Svalbard is the setting for part of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, where it is the ancestral home of the armoured bears.
The Svalbard islands are located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. “Svalbard” means “cold shores” and was mentioned in Icelandic texts of the 12th century. The first known landing on the islands dates to 1604, when the crew of an English ship went ashore to hunt walrus. Annual expeditions followed and from 1611 the largest island, Spitsbergen, became a base for hunting the bowhead whale.
Describing Svalbard in “Above the Ice” (The Paris Review, 23 October 2014), Colin Dickey writes:
“The sound you hear when you put ice cubes into warm (but not hot) water – that subtle but quick crackling – is the sound all around you in the summer fjords near glaciers. There is ice everywhere in the water, the size of your fist and the size of small islands, and because the water is only a few degrees above freezing, the ice cracks slowly, abundantly. It takes a moment to understand what you’re hearing, because it’s so constant and so low in the air – his soft crackle, like static over a radio.”
Svalbard has long fascinated travellers. Unique wildlife, arctic beauty and old mining towns are all found on the islands, which are stark and eerie. Coal mining began in the early 20th century, when several permanent villages were built. In 1920 the Spitsbergen Treaty assigned Norway control of Svalbard and the 1925 Svalbard Act made it de facto part of Norway.
In addition to polar bears, the islands are home to some 3,000 people, over 2,000 of whom live in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement. Svalbard is also known for its elegant reindeer, a subspecies that has lived there for at least 5,000 years. Depleted by hunting during the 20th century, this unique animal has been recovering under Norwegian conservation measures and there may now be as many as 10,000 on the islands.
The Svalbard reindeer lives approximately nine years. The bucks are slightly bigger than the does. In winter they have long thick coats, which make them seem small and fat. The does have one calf each year, born at the beginning of June, which usually stays with its mother until winter. There are no predators on Svalbard that kill reindeer, although arctic foxes scavenge animals that have died of starvation or natural causes.
Norwegian filmmaker Knut Erik Jensen made three short films about Svalbard, described as surreal and highly intense depictions of landscape and the environment. “Svalbard in the World” (1983), “Cold World” (1986) and “My World” (1987) were shown at the Nordic Film Days Festival (Lübeck, Germany) in 2013.
Unsurprisingly, the Svalbard Tourism Board considers the islands an Arctic pearl and encourages visitors to “Take Care of Svalbard” by following a few simple rules:
- Don’t be an arctic litterbug! Leave no lasting signs of your visit.
- Birds and other animals are not to be disturbed. Remember, you are the guest.
- Help take care of the biodiversity. Do not pick flowers.
- Leave old cultural remains alone. The law protects all traces of humans from before 1946.
- It is prohibited to lure, pursue or otherwise seek out polar bears in such a way as to disturb them or expose either bears or humans to danger.
- Do not leave the settlements without a suitable gun, and experience in using it.
- Be considerate to others.
What more could one ask?