Where To See Polar Bears in The Wild
Listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), polar bears face an uncertain future. But there is hope. In September 2015, the five states whose territories cover this spectacular animal’s range – Canada, Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the US – signed the Circumpolar Action Plan, a 10-year global conservation strategy to secure the long-term survival of polar bears, which number between 22,000 and 31,000 in the wild according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). While it’s too soon to measure its success, this joint commitment nonetheless offers some reassurance that these nations are dedicated to the species’ preservation.
Most people who have been lucky enough to eyeball a wild polar bear would agree it’s one of the most thrilling wildlife-viewing experiences on Earth. Still a relatively young industry, polar bear tourism is not without its challenges. An increase in human-polar bear contact in Norway, for example, has resulted in more bears being shot.
It can also be argued that the carbon emissions generated by tourists travelling to the Arctic to spot bears is counterproductive to the marine mammals’ survival. On the other hand, well-managed polar bear tourism is credited with inspiring visitors to see the necessity of safeguarding their fragile environment. If it’s a trip you dream of taking one day, read on for the best places to ogle these majestic beasts in their Arctic playground.
Canada: Churchill, Manitoba
They don’t call Churchill the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ for nothing. Every autumn, hundreds of polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay near the town of Churchill to wait for the sea ice to refreeze so they can return to hunting seals. The world’s most accessible (and cheapest) polar bear viewing destination, Churchill has a well-established tourism industry. Tours are typically conducted in custom-made tundra buggies with indoor/outdoor viewing areas. These vehicles can get close to the bears without jeopardising human or bear safety, though the elevation of the viewing platforms can present challenges for photographers.
When to go: October and November is peak viewing season in Churchill, but some operators offer packages at their remote lodges in March, when mother bears emerge from their dens with their cubs. Bear watching is combined with beluga whale watching in July and August.
United States: Kaktovik, Alaska
While polar bear populations in the Bering Sea are thought to be decreasing, bears have become such a common fixture on Alaska’s Arctic coast in summer that a tourism industry has developed around their presence in two Inupiat Eskimo villages: Barrow and Kaktovik. Located on Barter Island, just off the coast, Kaktovik is the best place to spot them – lured by the opportunity to feast on the carcasses of bowhead whales that the community are permitted to harvest, polar bears can be spotted by the dozen hanging out on the sand islands that fringe the town. Visitors arrive via small plane from Fairbanks for three- to four-hour viewing tours conducted in small boats equipped for six guests.
When to go: Boat tours run from mid-August until late September/early October.
Norway: Spitsbergen, Svalbard
Halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbardarchipelago harbours a rich array of wildlife among its stunning glaciers and dramatic fjords – including several thousand polar bears. Viewing tours take two forms: in winter, full-day snowmobile tours depart the capital Longyearbyen, on the main island of Spitsbergen, for polar bear territory in the island’s east, where bears can (sometimes) be viewed from a distance. It’s a long, cold day out, but it’s cheaper than summertime expedition cruises that ply the west and north coasts of Spitsbergen. Cruises, however, offer much higher chances of seeing bears.
When to go: February to May for snowmobiling tours; June to August for expedition cruises.