Early vs. Late Season Svalbard

Gemma Bradley and Mike Gurrey

17 Oct 2017

the best time to plan your svalbard safari

One of the most common questions we are asked here at Natural World Safaris is ‘when is the best time to travel?’ If you look at different sources, you'll be bombarded with theories stating that certain times are better for various reasons. When visiting Svalbard, high up in the Arctic Circle, it's especially important to choose the right season for you. Two of our polar team members visited the archipelago this year, Gemma during the early season and Mike during the late season, and have compared the different aspects of their trips below.

Wildlife

Early season

During the early season, it is common to see polar bears strolling across the ice with a picturesque white backdrop as the snow is starting to melt for the summer season. You may see Arctic foxes starting to shed their usual white, fluffy coats to reveal darker fur underneath, as they get ready to blend in with the muted browns and greys of the Arctic tundra. Walrus swim alongside your boat and congregate on the coast. 

You can also watch the gulls, guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins flock to the cliffs to enjoy the vegetation that has thawed out from the harsh, cold winter.

Late season

Travelling to Svalbard in the later months means you are more likely to see polar bears relaxing in the sunshine amidst the fresh green flora, as the snow has melted during the summer. You may even be able to spot Arctic fox cubs as they play and run over the tundra with their siblings. Sail northwest around Spitsbergen to Olgastretet to watch 100,000 guillemots line the cliffs, with the young babies jumping into the seas below. See how close the captain braved the cliffs in the photo below - almost close enough to touch!

Landscapes

Early season

Svalbard in the early season is a true winter wonderland – the slopes are adorned with a fresh, white carpet of snow! From precipitous mountaintops to majestic icebergs floating along the frozen sea, this stark but beautiful wilderness is the perfect location for anyone wanting to experience some awe-inspiring sights. Your photos of polar bears with a snowy backdrop are sure to wow each and every person that is lucky enough to see them!

Late season

Due to the temperature in the late season, the snow is beginning to melt, so the landscape has changed to reveal a gorgeous palette of browns and greens across the tundra, rather than the snow-white landscapes that are so often associated with Svalbard. Flowers in the Arctic? Yes! They may not be big, but they are beautiful. What makes them more beautiful is that they survive up here beyond the Arctic Circle, which is truly amazing. 

Purple, pink, blue and white petals cover the tundra with a blanket of colour.

Ice

Early season

In May, there is an abundance of the spectacular pack ice that makes for irresistible photos and those ‘pinch me, is this real?’ moments. As your small ship gently breaks the sheer volume of pack ice in its wake, you can’t help but be totally mesmerised by its beauty. Turn your head to see a polar bear clambering around on the ice, searching for a seal's breathing hole, and you’ve just about experienced one of the best days of your life.

Late season

If you want to be able to circumnavigate Svalbard with ease, then August is the time. The ice shelf has moved north so it's possible to explore the very northern tip of the islands and hit 80° north in search of the ice pack. Your trip may take you almost 2000km around the Svalbard Archipelago taking in both the west and east coasts, sailing past too many fjords to mention and an untold number of glaciers!

Weather

Early season

Arriving in the Arctic during springtime is still a slight shock to the system. As you step outside onto the deck of the ship the cold air hits you, and thanks to the sub-zero temperatures you'll feel like you're stepping inside a giant, frosty freezer! However, with each breath you take, looking across the ice-cold water, you do get the true Arctic experience! After the initial shock you get to jump into a snowsuit (the height of Arctic fashion) that keeps you super warm and cosy - the perfect conditions to sit patiently and wait to spot a magnificent polar bear.

Late season

The weather is noticeably warmer in Svalbard during the late season - Mike didn't even wear gloves during any of his zodiac outings... 

No gloves in the Arctic? Who would have thought!

Temperatures may even reach as high as 12°C, and although it will feel a little bit cooler once you factor in the wind chill, you'll still be able to sit outside on the deck of your ship underneath a clear blue nighttime sky. You may even be treated to a midnight gin and tonic or a barbecue on the beach, all while enjoying perfect sunshine and a stunning backdrop of snow-topped mountains and glaciers... it doesn't get much better than that!

In conclusion, Svalbard is a beautiful destination regardless of the time of year. The differences between the early and late season are notable, but you are guaranteed an unforgettable experience no matter when you decide to travel. Whether you want to brave freezing temperatures and travel through snow and ice as far as the eye can see, or forego a few layers and watch as the Arctic tundra awakens from its slumber, a trip to Svalbard will provide memories to last a lifetime. 

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