Perhaps the most iconic Arctic animal - and the world's largest carnivore
What you need to know about the Polar Bear
Our Expert Says… "A bear encounter is a real highlight for any Arctic cruise. If you want to see polar bears it's vital that you bring binoculars with you - although we hope for close encounters, we don't always get as near as we would like. My favorite fact about polar bears is that their fur isn't white - it's actually transparent! It's the structure of the hair that gives it the white appearance."
Polar bears need little introduction for most people! These remarkable predators are not only the largest bears in the world but also its largest predatory carnivore.
Weighing up to 700kg (1,500lb) and almost 3m (10ft) in length, male polar bears are around twice the size of females. As well as insulating fur, polar bears have a layer of body fat up to 4” thick to protect them from the cold. This is so effective that polar bears start to overheat rapidly when the air temperature rises above 10C (50F).
Another key adaption for living in an icy cold habitat is the polar bear’s feet. Adult polar bears can have feet over 30cm (12”) across, and these both help to spread the vast weight of the bear when walking over thin ice or snow and give the bear a powerful swimming stroke. The feet and legs can also give the polar bear a surprising turn of speed. When breaking into a sprint polar bears have been clocked at 25mph.
Polar bears also have a remarkable sense of smell. Studies have shown that adult polar bears can smell a seal that is buried under 1m (3ft) of snow from almost a mile away.
Unlike other bears, polar bears don’t fight for territories. However, in the breeding season, males will fight for breeding rights over individual females, and these contests are often vicious. Male polar bears are active all year round, whereas pregnant females will semi-hibernate in “maternity dens” between autumn and spring when they give birth.
Polar bears hunt for ringed seals and bearded seals. Their main hunting technique is to wait stealthily near to seal breathing holes in the ice. When they smell that a seal is coming up to take a breath, they drag it out onto the ice with a paw and then crush the seal’s skull with their jaws. They will also hunt by stalking seals who have hauled out on the ice to rest. The polar bear will stealthily approach to within about 30 or 40ft and then break into a sprint to rush the seal before it can reach the safety of the water.
Polar bears are found within the Arctic circle as far south as Newfoundland, and up to about 88 degrees latitude. They are found in Greenland, Svalbard, Russia, Alaska, and Canada. The species is currently listed as vulnerable, with the most recent estimates of the population being around 30,000 individuals remaining worldwide. The current warming trend of climate change represents the gravest threat to the long-term survival of polar bears, relying as they do on solid sea ice to hunt seals. Reduction and fragmentation of the pack ice is forcing polar bears to swim further at the cost of energy reserves and the reduction in the availability of suitable habitat in which to hunt seals impacts female fertility and cub mortality, as well as body condition of males.
Polar Bear: Interesting facts
The Polar Bear, at home on the pack ice, can also swim over 60 miles/100 kilometres in the open sea, and it is considered to be a terrestrial and a marine mammal!
Polar Bear: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Polar Bear can be observed
A long narrow island of hard bedrock at the entrance to Van Mijentfjorden, the northern fjord arm of Bellsund. It is popular for a Zodiac cruise around the island and through the narrow Mariasundet, with the strong currents that attract seabirds.
There is the chance of landing to explore the geology, but with lots of scouting first to make sure there is not a hidden bear. The surrounding mountains provide some spectacular scenery and some impressive geology. But few cruise ships go further into this deep fjord, preferring to do landings in Bellsund, and to ship cruise into Hornsund.
Narrow strait separating Somerset Island to the north from Murchison Promontory of Boothia Peninsula to the south, the northernmost part of mainland America.
The 2km (1.2 mi) wide and 25 km (16 mi) strait connects the Gulf of Boothia, Prince Regent Inlet, and Brentford Bay to the east with Peel Sound and Franklin Strait to the west. It became a strait on ‘one’ of the NW passage routes. On a map of the Canadian Arctic, unless you look in detail, it is easy to assume the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island is one peninsula. In many ways, with Bellot Strait locked in ice much of the year, it is like the peninsula. Since it is so narrow, it can be a place to look for Narwhal, and, along the shore, Polar Bear, or even wolf.
In northwest Greenland in Melville Bay, the ice sheet comes right down to the coast, separating the very northwest part of Greenland from the rest of western Greenland.
