The Best Place to See Polar Bears and Northern Lights

December 17, 2020 Doug O'Neill

The majestic polar bear. The breathtakingly beautiful Northern Lights.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to observe polar bears and the Northern Lights on the same journey.

The best place to see polar bears and the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights witnessed by guests on a Quark Expeditions voyage in East Greenland. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Polar bear hunting a seal in Svalbard

A polar bear spotted just after a kill in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Photo: Acacia Johnson

The first step, of course, is determining the best place to see polar bears and Northern Lights.

 What regions do polar bears live in?

Most polar bears are found within the Arctic Circle, though there are some polar bear populations further south in the Hudson Bay area of Northern Manitoba, Canada.  But, for the most part, polar bears inhabit remote northern Arctic regions across five countries: the United States (Alaska, of course),  northern Canada (the Canadian High Arctic is popular for polar bear sightings), remote Russia, Greenland, and Norway, specifically on islands such as Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago.

Polar bears differ from other large carnivores in that they don’t have “territories” per se. A polar bear’s sea ice habitat (which provides the biggest part of its diet—seals) is constantly moving and changing. Their domain is larger in winter because of the expansive ice, and smaller of course when the warmer temperatures melt that vital sea ice.

People often ask if there are polar bears in the Antarctic. The answer is no. For quick and easy reference, follow the advice of biologist and seasoned expedition guide Nick Engelmann: for polar bears head to the Arctic; to observe penguins you’ll have better luck by booking a trip to the Antarctic.

The Best Place to See Polar Bears and Northern Lights

Now, let’s address the burning question from travelers who are searching for the best place to see polar bears and Northern Lights.

Since you now know where polar bears are found, let’s consider the prime regions to see the Northern Lights.

The best places to see the Northern Lights are areas closer to the Arctic Circle, such as the Canadian Arctic, Iceland, Norway, Alaska, and Greenland. The northern lights also appear in Sweden and Finland but you’ll want to avoid any areas with significant populations which have lots of humanmade light. The rule of thumb: The farther north you travel the greater your chances of witnessing the Northern Lights. Cloudy nights can greatly diminish your chances of seeing the Aurora borealis.

 Polar Bear and Northern Lights Tours

Northern Lights from deck of polar ship

A Quark Expeditions guests witnessed the Northern Lights from the deck of a polar vessel. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Experienced polar operators, such as Quark Expeditions (which has been travelling to the Arctic since 1991), know from decades of experience where to find the best place to see polar bears and Northern Lights in a number of regions. It’s widely accepted in the outdoor travel space that your best nature experiences happen the further you are from urban centres and populated settlements.

One of the best Northern Lights tours is Quark Expeditions’ Under the Northern Lights” Exploring Iceland and East Greenland. Guests board their polar vessel in Iceland, where many travelers have experienced stunning displays of the Northern Lights. Then the journey continues onto Greenland, where you’ll have—in my opinion—even better chances of viewing the Northern Lights. As photographer and expedition guide Acacia Johnson can attest, some of “the world’s brightest aurora [occur]…in an oval about 20 degrees around the magnetic North Pole.” So with clear skies, darkness (away from humanmade light pollution), patience, planning (that’s where expedition guides come in handy), and a little luck, Greenland is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. (Some interesting folklore has developed around the Northern Lights, which you can read in “Of Legends and Folklore: Greenland’s Northern Lights” blog.)

The “Under the Northern Lights” itinerary includes a stop in Ittoqqortoormiit (formerly known as Scoresbysund), a small settlement in eastern Greenland where polar bears are frequently sighted.

And because an estimated 3,000 polar bears make their home in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard (of which Spitsbergen is the largest island) and the Barents Sea region, consider  Quark Expeditions’ Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears voyage.

Curious polar bears in Svalbard

A polar bear on the sea ice in Spitsbergen, Norway, appears to be as curious about the human
visitors as they are about the majestic King of the Arctic. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Another excellent option for the best place to see polar bears and the Northern Lights is Quark Expeditions’ Best of the Western Arctic: Canada and Greenland voyage. The days are getting shorter in September/October when this trip is offered and, as we all know by now, the more darkness you have on a given evening the greater your chances of seeing incredible Northern Lights display. And polar bears inhabit the region, as well.

The beauty of taking journeys with specific goals is that we invariably encounter other wonders along the way. Polar expeditions are almost always like that. No doubt you’ll fulfill your dreams of seeing polar bears in their natural environment and standing in awe as you witness incredible Northern Lights displays, but you’ll also see a myriad of other magnificent sights—including icebergs, glaciers, whales, walruses, reindeer and more. As American writer Lawrence Block once said: “Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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