get any solid photos, sadly. I had a super enthusiastic guide who loved birds and it made the experience so much fun!

7. Minke Whales

🇳🇴 When can you see a minke whale in Svalbard? summer

👀 How likely are you to see a minke whale in Svalbard? Pretty likely on long boat excursions in the summer

Minke whales are just one of the whale species that can be found in these waters, and they are regularly spotted off the coast or within the archipelago’s deep fjords. The north and west coasts of Spitsbergen typically offer the best sightings.

Minke whales are generally solitary animals, but two or three whales can sometimes be seen traveling together. Sightings occur during spring and summer (May to September) when they migrate to Svalbard.

Minke whale in Svalbard
Minke whale in Svalbard

Although whales can be spotted from the shore, heading out on a wildlife boat tour such as this one offers you the best chances. You’ll likely spot a range of other wildlife too.

My Experience Seeing Minke Whales in Svalbard

I have seen minke whales every time I have visited from May until September. Plenty of them!

While I have spotted them on a lot of short wildlife cruises (including a walrus tour), I would recommend a trip with Henningsen Transport as they take longer boat trips and it betters your chance of spotting them!

I saw a few on my Barentsburg trip, but I saw a lot of them on the Pyramiden one (or the fjord cruise they offer). Just stay outside and do a little spotting (usually birds are flying overhead). The captain will always let everyone know when he spots one too, which is nice.

8. Beluga Whales

🇳🇴 When can you see a beluga whale in Svalbard? summer

👀 How likely are you to see a beluga in Svalbard? Unlikely, but not impossible.

The unique beluga whale can also be seen in Svalbard. Sightings are relatively common, and they can be spotted in coastal waters, anywhere along the archipelago.

While they are common, spotting them can be a bit more challenging from Longyearbyen without hopping on a boat in the right months.

Also known as ‘white whales’, belugas are often seen in fjords near glacier fronts, due to the increased food supply here. The best time to spot them aligns with Svalbard’s peak whale-watching season (May to September).

Belugas in Svalbard
Belugas in Svalbard

It’s important to note that beluga whales are extremely shy, and they can pick up boat noise from up to 80 km (50 miles) away.

As such, you’ll need to head out on a boat trip with an experienced guide.

My Experience Seeing Beluga Whales in Svalbard

I have seen a pod of beluga whales only once in Svalbard and it was in June on a Pyramiden trip with Henningsen Transport. We were deep in the fjord near a glacier and the captain spotted them.

Best photo I could score
Best photo I could get

They don’t really put on a show or anything, they just look like white lumps in the water.

Truly beautiful and it was one of the coolest wildlife encounters I have had (even if my photos don’t do it justice).

9. Humpback Whales

🐋 When can you see a humpback whale in Svalbard? summer

👀 How likely are you to see a humpback whale in Svalbard? I seem to see more minke than humpbacks. But they are definitely there.

Humpback whales are a migratory species that live in all the world’s oceans. They are easily recognizable and are now protected in Svalbard, which has led to increased sightings in this Norwegian archipelago.

The west coast of Spitsbergen and the Olda and Hinlopen Straits offer some of the best sightings. Back in 2012, a white humpback was even observed in Svalbard!

Humpback whale in Svalbard
Humpback whale in Svalbard

May to September is considered the best time to see humpbacks (as well as other whale species).

This wildlife boat tour is a popular option as you’ll be taken far into the Arctic wilderness, where you’ve got a high chance of spotting other species too.

My Experience Seeing Humpback Whales in Svalbard

I have seen humpback whales more than any other whale around the world but I have only seen a couple in Svalbard’s waters and I don’t have a good photo from when I spotted them (sometimes I just give up and watch through binoculars).

You will need to book a boat tour while there during the summer, which will give you the best chance of spotting them.

10. Seals

🦭 When can you see a seal in Svalbard? all year

👀 How likely are you to see a seal in Svalbard? I find them easier to spot in the winter because they pop their heads up through the sea ice.

There are several species of seal in Svalbard including the ringed seal, bearded seal, harp seal, and harbor seal.

The ringed seal is the most common species of Svalbard, and they are a favorite prey of the polar bear. There are thought to be hundreds of thousands of this species in the archipelago.

I saw so many seals popping their heads up on this ride.
I saw so many seals popping their heads up on this ride

The bearded seal is the largest seal species, coming second to the walrus.

Seals can be found on a year-round basis in Svalbard. You’ll either see them drifting on the coastal ice, on the shore, or swimming. The best way to see them is by heading out on a boat tour.

My Experience Seeing Seals in Svalbard

I have seen seals hanging out on land from far away in Svalbard in the summer months, but I saw a ton of them when on a boat there in February. They are a bit shy but pretty curious and they will pop through the sea ice to check out what is happening.

It is cold on the boat, but if you really want to spot one, it gives you a pretty good chance! The waters are so quiet in the winter months but I did see a lot of seals and walruses enjoying the sea ice.

Do you have any questions about spotting wildlife in Svalbard? Let me know in the comments. Thanks!

More Svalbard Travel Guides

Pin this Svalbard Wildlife Spotting Guide

The wildlife in Svalbard is what truly makes the destination unmatched! This guide covers all the Svalbard wildlife I've spotted (and how you can see them too). | Polar bears Svalbard | Svalbard polar bears | Svalbard walrus | Walruses in Svalbard | Arctic Fox Svalbard | Svalbard whales | Svalbard reindeer | Visit Svalbard | Svalbard birds | Svalbard seals

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