Cape York is one of the first locations on this northwest coast that has tundra and lakes to explore. The mountains and icebergs match this remote location that, in many ways, has far more of a link with the Canadian Arctic, rather than Greenland.
It is one of the most important locations in NW Greenland for breeding seabirds and it can be good for marine mammals. Including traditional hunting ground, whalers and explorers have also visited the area, and the family of Admiral Robert Peary's family placed a monument in honour of his explorations on the cape.
Nice area to explore the tundra and enjoy the magnificent views.
At the very northern end of Baffin Bay and the very northwest of Greenland, Etah looks across the Nares Strait to Ellesmere Island, the area usually frozen from October to July.
The area was the crossing point to Greenland for cultures 4,400 and 2,700 years ago, the Thule culture migrants less than a thousand years ago, and the point of the last migration of the Inuit from Baffin Island reached the coast of Greenland in 1865 Etah was also a starting point for various expeditions attempting to get to the North Pole.
Today the channel, when frozen, continues to be a crossing point for wildlife from Canada to Greenland, even Wolverine get across. Etah used to be the most-northerly populated settlement in the world, but it was abandoned (Inuit moving south to Pituffik) due to the harsh conditions.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
This is the sound between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, flat topped islands compared to Spitsbergen, with tundra flats and slopes below higher cliffs of hexagonal pillars.
This is the preferred route to Hinlopenstretet, although the eastern end is usually blocked off by ice in the early season. Whatever the conditions, it is a great place to look out for bears from the high vantage of the ship. Bears often rest on the tundra on either shore, just be aware there are plenty of reindeer that the inexperienced can mistake for a bear in the early season with their whitish coats. It is also an area where whale and seal carcasses can drift ashore, attracting bears. With the tundra there is still the slight influence of the gulf stream. But once through the eastern end the ship is in the high Arctic and a very different landscape, dominated by the polar desert and ice caps.
The views of NW Spitsbergen, the land of the pointed peaks, is impressive from this area, once it is free of ice. Fuglesongen means ‘bird song’ and thousands of Little Auks breed here, flying around in huge ‘wheels’ of birds and sounding like little trolls!
A few determined groups make a landing here, but it needs calm conditions, sticking out on the NW tip of Spitsbergen. But is still an impressive site to witness for ships that sail between Fuglesongen and Klovningen. There is no land to the north, towards the pole, the area often covered in the pack ice at the start of the season.
Popular landing in Hornsund with spectacular scenery including towering bird cliffs with thousands of breeding Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemots and all the noise (gnål means “nagging” in Norwegian), that attracts Arctic Foxes at the base of the cliff. Geese and reindeer also occur and it is a good location for plants.
Trappers called it Fuglefjell, the location being very popular as a base for hunting bears coming into Hornsund from the key breeding grounds around Hopen in SE Svalbard. The hunter’s cabin at the base of the cliff is famous as the place where the first female trapper stayed, Wanny Wolstead. Even today, staff need to carefully check for bears before going ashore, and sometimes a landing cannot occur if there is a bear on shore.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
The fjords in the inner part of Hornsund is superb to explore by ship with the spectacular rugged scenery, including the distinctive and towering peak known as Hornsundtind. The geology is impressive, and make sure to look out for birds, seals, and even Polar bears.
Deeper in the Fjord, there is the impressive and long glacial front of Hornbreen, and there are glacial fronts in Burgerbutka to the north, and Samarinvågen to the south. These locations are also excellent for Zodiac cruising to get close to the glacial fronts (at a safe distance) and look for wildlife.
Amongst the ice floes is a great place to look for Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals, and the Ivory Gull.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
The two split fjords that form the inner part of Krossfjorden are popular for ship cruising and Zodiac cruising to enjoy the scenery, the glacier fronts, and to look out for wildlife and the chance of a bear.
There are also several options for landings including Möllerhamna, with a hunter’s cabin painted orange that is known the ‘Lloyds Hotel’. Many cruise ships have visited the site for over 100 years, leaving behind mementoes like signs, graffiti (no longer allowed), and a bar. Sigenhamna is another location where there was a German weather station in World War II.
Translating as ‘White Island’, located in the extreme NE of Svalbard it is both a bleak and a beautiful location with most of the island covered by an ice cap, with one rocky peninsula at the eastern end.
