Traffic and wildlife in Svalbard

The Svalbard Environmental Protection Act includes the principle of duty of care:

”Any person who is staying in or operates an undertaking in Svalbard shall show due consideration and exercise the caution required to avoid unnecessary damage or disturbance to the natural environment or cultural heritage.”

Further: “It is prohibited to chase, catch or kill fauna or damage eggs, nests or dens without authorization.”

The provision of duty of care is perhaps the most violated of the environmental provisions. Photographing, video recording, people’s desire to meet with Svalbard’s wildlife and negligent traffic in these areas can easily lead to unnecessary disturbance of birds and mammals. Disturbances may cause the individuals affected to fail to reproduce in a particular season – for instance common eiders, Arctic terns or geese on the nests. The most extreme incidents of disturbance include the pursuit of polar bears by snowmobiles, seeking out polar bears in summer, landings at islets and skerries during the breeding season of eiders and geese and close contact with walruses at sea when passing with kayaks or small boats. Such behaviour may put both people and wildlife in danger. Increased loss of eggs and chicks is guaranteed if a breeding colony is disturbed. All of this highlights the importance of always exercising care when travelling in Svalbard.

In this section we give some advice on how to perform in the natural environment of Svalbard, as to minimize the effect of human presence on wildlife, focusing on the most relevant species.

Main principle

The rule of thumb is to avoid altering the behaviour of the animals as a result of our presence in their habitat.

Polar bear

The Svalbard Environmental Protection Act includes strict provisions on how to act upon encounters of polar bears (see sub-chapter Traffic Regulations). To see the “King of the Arctic” in its element is for many visitors to Svalbard the ultimate wilderness experience. Unfortunately, people often go too far to get such experiences. Remember that the provisions given in the act apply to encounters of polar bears in drift ice, on ice floes or in the water, as well as on land. When a polar bear alters its behaviour because of people’s presence, we have violated the limits. The result may be that the polar bear must be scared off with a flare gun or, at the worst, a self-defence situation may occcur in which the only way out is shooting the bear. The polar bear is fearless and usually curious, but also unpredictable. The most problematic bears are generally young bears or hungry individuals during summer. The following precautions need to be considered upon travelling in areas where polar bears may be encountered:

  • Read the leaflet “Polar bears in Svalbard”, published by the Norwegian Polar Institute.
  • Be prepared to meet polar bears – at any time and in any place.
  • Always bring a gun for polar bear protection when travelling outside the settlements. Keep shots in the magazine, but not in the chamber.
  • Avoid close encounters with polar bears. Do not cross the path in which a polar bear is heading, and keep your distance.
  • Upon landing, the area must be inspected using binoculars to determine if there are polar bears around. If polar bears are spotted, or if the area is hard to survey, landing must be aborted.
  • In smaller areas and on smaller islands known to be visited by polar bears in summer, landings should be avoided.
  • Avoid camping in areas frequented by polar bears. Avoid camping on the beach, at glacier fronts, close to ravines, in small valleys and where tracks of polar bears are observed. Always make sure you have good overview of the area in all directions.
  • Use warning devices, such as tripwires with flares (set up at two heights) or a guard dog, or take turns watching out for polar bears.
  • Keep food away from the camp and in bear-proof wrapping. Avoid cooking in the tent as polar bears are attracted to the smell of cooking.
  • During a bear encounter on land, always keep an eye on the bear while simultaneously gathering people and retreating to the boats to leave the area.
  • If the polar bear is moving in your direction, make yourself visible and make lots of noise. Often, yelling, hand clapping, racing the engine or similar actions will make the polar bear retreat. If this does not help, prepare the flare gun or emergency signal flare pen. Shoot flares to the ground between you and the bear. The first shot should (if possible) be fired at a 150-200 m distance. Repeat if this has no effect. Most polar bears will be scared off.

If all attempts to scare off the bear fails, and retreat is impossible, killing the bear in self-defense can be the only solution. Place the shot, using a big-game rifle (alternatively a shotgun with slugs), in the shoulder or chest area. Heavy-caliber revolvers may be used, but only by skilled gunmen. Never shoot at the head, as the bullet may bounce off the skull. Shoot until the bear is immobile. Killing of a polar bear must be reported immediately to the Governor of Svalbard, regardless of the circumstances. The bear carcass and the area around it must be kept intact for later investigations.

