It’s International Polar Bear Day – 5 places to see them in their natural habitat
In theory, polar bears should be inordinately difficult to see.
The largest and one of the fiercest of all land carnivores, they roam the frozen wastes of the High Arctic, racking up enormous distances in search of food. Camouflaged against the snow and far too dangerous to approach on foot – if, that is, you can find them – the bears are often as elusive as they are magnificent.
However, as unwilling poster children for the melting ice cap, polar bear awareness has been snowballing for some years, and bear-centric itineraries have sprung up across the Arctic to meet the new demand.
They only live in five countries – Russia, Canada, United States, Denmark and Norway – so the choice is fairly straightforward. It is always imperative that you travel with a guide – polar bear tours are heavily regulated, and it goes without saying that you don’t want to venture into their territory unprepared.
1. Churchill, Canada
The self-proclaimed ‘polar bear capital of the world’, the town of Churchill in the Canadian province of Manitoba is justifiably confident in its polar bear credentials. Hundreds of bears flock to the town every year to hunt seal on the shores of Hudson Bay, and thousands of tourists flock to watch them do so.
Churchill is probably the simplest of the world’s polar bear-spotting spots, and is therefore one of the cheapest. Most operators will ferry you around in large, open-topped tundra vehicles, which curious bears often approach and examine mere metres from your camera lens.
Great White Bear Tours offer a day of bear-watching for £275, or seven day package tours starting from £5,120.
2. Svalbard, Norway
Svalbard is mostly famous for two things: Inspiring the setting for Sky Atlantic’s hit drama Fortitude, and having loads and loads of polar bears.
Indeed, with a human population of 2,500, this Norwegian archipelago has more polar bears than people. The government works hard to keep the two species separate, and with no roads outside the main settlements you’ll need to travel either by boat or snowmobile.
Either way, you’ll be treated to a visual feast of glaciers and fjords, and (probably) some polar bears. The boat trips record more sightings, but are longer, pricier and lack the fun factor of ploughing through pristine powder with the wind blowing through your hair.
Natural World Safaris offer 11-day cruises from £7,195, or 5-day snowmobile safaris from £1,850.
3. Wrangell Island, Russia
A few facts about Wrangel Island: a vast hunk of rock 140km north of Russia’s northeast coast, the average year-round temperature is below -10 degrees, and so-called “cyclonic episodes” result in winds of a ferocity rare even for the High Arctic.
Nicknamed ‘the polar bear maternity ward’, Wrangel Island has the highest density of denning polar bears anywhere in the world, and those willing to brave the elements will see the bears and cubs in a uniquely intimate environment.
Intrepid tour operators run nature cruises from the comparatively temperate Siberian city of Anadyr. Most last 15 days and circumnavigate the island, but some longer trips will take you ashore in a special tundra vehicle. By the time you reach the bears, you’ll feel just as much part of the wilderness as they are.
Heritage Expeditions offer 15 day boat tours from £8,290.
4. Kaktovik, Alaska
In Kaktovik – a tiny Iñupiat village on Alaska’s northern coast – humans and polar bears live hand-in-paw. Indigenous whalers hunt a subsistence quota of three bowhead whales every year, leaving behind a pile of bones and residue that brings the famously solitary bears together in droves.
Easy to see from any boat loitering offshore, tourism has exploded over the last few years, and the village now receives more visitors each year than it has residents. Package tours from Fairbanks will fly you in and out on a day trip, or travel there independently and spend a night in bear country.
Akook Arctic Adventures offers four hour trips for £368, or eight hour trips for £739.
The fifth and final polar bear nation, Greenland is not a go-to for bear-spotting. The problem is population density: the island houses fewer bears than Svalbard despite being 35 times the size, meaning that sightings can be infuriatingly infrequent.
Fortunately the bears congregate on the Northern shorelines, so a boat trip up the coast still offers hope.
There are plenty of reasons to explore the Greenland wilderness, but if polar bears are your only goal then maybe opt for one of the above.
Aurora Expeditions offer a 13-day East Greenland tour from £6,090.
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