Søraust-Svalbard nature reserve

East of Spitsbergen lies the two large islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya. The nature reserve contains these two islands, as well as Tusenøyane, Ryke Yseøyane and Halvmåneøya. The area has a rich wildlife, especially polar bears, reindeer, walrus, sea birds and geese. The area was declared a nature reserve in 1973.

Map of Søraust-Svalbard

Søraust-Svalbard is comprised of Barentsøya and Edgeøya, as well as Tusenøyane, Ryke Yseøyane, Halvmåneøya and several other smaller islands and rocks. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

Typical for the reserve are the large vegetated beach plains in the west and the barren areas with large glaciers in the east. Edgeøya has large, ice-free valleys that reminds us of certain parts of Central-Spitsbergen. But the mountain massives are lower, with plains and plateu glaciers. North-east on the Edgeøya there are well-developed beach ridge deposits.

The surrounding sea is almost unaffected by the Gulf Stream, and ice can be found here large parts of the year. The western part of the reserve has the most favourable climate, and the west coast of Edgeøya is relatively lush in vegetation.

The reserve has large populations of Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox, and it is an important area for the polar bear. The reserve is a key area for the Brent goose, the most threatened species of geese in the region, and is probably the most important area also for the walrus.

There are several cultural remains found here from different periods, especially in the southern parts of the area. The reserve is almost without human activity today, but there are some wounds left in the terrain from petroleum prospecting in earlier periods.


This area is an important breeding ground for several species of bird. The northern fulmar has two large colonies – Kvalpyntfjellet and Negerpynten south west on the Edgeøya. This is also important locations for the blacked-legged kittiwake, the Brünnich’s guillemot, the black guillemot and the little auk. The barnacle geese breeds on Sundneset on Barentsøya, and also on many of the Tusenøyane and on Zieglerøya. The Brent goose has its main breeding ground in Svalbard on the Tusenøyane.

The polar bear can be found in the reserve at all times of the year. Other mammals in the area are the ringed seal, the harbour seal, the walrus, the minke whale, and the white whale. The walrus has some of its most important areas in Svalbard within the reserve.

The population of reindeer in the reserve is abundant, especially on Edgeøya. Arctic fox can be found throughout most of the area. The population seems to be in good condition due to the stable access to food through sea bird and reindeer.

Geology and landscape

A scooter trip during Thor S. Larsen's winter expedition on Edgeøya, 1968-69

The landscape of Søraust-Svalbard nature reserve is quite different from the one we find in Vest-Spitsbergen. Here from a scooter trip with Thor S. Larsen, who participated on a winter expedition in Svalbard to study the migration and behavior of the polar bear in 1968-69. Photo: Thor S. Larsen

The landscape in the reserve is entirely different from West-Spitsbergen. It lacks the narrow, deep fjords and the spiky mountain-tops. The coast is characterized by the broad bays. The mountains look like plateus and are only 4-500 metres high. On the eastern part of the islands are large glaciers that calf into sea. The western parts of the islands are surprisingly lush. The geology in the area are mostly sedimentary rocks from the trias period when Svalbard was covered in water.

Barentsøya is 1.288 square kilometres large. On top of the island rules the Barentsjøkulen with several names inspired by Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Solveigdomen and Peer Gyntslottet stretch up to about 650 metres above sea levek. The jøkul covers an area of 558 square kilometres and makes up for large parts of the eastern half of the island. It has four runners that reach all the way into the sea.

Edgeøya is not unlike Barentsøya, but the ice-free areas are larger. Many places has a lush vegatation. Edgeøya is also quite larger – 5.074 square kilometres. The plateus also dominate this landscape. The largers glaciers can be found on the southern half of the island, and especially in the south-east where the Edgeøyjøkulen cover 1.365 square kilometres. On the western side of Edgeøya the landscape is quite different. Prominent elements are Tjuvfjorden with the large Tjuvfjordlaguna, and the Dyrdalen valley.

Cultural remains

Building on Måkeberget, Barentsøya

The building of a hunting cabin on Måkeberget, Barentsøya. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

A cabin in Russebukta on Edgeøya

A cabin in Russebukta on Edgeøya Photo: Einar Johansen, Norwegian Polar Institute

Not many years passed after ships started sailing northwards before the Edgeøya and the waters around the east and western side of the island was known, and this area holds several cultural remains from the whaling industry of the period. Edgeøya and Tusenøyane was also the main area of the Russian winter hunting expeditions between 1700 and 1850, and the area also has several remains from Norwegian winter expeditions and newer research efforts.

According to sources, it was in this area that the so-called interlopers called their own in the first three decades of the 1600s. This was independent sailors that didn't hunt whales for the large trade companies that basically were given monopoly on the trade. It was probably these independents that started whaling at open sea, since they had to keep away from the main whaling areas on the western coast of Spitsbergen. They resorted to whaling wherever they could. It was probably the same people who started to flay the whales by the sides of the ships.

On the Tusenøyane signs from the Russian pomors have been found in shape of building sites, grave sites, and walrus slaughter spots. Along the west coast of Edgeøya one finds some of Svalbards' largest hunting stations from the Russian period. Today these stations lie in ruin, but are still visible in the landscape. The western coast of Barentsøya also has such stations.

Also the Norwegian winter hunting expeditions left many sites in this area of Svalbard. Perhaps the most famous and most visited of the Norwegian hunting stations is Bjørneborg on Halvmåneøya. Other cabins belonging to the Norwegian hunting period, among them Kapp Lee/Dolorittneset and Villa Disko in the northern part of Diskobukta. This last cabin was built in 1929 by Georg Bjørnnes and the brothers Einar and Eldor Svendsen.