How to see Polar Bears in Svalbard

December 17, 2020 Doug O'Neill

King of the Arctic. Nanuk. The Rider of Icebergs. White Sea Deer. The Seal’s Dread. The Sailor of the Floe. Ursus maritimus.

How to see polar bears in Svalbard

Polar bears thrive along the ice edge, where water meets ice. They're the largest land carnivore
in the world. Photo: Hugo Perrin

Polar bears are known by many different names, a sign of how they’re universally revered. These incredibly majestic creatures of the north occupy a special place in the hearts of nature lovers the world-over who dream of seeing polar bears in their natural environment.

One only needs to observe a polar bear sauntering stealthily across the an-covered Arctic landscape, as I did in Svalbard in the spring of 2019, to appreciate the animal’s almost regal qualities. It’s truly one of the most noblest of creatures. Not only is the polar bear at the top of the food chain in the Arctic wilderness (as illustrated in this informative blog “Meet the Polar Bear"), it’s frequently at the top of the pecking order of most-sought-after wildlife sightings. Books and movies have long immortalized polar bears which has amplified the universal reverence for the magnificent animal.

The physical size of polar bears, for starters, renders us awestruck. Adult male polar bears typically weigh 350 to more than 600 kilograms (775 to more than 1,300 pounds). Females are “smaller”—but still weigh in at 150 to 290 kilograms (330 to 650 pounds). Their size, according to Polar Bears International, can vary depending on the availability of their prey—seals—and the quality of sea ice. Polar bears sighted on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, have measured up to three metres long. They’re the largest land carnivore in the world. It’s no wonder people are so eager to find out how to see polar bears in Svalbard.

Wildlife enthusiasts are often surprised to learn that polar bears are marine mammals. They spend most of their lives swimming between ice floes and across Arctic bays as evident in this video “Polar Bears on Ice. As Alysa McCall, a staff scientist with Polar Bears International, writes, “Polar bears are the only species of bear that fully depends on a marine ecosystem. To live and thrive in their freezing cold Arctic habitat, polar bears must consume vast amounts of seal blubber, one of the most calorie-dense foods on the planet. And where is this food found? The ocean!”

Where to see polar bears in Svalbard
Zodiac cruising in Svalbard

Zodiacs enable expedition guests to be fully immersed in the polar environments for the best wilderness
viewing experiences. Photo: Grange Productions

Polar bears. Largest land carnivore

Adult male polar bears can weigh as much as 600 kilograms/1,300 pounds. Females can 
weigh as much as 290 kilograms/ 650 pounds
. Photo: Sam Crimmin

As explained by experts at Polar Bear International, polar bears need two things to survive and thrive: sea ice (which provides a hunting ground and habitat) and seals (their main food source.) Svalbard offers plenty of both, especially on and near the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, Spitsbergen, which is known as the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.

Highly nomadic, polar bears are known to roam widely in the search for Bearded and Ringed seals. Since the food source inhabits areas with sea ice—travelling to those ice-laden parts of Svalbard is how to see polar bears in Svalbard. Higher densities of polar bears are found on the east coast and along the fjords in the northern part of the island.

The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) reported that “The most important hibernation areas on Svalbard are located on the islands of Kongsoya, Svenskoya, Edgeoya, Nordaustlandet and Hopen.” Quark Expeditions endeavors to visit such polar bear-friendly destinations in Svalbard, such as Nordaustlandet and others, on many of its Spitsbergen itineraries, including Spitsbergen In-depth: Big Islands, Big Adventure voyage.  Because polar bears are nomadic, Quark Expeditions offers an itinerary without a set itinerary—designed specifically for those wishing to photograph polar bears: Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears. On these voyages, the captain of the vessel, the Expedition Leader and onboard polar bear experts pool their knowledge of polar bear habitats and ability to read sea ice conditions—which are ever changing—and reroute their vessel to maximize opportunities to see polar bears in Svalbard.

Polar bears live on the ice edge

Polar bears are marine mammals. The sea and ice together provide habitat, transportation (polar bears
are excellent swimmers) and food. Photo: Sam Crimmin

Guests on this expedition have ample time to linger and photograph bears found hunting on the ice edge. But, of course, there are always plenty of other wildlife encounters: walrus, whales and seabirds. Arctic fox and Svalbard reindeer are sometimes spotted on Zodiac excursions to shore.  

Arctic expeditions with onboard wildlife experts provide travelers to learn about polar bears from expert presentations and learning opportunities. Understanding little-known facts about polar bears fosters a greater appreciation of these wonderful creatures once the guest sees them in the flesh.

How many polar bears are in Svalbard?

The polar bear population in the Svalbard archipelago and Barents Sea area is estimated to be around 3,000, which exceeds the region’s human population of 3,500. It’s believe that approximately 300 polar bears inhabit Spitsbergen—most of them, of course, along the edge of the ice, accessible by a polar vessel.

When to see Polar Bears in Svalbard

Seasoned expedition guides have found that May to August/September are the best months to see polar bears in Svalbard. The sea ice has melted enough during this period for ships to navigate the icy waters, and the extensive daylight makes conditions ideal to photograph polar bears, especially as they hunt for seals along the pack ice. 

On my first Spitsbergen expedition in the spring of 2019 on the Spitsbergen Highlights: Expedition in Brief voyage, I didn’t have to wait long before I saw a polar bear along the sea ice. Our polar vessel Ocean Endeavour had just left  the port at Longyearbyen, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world,  when we heard the expedition leader Dave Wood alert the guests that a polar bear had been spotted on the starboard side of the vessel. There, at the edge of the sea ice, stood a female polar bear guarding its freshly caught prey, a ringed seal.

How to see polar bears in Svalbard? Expert tip!

When asked for the best tip to see a polar bear, Thea Bechshoft, a staff scientist with Polar Bears International, said:  “To maximize your chances of seeing a bear up close from the safety of the ship, there are two important rules to follow: be patient and be quiet!” That long-awaited moment will live on forever.

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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