Correct behaviour towards walrusesIllustration of correct behaviour towards a herd of walruses in Isflakbukta, Phippsøya. (Image: Marie Lier)


Next to the polar bear, the walrus is one of Svalbard’s greatest tourist attractions. Nowhere else walruses are more accessible and less shy of people than here. Be aware that despite its sedate and listless appearance on land, this animal can move rapidly in the water and can be dangerous when lunging its tusks. The most important advice for visitors follows:

  • Walruses may be sensitive to boats and people. Observe the animals at a distance using binoculars to check if the herd is at ease.
  • Do not drive boats close to the shore by haul-out sites.
  • Small boats should land at least 300 m to the side of the herd and at the leeward side.
  • Visitors should be divided into small groups (maximum 25 persons) and informed about routines in advance. The guide’s orders should be followed.
  • Do not approach the animals from several angles at once.
  • Avoid making a silhouette against the horizon.
  • Keep noise low. Limit orders, talking and engine noise to a minimum.
  • The group should move slowly and gathered together toward the herd. Always keep an eye on the animals’ reactions towards you.
  • Keep the group together and do not form a semicircle around the walruses.
  • An all-male herd is often more tolerant toward people and can be approached at distances up to a minimum of 30 m. Far greater distances must be respected when approaching mixed herds including females and juveniles – minimum 150 m. These distances also apply to walruses on ice floes.
  • At the first sign of unease in the herd (even at distances exceedings 30 m), stop and retreat in the same direction you came from.
  • Never place yourself between the herd and the water. They will be anxious when their retreat is blocked.
  • Do not get close to walruses in the water or on ice floes. They can be annoyed and dangerous situations may arise.

Ringed seal

Although there are about 100 000 ringed seals in Svalbard, they can be hard to spot in summertime. When observed it is usually swimming in the ocean or resting on ice floes. The ringed seal is normally seen in the waters at glacier fronts, in the northern parts of the archipelago or by the sea ice edge. They are usually shy and quickly enter the water and dive when people get too close. Summer traffic in Svalbard is unproblematic to the ringed seal.

Bearded seal

The female bearded seal gives birth to a single pup on an ice floe in May. At this time of the year it is important to keep a distance when travelling by boat to avoid disturbing the mother and pup. Later in summer it is possible to get very close to individuals resting on ice floes, if approaching very slowly and with very little noise. If the animal starts to move its head or limbs or looks as if it will enter the water, it is time to stop and not get any closer.

Harbour seal

There is a small population of harbour seals on the west coast of Spitsbergen. They give birth to their pups in June on rocky shores or on skerries. Do not disturb the seals during this period. If panicked, the mother and pup may be separated. Several harbour seal birthing areas are located in bird sanctuaries. The general prohibition against traffic within 300 m off land in bird sanctuaries shields both seals and birds from disturbances. If you come across harbour seals with small pups in other areas, keep a distance of at least 100 m. Sometimes adult seals will visit boats. Turn off the engine so the seal will not get hurt by the propeller. Seals may even try to play with the propeller – a dangerous game.


Whales are easily spotted from far away by their blow. For closer contact, drive the boat at low speed parallel to the course in which the whale is swimming. Never cross the path of a swimming whale, and never encircle or chase a whale! Some species, like minke whale, humpback whale and white-beaked dolphin, are curious by nature and will often seek out boats lying still or travelling at low speed. Other species, like white whale (beluga) and narwhal, are easily scared off by engine noise. To be able to observe the latter two, switching off the engine or leaving it in neutral position is the best tip.

Denning arctic foxesArctic foxes at a denning location. If you are lucky to get such an experience it is best to keep a fair distance and observe them using binoculars. (Image: Eva Fuglei / The Norwegian Polar Institute)

Arctic fox

The Arctic fox is often perceived as extremely confident and fearless. However, during the breeding season (May-August) it is generally shy. The following advice applies to travelling in areas with Arctic fox:

  • Do not enter an Arctic fox denning area from June to mid-August. Keep a distance of 500-1000 m, depending on the type of terrain.
  • If unexpectedly entering a denning area with cubs, silently retreat in the same direction you came from.
  • Never establish camp in a denning area with cubs. Keep a minimum distance of 1000-2000 m, depending on the type of terrain.
  • If Arctic fox cubs appear at a camp site, never follow them, as they often will return to the den.
  • If a den is frequently disturbed, the adult foxes will sometimes move the litter to a secondary den. The secondary den is usually of lower quality than the primary den, and thus moving the cubs may reduce their chance of survival.
  • Dogs must never be taken to an occupied Arctic fox den.
  • Never feed Arctic foxes. At worst, the foxes become tame and dependent on the supply of food. The worst case scenario is a person being bitten by a rabies-infected fox.
  • If you find a dead, whole and “fresh” fox contact the Governor of Svalbard. Only specialists should handle the carcass. Always wear gloves if you have to handle a fox!

