Best time to visit Spitsbergen


Temperature & Rainfall

The best time to visit Spitsbergen is midsummer, when the sun never dips – though it never quite warms the chilly landscape, either. Ice floes disperse, allowing ships to circumnavigate, and June is prime polar bear viewing season. The endless days allow for wildlife watching amid the wildflowers, plus activities such as kayaking or diving – though there is little snow. For winter sports, go April-May, when the island is ice-clad, days are longer and there are few other visitors; the Northern Lights make their appearance from late Sept.

WHEN TO VISIT SPITSBERGEN & WHEN NOT TO


A MONTH BY MONTH GUIDE

The sun doesn’t rise in January and it’s really cold, -13°C to -20°C, and it can be horribly windy, too, thanks to cold polar air from the north meeting mild, wet sea air from the south. This creates low pressure, changing weather and fast winds. Short breaks to see the Northern Lights, hike on glaciers and dog sled run now.

February and early March are the coldest times of the year, hitting almost -15°C. Remember, though, that temperatures fluctuate the most in winter and can drop as low as -30°C. March is a great time to spot the Northern Lights, go dog sledding and explore ice caves. The sun peeps briefly above the horizon in mid February; by mid March the daylight lasts for about 12 hours.

April remains cold, with snow frequent, but the middle of the month, the sun no longer sets and is up all day.

By May, the polar summer is in full swing, with constant daylight and highs of 0°C.

May, June, July and August are the best time for a small ship cruise, when waterways are no longer frozen over with ice, to spot wildlife such as Arctic foxes, polar bears and whales, and to try adventurous activities such as diving, hiking and sea kayaking. If the weather is calm and pleasant enough, wildlife safaris on open RIB boats are possible now. You can also go dog ‘sledding’, using carts with wheels.

Temperatures below freezing are rare between late June and early August, but it’s also very unusual for it to be warmer than 10°C. The clouds and wind influence how cold it actually feels and occasionally in summer, you can sit happily in a t-shirt enjoying bright, warm sun.

July is the warmest time of year in Spitsbergen, but temperatures still only nudge up to about 8°C. Spitsbergen also gets most of its rainfall during July and August, while June, July and August can be foggy.

The sun begins to set again in late August and, after the milder days of summer, September is the last month with average temperatures above freezing, at just 2°C. The Northern Lights begin to flicker across the skies towards the end of the month.

From the end of October, the sun does not make it above the horizon and remains down all day until mid February. This is a great time to spot the Aurora.

Snow starts to fall in earnest in October, with a 79% chance of snow in November, and a 77% chance in December. The snows don’t ease off significantly until late April. Small ship cruises don’t run during this time, as waterways are frozen over and access to land impossible.

Things to do in Spitsbergen


WHAT TO DO IN SPITSBERGEN AND WHAT NOT TO

Things to do in
Spitsbergen...


It’s rare to visit a place where wildlife reigns, but Spitsbergen is still very much at the mercy of Mother Nature’s weird and wonderful creatures.
Keeping an eye out for polar bears is a fundamental part of any Spitsbergen holiday – whether for your photo album, or for your own safety – but your cruise could be re-routed to bob along beside a blue whale, or you could be called from your cabin to coo at fluffy Arctic foxes hunting on the ice.

You may be on a small ship cruise – but this is no excuse to put your feet up. Daily excursions are part of any Spitsbergen tour, with zodiac rides into the fjords and sea kayaking in the inlets alongside whales and walrus. Experienced – and intrepid – divers can book a specialist scuba trip, and be amazed and the amount of life in the icy waters. Some cruises spend more time ashore than others, giving you time to trek up mountains, enter ice caves, trek across glaciers or, in winter, try snowshoeing or sledging – pulled by your own pack of huskies.

Take your shoes off! It may seem like an odd request in such a chilly climate – but most public buildings in Longyearbyen, including museums, shops and hotels, request guests to remove their shoes on entry. Fortunately, warm slippers are often available.

Things not to do in
Spitsbergen...


Ignore your guide. The only reason that polar bear attacks aren’t a frequent occurrence is because of all the safety measures in place: to leave Longyearbyen you must be armed with a rifle and be skilled in using it, but the odd bear has been known to stray into the town centre (where loaded firearms are not permitted), and doors are reportedly left unlocked should anyone need to seek urgent shelter. But bears aren’t the only issue; fog and storms can descend out of nowhere, and kayaking presents its own hazards. But don’t panic – your tour company will be more than prepared for any eventuality; follow their advice, and you’ll be just fine.

Choose a large ship. All our Spitsbergen holidays are “small ship cruises”; as well as being much more environmentally friendly, they bring passengers closer to the icy landscapes and their resident wildlife. Additionally, in January 2015 a new law banned vessels using heavy fuel oil from the waters around Svalbard in order to protect the marine life. This means that larger cruise liners may no longer visit – so a small ship cruise should definitely be on your wishlist.

