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Polar BearPolar Bear

Polar Bear

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 & Videos

Polar Bear
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Spots where the Polar Bear can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
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.

Our trips to spot the Polar Bear

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