Svalbard reindeer

The Svalbard reindeer is normally shy towards people. The reaction to human presence varies with the area and how we move around (by foot, skis, snow mobiles, speed, direction etc.). Season, weather, condition and the condition of the animal, its age and sex also influence the situation. Females with newborn calves may be extremely shy. In areas of regular human traffic, the reindeers are often used to human presence.

  • Do not seek out females with calves.
  • Sit down and let the reindeer come to you, not the opposite. Reindeers (particularly young animals) are often very curious by nature, and often cannot refrain from investigating the intruder – especially if the wind direction is from the reindeer and toward you.
  • Leave the reindeer to graze, rest and ruminate without disturbance. They need as much time as possible to accumulate fat for the hard winter. Any disturbance results in unnecessary energy loss.
  • If a reindeer is observed with wire or anything else entangled in its antlers, and it is obviously bothering the animal, contact the Governor of Svalbard straight away. You may attempt to disentangle a reindeer that is stuck in rubbish or in another reindeer’s antlers. Such operations should be carried out with utmost caution by skilled persons.

Eiders, other ducks and geese

Eiders and other duck species often breed concentrated on small islands, islets or headlands. Geese also breed beneath bird cliffs, in moraines or along brinks facing the ocean, river ravines or gorges. Traffic in such areas will scare brooding birds off the nest. As a consequence of the exposure, there is a higher chance of Arctic foxes, glaucous gulls or Arctic skuas preying on the eggs.

  • Do not land or travel in duck breeding areas in June and July, as described above.
  • If you accidentally scare a duck or goose off the nest, quickly retreat out of the area in the direction you came from.
  • Eiders and geese moult in July-August; they lose their flight feathers and thus, the ability to fly for a period of time. In this period adults and young-of-the-year occur together. Keep your distance from such moulting flocks whether they appear at sea or on land.


Brooding waders are usually not spotted until one flies off the nest just in front of your feet. Purple sandpiper and other waders will act as if injured, dragging their wings along the ground, if the nest area is intruded upon. This broken-wing display is intended to draw the intruder’s attention away from the nest or the chicks. If you have scared a bird off its nest, make a retreat – alternatively follow the play-acting adult bird out of the area.

Arctic skua, great skua and Arctic tern

The two species of skua nest in solitary pairs. The Arctic tern breeds in colonies. All three species are intensively alert to potential intruders, including human visitors. They first scream loudly then fearlessly attack. Keep your arm or a stick above your head and calmly make a retreat. Do not aim at the bird!

Bird cliff species/seabirds

Black-legged kittiwake, northern fulmar, Atlantic puffin, Brünnich’s guillemot, common guillemot, ivory gull and other species nest concentrated in bird cliffs of various sizes. Little auks also nest in large colonies, but these are located in steep screes. Visits to bird cliffs normally influence only the lowest and most accessible parts of the colonies. Disturbance leading to the adult bird leaving the nest/nest site/egg(s) may, at worst, result in the loss of eggs or chicks. Glaucous gulls patrol the bird cliffs and quickly steals unprotected eggs or chicks.

  • Keep your distance (minimum 30 m) when walking into a bird cliff area from beneath or from the side. Never enter a bird cliff from above! This can cause panic among the birds in the upper parts of the cliff.
  • If the terrain is such that you can stay to the side of the colony, you may watch the colony aslant from above.
  • Some bird cliffs are accessible by boat, and breeding birds can be found all the way down to the sea. If entering such an area, maintain a fair distance – minimum 30 m. Good practice is to stop before the first birds become uneasy. Drive the boat at low speed and limit noise.
  • Do not drive into flocks of seabirds on the water below bird cliffs, as they are feeding, resting or bathing. Avoid boat traffic in these areas.
  • In the transition between July and August the chicks of Brünnich’s guillemot and common guillemot jump off the nest site in the cliff and glides to the sea surface, accompanied by one of the parents. During this time it is very important to stay out of the bird cliff area, both on land and at sea. No traffic on land beneath the bird cliff is acceptable. Boats must keep clear of the area just beneath the cliff. Disturbances can result in chicks and parents being separated, leaving the chicks easy prey for glaucous gulls or Arctic foxes.

Further guidelines for visitors to the Arctic can be found at the AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) web site.

Updated April 2009

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