A new hybrid-electric vessel set sail in Svalbard in May to take tourists on a walrus safari and Lonely Planet was onboard for its maiden voyage. 

The Kvitbjørn (meaning polar bear) runs on electric power when cruising near land. The result is a more sustainable experience for the environment and, for those onboard, a better chance to spot the elusive animals that populate the icy shores. The significant reduction in noise means the vessel can get closer to shore without disturbing them.

The new boat is in use for tourists since May and will be used for Hurtigruten walrus safari experience to Borebukta. It will run for a three-year pilot period in the Svalbard high season (May to October) and fits 12 passengers (plus crew) in their comfortable, heated cabin. Hot drinks and snacks are also provided. 

The Kvitbjorn boat at dusk
The Kvitbjørn sets sail © rn-Krossholmen-Gothenburg

The boat is the result of four years of work between longstanding tourism operator Hurtigruten, marine power specialists Volvo Penta and boat builders Marell Boats. It will operate approximately 1,000 hours a season and will provide concrete learnings about the amount of carbon and noise reduction the boat facilitates.

The total experience lasts four hours in total, which includes about two hours of quiet cruising time near land and costs 2,490 NOK per person (and can be booked as long as there are at least two participants). Hurtigruten also boasts a bigger hybrid-electric catamaran that you can book to cruise near the town of Pyramiden, as well as a small fleet of electric snowmobiles. 

Onboard the maiden voyage of Kvitbjørn 

As we board the Kvitbjørn vessel, its namesake is on everyone’s mind.

“But seriously…will we see a polar bear?”, several people ask. But the bears are their own masters and nobody can guarantee a glimpse of the symbol of Svalbard. There is a much better chance we’ll see walruses and Tore Hoem, Adventures Director at Hurtigruten Svalbard and captain of the ship for today, sets a course for where they were spotted earlier in the week. 

Walruses are one of Svalbard’s greatest conservation success stories. Walrus safaris like this are a relatively new addition to the tourism itinerary having started circa 2015. Before that it was impossible because there were not enough of them to spot. Hunting of the walrus was banned in 1952 and since then the population has increased from 100 to more than 5,500 in 2018. They’re taking back old resting grounds - where we’re going today there were no walruses at all a decade ago.

Walrus in Svalbard waters
Walrus safaris like this are a relatively new addition to the tourism itinerary © Daniel John Benton

We leave Adventfjord, the 7km bay, in electric mode, causing minimal ripples and leaving the industrial town of Longyearbyen disappearing behind us. Crossing the stretch of Isfjorden, the boat kicks into the combustion engine and we begin to (comparatively) speed along at 25 knots an hour. On the way fulmars keep pace with frantic flapping of their wings, flying just above the icy ocean surface, until they get bored and veer off to their own path. 

Approaching the glaciers at the other side of Spitsbergen island, we drop into the quiet hum of the electric again, cruising softly towards a landscape untouched by humans. It is a truly jaw-dropping view and the quiet of the engine means you can hear the collective gasping of appreciative breath. Razor-thin blobs of sea ice begin to appear as we get closer to shore, bobbing on the surface.

As we approach there is good news and bad news. Sea ice has increased since last week, which is always good news against the relentless warming of the planet. Unfortunately it means that walruses will stay away from the coastline because of it and we won’t get as close to land as planned. 

Kvitbjorn vessel full side view
The hybrid-electric vessel gives guests a better chance to spot the elusive animals that populate the Arctic Ocean © rn-Krossholmen-Gothenburg

Instead, we peer through binoculars at the lone walrus lolling on his back, enjoying the rays of sun that beat down with warmth despite the -10 celsius temperature. Visitors later in the season will most likely have better luck with the walruses as the summer weather heats up. 

There’s also a multitude of very fresh tracks in the snow traversing downhill. They are, we are informed, ‘polar bear slides’, where the fearsome furballs amuse themselves by hurtling downhill. I won’t lie, I would have given a lot to see a polar bear playing in the snow but it’s enough to know they’re here, living and playing somewhere behind this epic vista of glaciers. 

When the relentless bite of wind chill gets too much, the inside of the cabin is toasty with comfortable seats, magical views, hot coffee and pastries for the most scenic snack of your life.

Post glacial landscapes of Svalbard
Epic vistas are guaranteed © Eveline Lunde

The question of sustainability: the rise of electromobility 

Svalbard, with its proximity to mainland Norway, is in a prime spot to test out new electromobility technology. In January 2022 the country passed a benchmark where 80% of all private cars for sale were electric. After fast adoption, electric cars have quickly become the norm and the difference in the traffic sound levels were immediately evident when I visited Oslo prior to the Svalbard trip. Electric trucks have also just been put into operation in Svalbard courtesy of the postal service; further proof that electromobility can tolerate extreme cold climates. 

Of course, transport in and around Svalbard is not the travel industry’s biggest problem. Flying is still the most common and efficient way of getting to the region and Longyearbyen’s airport welcomes dozens of flights a week in the high season (less in the polar winter). But that doesn’t mean the push for more sustainability on-the-ground is in vain according to Henrik Lund of Hurtigruten. 

A view of glaciers in Svalbard from a hybrid electric vessel
Exploring glaciers in Svalbard in near-silence from a hybrid electric vessel © AnneMarie McCarthy

Sustainability, he says,” shouldn’t be a competitive advantage, it should only give you the right to play. The industry as a whole has a lot of challenges that it’s not facing up to or it’s not addressing enough. We have to aim for zero emissions. I think it’s good for business and I think that those who don’t will be struggling with it in the future.”

Johan Inden, President of the Volvo Penta Marine Business Unit, agrees and emphasizes the waterfall effect of the mode of travel. “Tourists are marketing for nature”, he states simply. “The only way to preserve it is to learn to care about it deeply. When you experience this fantastic environment, you’ll go back to your communities and spread the word about it.

“You always have the arguments of ‘it’s not perfect, so why should we start?’ Well in this equation, what are the components that I can really influence? That’s when we start making sense. That’s the only way and it’s a pretty effective way of starting to move the general perception. You want people to come back from here and everywhere else and you want them to reflect and start having the same reflection around the kitchen table. Maybe I can do something on my single use plastic or what car I buy next. It takes several different companies and individuals to make that change.”

AnneMarie traveled to Svalbard at the invitation of Volvo Penta. Lonely Planet staff members do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage. 

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