A Photographers Travel Guide To Spitsbergen, Svalbard & Jan Mayen
The Arctic is an incredibly beautiful place and from the UK and Europe Svalbard is the closest Arctic destination. This unique group of Islands is part of Norway and is an incredible place to visit for the endless landscapes and stunning wildlife which include Whales, Seals, Walrus, Arctic Foxes, Birds and of course the Polar Bears who essentially become land locked by mid summer. The only inhabited island is Spitsbergen and you can visit all year round but most wildlife and other trips run from May to September time when the sea ice in the fjords has broken up enough to move around the island by ship.
What Camera Equipment & Lenses to Take to Spitsbergen
I would try and take a good tripod or monopod. I did take them but I didn’t often use it, even though my big lens is heavy I still prefer to use it hand held as it’s quicker so it will just depend on your preference and level of fitness. If your interested in landscape images I would still recommend a telephoto lens such as the Nikon 70-200mm as a lot of the landscapes are so vast you might want to zoom in on various sections. Obviously take a wider angle lens as well like the Nikon 24-70mm which you will use when your on land. For the wildlife the bigger the lens the better. I use a Nikon 300mm with a TC giving me about 500mm. Even that doesn’t always get you close enough though. I would also recommend polarising filters for all your lenses as there is 24hr sunlight during the summer and this can create a lot of glare at certain times of day. Also take a good supply of batteries because the cold weather will drain your battery life sometimes within 4 or 5 hours.
Getting To Svalbard
There are regular flights to Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen from Norway which are relatively affordable. If you book early enough you can get a return for around £300 with SAS. Some of the ship based tours also offer extension trips at the beginning of the season so you can join the ship on the way up to Spitsbergen and visit islands like the Shetlands and Jan Mayen which can be a great trip in itself if you have the time and budget. Weather can play a big part in visiting some islands like Jan Mayen as the sea can get quite rough in the area which means it’s not always possible to go ashore.
Ship Based Tours vs Land Bases Tours
This really depends on your reason for visiting Spitsbergen. For landscape and wildlife photography I would recommend a ship based tour as this will cover the most ground and get you out to the sea ice which is rich in wildlife. It’s worth bearing in mind that Polar Bears are a real threat and you can’t leave the towns or go wondering around without a rifle so unless your pretty experienced with Arctic conditions and apex predators it’s probably best to join an organised tour. This is to protect the Polar Bears as much as to protect you, even on the tours the guides will be armed although they are well trained and know how to act appropriately so that neither the tourists or the Polar Bears end up in danger of being injured or killed. If you’re just visiting Spitsbergen for an adventure then there are lots of activities like Snowboarding, Skiing, Hiking, Kayaking and more. These can be done from ship or land based trips.
Longyearbyen & Ny Ålesund
Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund are the two small towns you are likely to visit but even here you can find wildlife and there are often Svalbard Reindeer within the towns and a lot of birds such as Arctic Terns. The dog kennels on the edge of Longyearbyen also attracts quite a few bird species including things like the Ivory gull. There are sometimes Arctic Foxes within the town but it’s best to ask locally to find out where they are. If the weather is bad there are a number of museums and other places to visit as well. Ny Ålesund is primarily a research station but there is a small post office and tourist shop and it is a good place to see Arctic birds.
Weather In Spitsbergen
Even though you will most likely be visiting in summer this is still the Arctic. The weather can change quickly and can even be cold when it’s bright sunshine outside. The temperature won’t usually climb much above 0°C in summer but can feel a lot colder if it’s windy or snowing. It does occasionally feel warmer but I have only visited at the beginning of the season as I prefer to see it with as much snow and ice as possible. Within the fjords of Spitsbergen the weather is usually calmer and more sheltered but can get a bit rough as your travel round the outside of the Island.
Clothing To Take To Spitsbergen
Take your warm, waterproof and windproof clothes, thermals and a good pair of sunglasses as the 24 hour sunlight combined with all the snow and ice can be very bright. From my experience if you get a warm sunny day and you’re dressed in 3 layers (Thermal, Warm clothes & wind/waterproof layer) it will feel like a nice day and you might even take off the wooly hat. However if it’s a cold day you will start to feel it after 3 or 4 hours especially if there is any wind or you get stuck in the ice for a few hours.
Accommodation In Longyearbyen
There are plenty of hotels in Longyearbyen ranging in price. The authentic hotels are the best but be aware some have huge windows with no blinds which can be confusing with 24 hour sunlight when your trying to sleep and even more confusing if you’re at the bar. Outside of Longyearbyen most accommodation is based on board ships or camping. There is also the ship in the Ice hotel which I’ve heard good things about but never had the opportunity to stay in.
Food & Meal Costs In Spitsbergen
Anywhere in Scandinavia will seem quite expensive for food. On ship based trips all your meals are usually included so there isn’t to much additional cost to worry about, just a few meals in Longyearbyen before and after your trip. There is a supermarket and shopping centre area in the centre of Longyearbyen as well as a number of restaurants so you have a few options depending on your budget.
As a rough guide I would allow:
Breakfast: 100 NOK
Lunch: 100 / 300 NOK
Dinner: 200 / 500 NOK
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