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Bjørnøya (Bear Island)

Gene­ral

Bjørnøya (Bear Island) is the sou­thern­most island of the Sval­bard archi­pe­la­go, half­way bet­ween Nor­way and Spits­ber­gen. The island is 178 km2 lar­ge and rela­tively rare­ly visi­ted, but fasci­na­ting. The­re is a per­ma­nent­ly staf­fed Nor­we­gi­an wea­ther sta­ti­on at the north coast of the island. The lack of pro­tec­ted bays and the rough wea­ther with strong winds and fre­quent fog make visi­ting Bjørnøya a bit of a lot­tery. Bjørnøya was declared a natu­re reser­ve in 2002, the­re are accor­ding regu­la­ti­ons and access to some are­as is rest­ric­ted. The­se are hat­ched on the map below: the area around the huge bird cliffs at the sou­thern end of the island may not be ente­red bet­ween April 01 and August 31, except boats shorter than 40 feet that may approach from the sea. (This is as of Novem­ber 2023. It is gene­ral­ly wise to dou­ble-check with the Sys­sel­mes­ter (gover­nor) of Sval­bard for offi­ci­al­ly con­firm­ed, up-to-date infor­ma­ti­on if you plan to visit.)

For more, detail­ed infor­ma­ti­on: the Gui­de­book Spits­ber­gen-Sval­bard

Guidebook Spitsbergen-Svalbard

Bear Island - Bjørnøya

Bear Island (Bjørnøya). Bird sanc­tua­ries are hat­ched
(more infor­ma­ti­on in the text abo­ve).

Click here for pan­ora­ma images from Bjørnøya.

In the past, Bjørnøya was often sur­roun­ded by drift ice in late win­ter (main­ly March-May), but usual­ly ice-free during the sum­mer months. The­se days, the drift ice rea­ches rare­ly so far south.

If you read Ger­man, then I can recom­mend the fol­lo­wing: the­re is a book espe­ci­al­ly dedi­ca­ted to Bear Island, writ­ten by the pre­sent aut­hor and owner of this web­site.

Signpost near the weather station Bjørnøya Meteo in Herwighamna

Sign­post near the wea­ther sta­ti­on Bjørnøya Meteo.

Weather station Bjørnøya Radio at Herwighamna, Bear Island (earlier called Bjørnøya Radio)

Wea­ther sta­ti­on Bjørnøya Radio at Her­wig­ham­na, Bear Island
(ear­lier cal­led Bjørnøya Radio).

Pan­ora­mas Bear Island – Bjørnøya

The­re are seve­ral pages with pho­tos, more infor­ma­ti­on and 360 degree pan­ora­ma images on this web­site, acces­si­ble from the map on the Spits­ber­gen pan­ora­ma site or direct­ly here:

Geo­lo­gy

Varied. Part­ly base­ment rocks (Sil­uri­an and older), part­ly youn­ger sedi­men­ta­ry cover (Devo­ni­an and youn­ger). The­re are Devo­ni­an sedi­ments in the nor­the­as­tern part of Bjørnøya, which include coal seams. The­se belong to the oldest coal seams on Earth, as plants, wit­hout which the­re can’t be any coal for­ma­ti­on, just star­ted to move on dry land. The­re are various Meso­zoic sedi­ments in the sou­the­ast.

Konglomerater og sandstein fra Karbontiden ved Kapp Harry, Bjørnøya

Lay­ers of Car­bo­ni­fe­rous con­glo­me­ra­tes and sand­sto­nes at Kapp Har­ry.

Recom­men­ded book for fur­ther, well-digesta­ble (real­ly!) info about geo­lo­gy and land­scape of Sval­bard.

Land­scape

Land­scape-wise, Bjørnøya is uni­que within Sval­bard. The ung­la­cia­ted inte­riour of the island is gent­ly slo­ping, rea­ching hig­her alti­tu­des from north to south, cul­mi­na­ting in the south and sou­the­ast (Mise­ry­fjel­let, 536 m high).

Miseryfjellet seen from Ymerdalen

Mise­ry­fjel­let, the hig­hest moun­tain on Bjørnøya, seen from Ymerd­a­len.

Miseryfjellet seen from the sea

Mise­ry­fjel­let, the hig­hest moun­tain on Bjørnøya, seen from the sea.

The­re is a wide low­land area in the nor­t­hern part of Bjørnøya. The inland the­re is very bar­ren, flat and has a lar­ge num­ber of most­ly very shal­low lakes. In some of the­se, envi­ron­men­tal toxins have accu­mu­la­ted in worry­ing con­cen­tra­ti­ons in recent deca­des. The­se con­ta­mi­nants have been brought to the Arc­tic from indus­tri­al count­ries in Euro­pe and North Ame­ri­ca by ocea­nic and atmo­sphe­ric curr­ents.

View from Miseryfjellet

View from Mise­ry­fjel­let over the flat land on nor­t­hern Bjørnøya.

The coasts are quite spec­ta­cu­lar. The­re are only few bays and bea­ches, but high, near-ver­ti­cal cliffs, which are hig­hest at the sou­thern tip. The­re are seve­ral cha­rac­te­ristic rock colum­ns (Sylen, Stap­pen and other ones) and caves such as the famous Per­le­por­ten, all crea­ted by the con­stant surf.

Stappen at the southern tip of Bjørnøya

The cha­rac­te­ristic Stap­pen (191 m high), an impres­si­ve sea stack at the sou­thern tip of Bjørnøya.

Sylen on the southwest coast of Bjørnøya

The cha­rac­te­ristic Sylen (80 m high), an impres­si­ve sea stack on the sou­thwest coast tip of Bjørnøya.