Few cruise ships get here, and there are years when it remains in the grip of the pack ice the whole season. It is also the location where the remains of Andrée and his two companions were found, along with the journal, and a tin box containing photographic films. They set off on their ill-fate balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, then disappeared, a mystery for decades until their remains were found on Kvitøya, 33 years later in 1930, an indication of the remoteness of the island and the scarcity of vessels that sailed through the area or landed. With a memorial to the expedition, and just to step ashore, it is a unique landing. But this is often unlikely with changing weather conditions, where the fog can come in quickly, and the fact that that bears are often found here. It is still a great location for a Zodiac cruise, weather permitting, to explore the rocky eastern end, look out for Walrus and bears, and pause to think of the fate of Andrée.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
Isolated fjord, is to the north of the Arctic Circle, and isolated between Scoresbysund further to the north, and the numerous fjords of the SE coast.
The ice sheet comes even closer to the coast here with the Christian IV Glacier at the head of the fjord. Often lots of ice in the fjord, and the isolated location, this has to be one of the best locations in Greenland to try and find a Polar Bear. Some visit this fjord after visiting NE Greenland and before heading to Iceland.
The cruises crossing the Denmark Strait can be great for seabirds and whale watching, including the Northern Bottle-nosed Whale in the seas associated with the continental slope.
The largest glacier on Spitsbergen that flows into the NW sector of Storfjorden with the longest front to any glacier in Svalbard where it reaches the sea.
With numerous carvings it is almost impossible for a ship to get close for a ship to get close, apart from the northern end, but it makes for a stunning Zodiac cruise with the ice cliffs, the icebergs, and the brash ice. As well as looking out for wildlife the area is known for its stunningly beautiful blue icebergs.
Prince Leopold Island
This island is in a key location in Lancaster Sound at the junction of Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow Strait, off the northwest coast of Somerset Island. It has some really impressive and steep seabird cliffs that is one of the most important sites in the Canadian Arctic and a bird sanctuary.
Also good area to look for marine mammals and other Arctic wildlife.
Further around the Northwest coast of Spitsbergen, further to the east, this fjord is often blocked off by the pack ice in the early season before, but is the first area to become free as the pack ice retreats from the NW corner of Spitsbergen.
The mountains in this area are rugged and the coast here may have been the land that Barents saw when he came up with the name of Spitsbergen. The name, ‘red fjord’ comes from the red sandstone in the south and east areas of the fjord. There is a hunter’s wooden cabin at Bruceneset and a cairn for a pioneer that died of scurvy whilst overwintering in 1907/08. The name is for the explorer William S. Bruce, the area named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
A series of hard granite islands that translates as seven islands, islands that are to the north of Nordaustlandet. Being the furthest north in the whole of Svalbard, the islands can remain in the pack ice for much of the year.
Walrus can be seen throughout the area, with at least one popular landing at a haul out. There are plenty of seabirds, and the chance of a bear resting somewhere on one of the islands, sometimes several bears, understandable with the location. With the myriad of islands it is very popular to explore by Zodiac and the area also has important ties to polar exploration. Many of the locations were named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827), including Neslonøya, after a certain young midshipman! Not that long ago the whole area could be trapped in ice throughout the year and just to the east was the area where Nobile’ airship, the Italia, crashed onto the ice, with a huge rescue effort.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
This island is off the NE coast of Nordaustlandet and there is a very large Walrus colony, with lots of mothers with young.
Although it is almost impossible to get ashore with the restrictions and all the Walrus, the terrain, and the chances of bears, it is popular for a Zodiac cruise for ships doing a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago.
On the NW side of Bellsund, this is a huge Little Auk colony amongst the extensive scree on the side of the mountain ridges above the landing beach.
It can be a challenge to get to, and to scout, in case of bears, but it is a stunning wildlife spectacle with thousands of Little Auks wheeling around and calling (sounding like little trolls!). The activity also attracts Arctic Foxes and the tundra, with all the nutrients leaching down, is superb for plants, and to look out for geese and Reindeer.
Along the shore there is the chance of Beluga.
The most westerly of the group, and, like Kvitoya on Svalbard to the west, it is covered by an ice dome. Visited by expedition cruise ships sailing between the two archipelagos. There are two small ice free (almost gravel) areas to land on the wets and north sides – with a decaying weather station at the latter.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.