Polar bear habitat ranges from Alaska to Greenland and thus we have a variety of polar bear tours and there are number of ways in which you can see a polar bear on holiday, especially in the Arctic or on one of our Spitsbergen Cruises. They are increasingly popular, and rightly so, seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat is both a privilege and rather belittling.
We are often asked, “Where is the best place to see polar bears?” There are no short answer but for some suggestions please read our polar bear expert, Sue Grimwood’s piece on where to see polar bears or have a look through some of our featured polar bear holidays.
SOME FACTS ABOUT POLAR BEARS:
Latin name: Ursus maritimus (literally sea bear which is very apt as polar bears are excellent swimmers).
Where found: Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russian federation, Alaska in the United States and also occasionally Iceland.
Polar bears are very easy to differentiate from other bear species.. Polar bears actually have black skin - their thick, hollow hairs reflect light to make its coat look white, sometimes creamy yellow and even light brown in the summer. A polar bear’s fur acts both as camouflage and insulation.
Male polar bears can weigh up to 800kgs and are over three metres long. Females are almost half their size. Polar bears have huge feet that help balance and support their weight evenly on the ice. Their feet act as great snow shoes and also as efficient paddles in the water when they are swimming. On the pads of their feet they have small grips called papillae, which increase the friction on the snow and ice, making it easier for the polar bear to walk.
Polar bears are the largest living land carnivore. They feed mainly on seals but can also scavenge on carcasses of beluga whales, narwhals, bowhead whales and walruses. When charging they can run as fast as 25mph for short distances. There are four different ways a polar bear will capture their food:
- Still’ hunting is the most common method of hunting. This is when the polar bear will remain motionless beside a breathing hole waiting for a seal to appear.
- Stalking on land is the stalking method used when seals are hauled out of the sea.
- Aquatic stalk is very similar to stalking on land, except the polar bear will be in the water and will emerge and grab the seal from the breathing hole
- Stalking birth lairs - this takes place in the Spring when ring seals give birth to their pups.
In spite of the variety of ways in which polar bears can catch their prey, only 2% of their hunts are successful.
CONSERVATION AND THREATS:
Polar bears are at risk from an increasing number of threats including climate change and oil and gas exploration.
The earth is getting warmer and the polar ice caps are melting, which means polar bears cubs, unable to swim long distances, will struggle to survive.
Another problem facing the polar bears is oil development and pollution. As oil development imposes on polar bear habitat, the risk of oil spillages increases. Studies have shown that polar bears exposed to oil will absorb large quantities into their fur, this will lead to digesting oil when grooming themselves, which will in turn lead to kidney failure, digestive system disorder and brain damage that can result in death.
Tourism and taking a polar bear tour or a polar bear watching holiday are one way in which you can help protect polar bears. Join one of our polar bear tours.
POLAR BEARS – WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO SEE POLAR BEARS?
I often get asked when and where is the best time and place to see polar bears. My answer to this depends on what you want to experience and, to a lesser extent, your time and budget.
For Spitsbergen or Svalbard, during the summer months you are virtually guaranteed to see polar bears; I am yet to send anyone who hasn’t. The best way to experience them is during an expeditionary cruise. These start in Longyearbyen and sail around the Svalbard Archipelago to areas where bears are known to frequent. Most voyages will see somewhere between 6 and 10 bears, although we have had one client who had 30 sightings. If you want to see bears on ice then the early season is better. Sightings out in the sea ice are normally from the main ship and bears on land are generally seen during zodiac cruises. If a bear is sighted during a landing, you will return to the zodiacs and view from a safe distance of around 50 metres. Spitsbergen also gives a great overview of Arctic wildlife, scenery and history. A relatively short European flight makes this the most accessible option from the UK and voyages vary from 7 – 13 nights, departing late May to September. We also offer dog-sledding and skidooing trips during the winter where occasionally polar bears are sighted but I would not recommend these if polar bears are your main focus.
If you want to see bears on land and get very close encounters then Canada’s Hudson Bay around Churchill is the place for you. From here, there are a number of options. You can base yourself in town and take daily excursions by tundra vehicles or you can stay in a basic tundra lodge and again go out on excursions. The vehicles we use all offer 30 plus seats but we only take groups of 16 to guarantee everyone has a window seat. These departures are offered in October and November when bears congregate on the shores waiting for the bay to freeze. They are often very curious and come right up to the vehicles to check out the contents. At the rear of the vehicle there is outside access so you can look straight down on the bears through the grill.
For those wanting to see bears uninhibited in the wild then a walking safari from one of our lodges located close to Churchill has to be the most exhilarating way of experiencing polar bears. Depending on when you travel you may see mothers and cubs through to fully grown adult males. Small groups are led by experienced guides who monitor the bears’ behaviour to allow close encounters where both bear and client are relaxed in each other’s company. Your heart will be in your mouth and your pulse will race but once you begin to trust the guides this is a truly memorable wildlife encounter. During the summer months this can be combined with swimming with belugas that congregate in huge numbers along the Hudson Bay coastline.
Further afield, Wrangel and Herald Islands in Russia’s far northeast is a challenge to get to but has one of the highest concentrations of mothers and cubs in the world; often referred to as the polar bear maternity ward. If the complications of visas and a very long journey don’t put you off, you will be one of very few people who have reached this distant land. On my voyage here we saw over 100 polar bears along with two brown bears on the Chukotka coastline. Here, again, you can walk with a guide but you are not likely to get too close due to the concentration of bears. You can also expect to see musk ox, walrus, relics from the cold war era and meet with the Chukchi peoples of the region.
I have also been lucky enough to enjoy good polar bear sightings while expedition voyaging within the Canadian Arctic, from the Northwest Passage to as far south as Labrador in the Torngat ranges. Baffin Island has a great population of bears and the ice in the Northwest Passage region attracts lots of seals which in turn attract polar bears.
You will never forget your first polar bear sighting and despite having now seen more than 150 I still get excited when I see Nanuq, the King of the North.
Sue Grimwood| Steppes Travel Family Expert