MagazineTraveler

Explore a place where polar bears outnumber people

Here’s how to travel and what to do in the remote archipelago of Svalbard, Norway.

This story appears in the May 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Arctic panoramas often look flat and desolate, but this Norwegian archipelago features a mountainous landscape with 2,000 miles of coastline. Home to Earth’s northernmost year-round settlement, the Svalbard region is populated but not populous—polar bears outnumber people.

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What you’ll see

In this remote terrain, the focus is squarely on nature’s grand displays.

Light: During summer months the sun never sets. In winter it never rises, but the northern lights (aurora borealis) dance across the sky.

Wildlife: Reindeer and arctic foxes roam the land, walruses and seals swim offshore, and Atlantic puffins soar overhead. Polar bears can be hard to spot, but that first sighting makes all the effort worthwhile.

Landscapes: Glaciers, fjords, and snow-covered mountains fill the views.

Photo tips

Be prepared for anything at all times, says photographer Acacia Johnson, because conditions can vary from one moment to the next. To capture both landscapes and wildlife, she advises, bring wide-angle and telephoto lenses; a waterproof camera bag or smartphone case is a must. When composing shots of the scenery, include the horizon line to give a sense of the area’s vastness. In spring and fall, Johnson says, pay special attention at sunrise and sunset, when the light illuminates edges of the ice and the ocean looks like a glowing mosaic.

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In Svalbard, inflatable Zodiacs shuttle travelers from ship to shore for guided hiking and wildlife-watching.

How to get there

Most visitors fly via Oslo to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement, which hugs the shore of Spitsbergen island. Because there aren’t many reliable roads, exploration is usually done with small ships (fewer than 200 passengers) that can navigate through areas of dense sea ice. Inflatable Zodiacs shuttle travelers onto the tundra and into grottoes for guided hiking and wildlife-watching.

By the numbers

60%: Approximate area covered by glaciers

650: Miles from the North Pole

3,000: Estimated number of polar bears that roam the region