Die. No, really. It’s been forbidden to die in Longyearbyen for over 75 years, as the icy temperatures prevent decomposition – meaning the only graveyard is full. No one is sure, however, what the penalty may be for breaking this law…

Spitsbergen travel advice


TIPS FROM OUR FRIENDS IN SPITSBERGEN

Tips on when to go


Charlotte Caffrey, marine scientist and co-founder of our supplier Aqua-Firma: “The seasons are very different. In June, there’s a lot of snow and ice, and over a decade or so of polar bear watching this has proven best for seeing bears hunt on northern ice. As the season goes on, you get a melting of the ice which permits a circumnavigation. This is a longer trip and you’re getting very different aspects of the archipelago. By September, there’s no longer 24-hour daylight and you’ll get more evening time but still plenty of wildlife and beautiful sunsets. The birdlife stays from June into early September – there’s a lot of food around and the breeding activity is really high. So you have to think: what do I want to see? How long do I want to be there? Which parts do I want to explore?”
Andrew Appleyard from our supplier Exodus, on the advantages of the midnight sun: “Our summer voyages to the Arctic are in 24 hours of daylight! This makes for stunning wildlife viewing – but expect to get woken up at 3am if we see polar bears on the horizon or a pod of whales emerging from the bows of the ship.”
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Wildlife tips


Andrew Appleyard, from our supplier Exodus, had a magical experience watching foxes hunting on Spitsbergen:
“Just outside of Longyearbyen is probably the best place to see Arctic foxes. They’re at the bottom of one of the bird colonies there. The hatchlings fly from the cliff face straight into the ocean, but quite a lot of them don’t make it. They bounce on the tundra, and the Arctic foxes pick them off. They then bury them in the ground for future use if they get enough. There are a number of Arctic foxes, so a lot of that birds from that colony don’t make it to the water’s edge. The foxes also take eggs from the rookery edge – it’s a great place to see them in action.”

Beyond the bear


Andrew Appleyard, from our supplier Exodus: “In the Arctic, the quest for the polar bear is the one that everyone’s there for. That makes it, to be honest, a bit of a one-trick pony. But for me, the birdlife up there is absolutely astounding. Beautiful eider ducks, the skuas, the phalaropes... for me, the birding was the highlight of the entire trip.”

Abandoning
the itinerary


Charlotte Caffrey, from our supplier Aqua-Firma: "It is important to understand these voyages are not like a normal holiday with a fixed itinerary. It is an adventure in the High Arctic and nature will reveal what she will reveal. We try to make the best of opportunities as they arise despite what your proposed itinerary had planned For example there are times we have spotted a beached whale carcass with 15 polar bears feeding on it, in which case all were happy to bypass what we were going to see to visit that day. There is of course ice and weather and everything else to consider too; so you have to book very much with an open mind."

Spitsbergen travel advice


TIPS FROM OUR TRAVELLERS

At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travellers are often... other travellers. They always return from our tours with packing tips, weather reports, ideas about what to do - and opinions about what not to.

We have selected some of the most useful Spitsbergen travel advice that our guests have provided over the years to help you make the very most of your holiday - and the space inside your suitcase.
Don't set your heart on seeing anything specific. Be prepared for the changes in weather. It's not as challenging as I expected - to take account of the huge spectrum of ages and abilities. But most of all HAVE FUN! – Lisa Thomas, on our Arctic diving holiday

The most memorable bit? Finding a land without paths; experiencing the silence and utter beauty of Svalbard; seeing wildlife I had never dreamt of; meeting some very special people. Read all the literature carefully – it was comprehensive and covered practically everything one would wish to know. Do some long walks beforehand, especially uphill, if possible. – Jane Mackay, on our Arctic sailing voyage

Don't expect a close up of a polar bear, that would be very rare, they are usually spotted in the distance on a mountainside or beach. If you want a close up of them go to Churchill with the other tourists. – Keith Brignell, on our Arctic sailing voyage

Be flexible and do not expect much of what’s written in the 'final itinerary' to happen. Decisions are made everyday depending on the weather. – Annamaria Cozza, on our Arctic sailing voyage

Be prepared for long, action-packed days. Ensure your wellies are comfortable or bring walking boots to change into once you have left the Zodiac. Listen to your guide - he knows what he is talking about and is responsible for the safety of you and the rest of the group - don't wander off. Try to read a little about Spitsbergen/the Arctic before you go - there is far too much to learn in the two weeks! – Julie Davis, on our Arctic sailing voyage
 
Only go if you are truly interested in all sorts of wildlife and nature. Don't expect a great variety of plants and animals - but what there is, is spectacular.  David Rumsey, on an Arctic icebreaker cruise

When inside of the boat you can be relatively warm – have those layers for going out on deck where... you can watch the midnight sun or enjoy the on deck BBQ. Make sure you have a camera with long range focus as you are often at a distance from the wildlife so as not to disturb them. Take your swimming gear as you do get the opportunity to swim in arctic waters – everyone that did did survive! - Susie Barrett, on our Spitsbergen wildlife cruise
Photo credits: [Spitsbergen landscape: Rob Oo] [Small cruising: Aqua-Firma] [Arctic fox: Billy Lindblom] [Hiking a glacier: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Hiking: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Longyearbyen: Nicolò Lazzati]
Written by Vicki Brown
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