The­se cliffs are home to some of the lar­gest sea­birds colo­nies of the North Atlan­tic. The coas­tal cave Per­le­por­ten beca­me a bit famous through Ali­s­ta­ir MacLean’s novel Bear Island from 1971. The novel does not have much to do with the rea­li­ty on the real Bear Island, but Per­le­por­ten is wit­hout any doubt a fan­ta­stic place. Hard to get to, as the fan­ta­stic places in natu­re tend to be, and it needs good wea­ther and calm seas to go in by small boat, but if it works, then it is defi­ni­te­ly an unfor­gettable expe­ri­ence.

Coastal cave Perleporten, Kapp Kolthoff

The coas­tal cave Per­le­por­ten cuts through Kapp Kolt­hoff on the sou­the­ast side of Bjørnøya.

Flo­ra and fau­na

The inte­riour of Bjørnøya is lar­ge­ly devo­id of life, apart from the fau­na of some of the lakes. Some of them have Arc­tic char, which is most­ly small, but some can­ni­ba­li­stic indi­vi­du­als have rea­ched con­sidera­ble size. An orni­tho­lo­gi­cal spe­cial­ty is the Gre­at nor­t­hern diver. This lar­ge bird is very rare on the east side of the Atlan­tic, it is bree­ding in Green­land and most­ly in nor­t­hern North Ame­ri­ca, but a pair has found a home near a lake in the nor­the­as­tern part of Bjørnøya. Accor­din­gly, the lake was declared a no-go-area, much to the annoyan­ce of the staff of the wea­ther sta­ti­on, as they lost a popu­lar desti­na­ti­on which they had used for fishing.

Common guillemots, Bjørnøya

Com­mon guil­l­emots on the sou­the­ast coast of Bjørnøya.

Bio­lo­gi­cal­ly the most important parts of Bjørnøya are the steep coas­tal cliffs with their enorm­ous sea­birds colo­nies, espe­ci­al­ly in the sou­thern half of the island. Here, hundreds of thou­sands of guil­l­emots, both Brünich’s and Com­mon, are brea­ding next to each other. The­se birdcliffs are among­st the lar­gest ones of the nor­t­hern hemi­sphe­re. Fishery as well as the oil indus­try may thre­at the­se important bree­ding sites in the future. The island its­elf is pro­tec­ted, but the eco­no­mic­al explo­ita­ti­on of the sur­roun­ding seas is likely to hap­pen. The­re is a lar­ge fishing fleet in the area.

Brünich's guillemot, east coast of Bjørnøya

Brünich’s guil­l­emot, east coast of Bjørnøya.

The popu­la­ti­on of the Com­mon guil­l­emot in Bjørnøya col­lap­sed dra­ma­ti­cal­ly in 1986, becau­se some important fish spe­ci­es had been over­fi­shed regio­nal­ly. The Brünich’s guil­l­emot with its more diver­se menu was not affec­ted, but the Com­mon guil­l­emot has not yet com­ple­te­ly reco­ver­ed.

The mammal fau­na is rather scar­ce. The polar bear, who gave Bjørnøya its name, pays only occa­sio­nal visits to the island, when it is sur­roun­ded by drift ice during the win­ter. The­re were enorm­ous wal­rus colo­nies in the past, which have been wiped out com­ple­te­ly sin­ce the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry.

Histo­ry

Bjørnøya was the first island of the Spits­ber­gen archi­pe­la­go which was dis­co­ver­ed by the Dutch­man Wil­lem Barent­sz during his famous third voya­ge. Barent­sz rea­ched the island on 10h June 1596 and named it ‘Bee­ren Eylandt’ (Eng­lish Bear Island, Nor­we­gi­an Bjørnøya) as they had a dra­ma­tic fight with a polar bear during their first visit to the coast.

The island has a long histo­ry. Pomor hun­ters as well as Nor­we­gi­an trap­pers have win­tered the­re many times. In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, the Ger­man jour­na­list and self-declared polar expert Theo­dor Ler­ner clai­med parts of Bjørnøya, but did not estab­lish any long-term acti­vi­ties due to lack of capi­tal (he inten­ded to estab­lish a coal mine). Later, a Nor­we­gi­an com­pa­ny star­ted coal mining at the nor­the­ast coast. The­se acti­vi­ties were most­ly not eco­no­mic­al, and in the 1920s the Nor­we­gi­an sta­te bought the shares.

Hammerfesthuset: Svalbard's oldest house, Bjørnøya (Bear Island)

‘Ham­mer­festhu­set’ (to the right) in direct neigh­bour­hood to the wea­ther sta­ti­on: the oldest house within the who­le Sval­bard archi­pe­la­go which is still stan­ding.
Today the par­ty loca­ti­on of the sta­ti­on.

During the Second World War, Ger­ma­ny estab­lished a wea­ther sta­ti­on here for a cou­ple of months, but with litt­le suc­cess.

Later, Nor­way kept a sta­ti­on, which is still ope­ra­ting today.

Pho­to gal­le­ries: Bear Island – Bjørnøya

Some impres­si­ons of the many faces of Bear Island, sor­ted in seve­ral gal­le­ries for bet­ter over­view.

Gal­lery 1: Coas­tal sce­n­ery

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Gal­lery 2: Inland sce­n­ery

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Gal­lery 3: Wea­ther sta­ti­on Bjørnøya Meteo and his­to­ri­cal sites

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Gal­lery 4: Flowers and wild­life

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

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last modification: 2023-11-16 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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