One of the most remote places available to watch polar bears, the cluster of high-Arctic islands (called an archipelago) known as Svalbard provides a fascinating glimpse into the summer world of the polar bear as well as other Arctic wildlife. Spitsbergen is the largest island in the group, and most cruises explore its coves and inlets.
Svalbard lies some 400 miles northwest of Norway in the Barents Sea and only about 600 miles from the North Pole. Its largest island is called Spitsbergen, and most wildlife tours and cruises focus around this island. Though explored and settled by many historical and ethnic groups such as the Vikings, Dutch and Russians, Svalbard’s possession was guaranteed to Norway in a 1920 treaty.
The Dutchman Willem Barents (for whom the Barents Sea is named) made the first recorded discovery of Spitsbergen and Svalbard in 1596. Only a few years later, the islands became headquarters for many international whaling fleets. The Greenland whale, also known as the bowhead whale, was quickly eliminated from these waters, and remains critically endangered even today. The Dutch alone took probably in excess of 60,000 whales from the area. Today, one can expect to see the remains of many of the old whaling stations, preserved in the dry cold of the Arctic.
The largest town on Spits bergen is Longyearbyen, where all passengers arriving by air land. Despite the obvious take on the origin of the town’s name (“It’s bein’ a long year, eh Ollie?”), it was derived from the town’s founder, John Monroe Longyear and the Norwegian word for city (byen).
In 1906, Longyear, who hailed from Boston, helped start a coal mine as well as the town bearing his name. Coal mining still supports roughly half of Longyearbyen’s inhabitants. The town’s economy has broadened quite a bit since the early days. Scientific research and tourism play an increasing part of the town’s revenue. Some 90,000 passengers arrive and depart each year from the airport.
Excellent hotels, restaurants and shops all line the town’s center. There’s even a cinema that operates on weekends.