Svalbard Expedition Leader | an interview with Andreas Umbreit

In preparation for our forthcoming expedition micro cruise to Svalbard, we caught up with Andreas, our expert expedition leader with over 30 years experience exploring Svalbard.

svalbard expedition leader

Please can you introduce yourself and a bit about your background?

Grew up in the Bavarian Alps, hence my pleasure in being out in mountains and nature. My university studies in agriculture may seem a bit exotic in combination with working in the Arctic (even with climate change, farming in Spitsbergen is certainly something for a remoter future), but actually, these studies were a quite useful introduction to botany, zoology, geology, soil sciences, meteorology, but also economics as a basis for my work in the high Arctic.

How long have you been a guide in Svalbard?


My first visit to Spitsbergen was back in 1986 – at that time, there was no tourism industry there: no tourist accommodations, no food shop, no local tourism activities. Only coal mining and cruise ships coming in from abroad. A bit of a „Wild West“ atmosphere, which I fell in love with. Therefore, I registered the first tourism company registered in Spitsbergen (focussing on hiking and nature tourism) and wrote the first edition of my guide books. In the first years, the focus was on pretty tough real trekking tours – up to 200 km on foot in the wilderness, carrying everything (including tents, food, etc.) with us. However, this has softened, as visitors expect more and more comfort. From 1998 onwards, I was asked to work on cruise ships in Spitsbergen, and from 2003 also in the Russian Arctic, Jan Mayen, Greenland … . For about 20 years, I had also my first residency in Longyearbyen. So by 2020, I have a continuous practical experience in Arctic tourism through 35 years – mostly in the summers, but also periods in the polar night or in late winter/spring, when there is still a wintry scenery, but already with light all around the clock.

shore landing by zodiac in svalbard

What drew you to Svalbard in the first place?

From my childhood, I loved mountains, nature, and looking through atlases and maps, reading geographic and exploration literature. So already as a school boy, I dreamt of that remote high arctic territory so far north. And during my university years, I did my first private trip there together with another student – and that proved to be a turning point in my life.

expedition cruises to svalbard-on-a-small-expedition vessel cruise

How did you become an expedition leader?


After having published guide books on Spitsbergen and the neighbouring russian islands of Franz Josef Land and after having worked as lecturer/guide/advisor/polar bear guard on arctic cruises since 1998, I was asked to become expedition leader on expedition cruises first to the russian arctic (Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, Taimyr, Vaygach, etc.) from 2004 onwards, then also in Spitsbergen and to Greenland.

small ship cruises to svalbard

What are the highlights of visiting Svalbard?

Compared to size, Svalbard is surely the arctic territory with the biggest variety both of sceneries and regarding ecology: pointy alpine mountain ranges with crevassed glaciers in the West, sharply cut plateau mountains in the center, lower landscape with huge ice caps in the East. Milder conditions on the West side with stronger vegetation due to the last branch of the gulf stream, harsh high arctic conditions in the Northeast and almost desert-like dry zones in inner Wijdefjord. Flat coastal plains and peaks rising within a few kilometres from sea level up to 1713m. The glaciers of the ice ages have sculptured an often breath-taking landscape like with a huge knife. It has a reason, that Spitsbergen was the first high arctic territory visited regularly by touristic cruises. However, the big ships are restricted to the west side, while the East is open only to expedition cruises.
For wildlife, the situation is similar: Spitsbergen has an amazing variety of species, some in huge numbers, compared to its size. Greenland may have more species in total, but for seeing them there, big luck is needed – not least because there is hardly any hunting in Spitsbergen. So there are good chances for the really arctic big mammals on your cruise: whales (including blue whale), walruses, polar bears.
A less known plus of Spitsbergen is its varied and very international 400 years old history: first the whalers and hunters, then exploration and mining, even a bit of war history, and the special political status of Spitsbergen between East and West. Traces of this long history are often surprisingly well-preserved and a touching sign of the smallness of man within this huge wilderness.

What are the advantages of visiting Svalbard on a small expedition vessel over a larger cruise ship?

Much of the waters of Spitsbergen are fairly shallow, passages are sometimes narrow: no good place for the big cruisers (and ships with more than 200 passengers of heavy oil as fuel are forbidden in most parts of the archipelago). A small group allows a very personal atmosphere on board, close contacts between guests, expedition leader and guide(s) and landings with just a small group mean low disturbance of the local nature, no mass feeling and high flexibility. Moreover, to my experience, small expedition cruise vessels are usually sold mainly via true experts, with accordingly well-prepared participants, which makes the experience better for both travellers and staff. Therefore, small expedition vessels are my clear preference.

Please could you share 3 top tips for people planning a trip to Svalbard?

Take lots of memory cards with you for your cameras – most likely, you will take more pictures than expected.
Travelling in a true wilderness means authentic experiences, which can be best enjoyed when properly prepared: be ready for pathless terrain (sometimes also wet, boggy, rocky, walking on snow or ice), which means also some fitness, agility, good personal equipment (take the equipment tips serious!)– and of course respecting the vulnerability of high arctic nature, where we are the guests.
Mental flexibility is a must. The route will be first of all adapted to weather, swell, sea ice, conditions on land. It is expedition style, which means adapting in a highly opportunistic way to the situations as they arise, to gain a maximum of different experiences in the end.

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