Why Svalbard is the best place to see a polar bear in the wild

by | Arctic


Where is Svalbard, you ask?

Svalbard is a small Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Circle, about 600 miles from the North Pole and equal distance from Tromso, on the North Cape of Norway.  Not very well known until a few years ago, it is making a name for itself as one of the best places for adventure travel.  The long winter nights are prime season for sightings of the Aurora Borealis while the long summer days are perfect for hiking, dogsledding and other adventurous activities.

Why Svalbard

Svalbard, arguably, is the least off-the-beaten-path location to find a polar bear.  There are more polar bears in the archipelago than there are humans.  They are elusive at the best of times, but particularly in the summer, when the sea ice melts.  During these long summer day polar bears find themselves stranded on the pack ice hundreds of miles from the closest shoreline. They are excellent swimmers and can swim long distances in a single day searching for food.  As ring seals are their main source of food, the bears rely on this pack ice from which to do their hunting.   You will find that by late summer most polar bears have retreated to the shores to wait for the ice to freeze over again in the late fall and winter.

Expedition Cruising

If you have ever taken a cruise, you understand the serenity of standing at the bow of the ship looking out onto the horizon at the endless ocean.  Now close your eyes and imagine seeing ice floes dotting the landscape.  Listen to the hull of your polar class expedition ship tearing through the ice, crunching as it sails through the frigid arctic waters.  You look out towards the horizon and see a polar bear in it’s natural environment.  Is it lounging on the ice absorbing the suns’ rays.  Or is it leaping from one ice floe to the other in search of it’s next meal?  This is truly the most spectacular way see these formidable creatures.  If your lucky, you may find one come curiously close to your ship as was the case for these lucky Expeditioners on their Lindblad Expedition/National Geographic cruise.

Where Else Can You Find Polar Bears in the Wild

Polar bears can be also be found above the Arctic Circle in Alaska,  Canada, Russia and Greenland.  You won’t see polar bears on a typical Alaskan cruise. That climate is far too warm and temperate for a polar bear who requires the hardy temperatures and frozen waters of the Arctic to survive.  To see a polar bear in Alaska, you need to travel to the far north along the Beaufort Sea.  Ever heard of Kaktovik, Alaska?  Click here to find it’s location.  Yup, all the way up there.  

Churchill, Manitoba along the Hudson Bay has become somewhat of a tourist destination for polar bear sightings over the past few years.  These polar bears have arrived in Churchill over the warmer summer months due to the receding sea ice in Hudson Bay.  The melting ice forces them onshore to wait for the bay to refreeze for the winter, usually around November.  They spend these months as scavengers along the shore eating flora and any other plant life they can find just to survive until the sea ice freezes over again and they can go back to hunting seals.

The same holds true for Kaktovik.  Every year the local community is permitted to hunt one bowhead whale whose meat and blubber is divided up among members of the community for provisions to see them through the long, harsh winter.  The carcass is left on the beach and the local polar bear population takeover the clean up.

There is nothing quite like polar bear spotting from an expedition ship.  Catching a glimpse of a mama bear with her cubs looking at you with as much curiosity as you are looking at them.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should be at the top of anyone’s bucket list.  I hope one way you will have the opportunity to experience it!

‘Til next time



P.S.  Download my free expedition cruise guide and find out which cruise companies ply the Arctic waters in search of elusive polar bears.