Best places to see polar bears in the Arctic

First things first: if you see penguins, you’re in the wrong place. Polar geography 101: bears at the top, birds at the bottom. Polar bears are perfectly attuned to living in the harsh Arctic environment, their thick white fur camouflaging them against the snow, while their black skin absorbs the sun, keeping them warm even when swimming for hours. But it’s an environment that is changing rapidly around them, and the bears are struggling to keep up. Climate change means the ice they depend on is disappearing, making hunting more difficult, forcing them to wander further and further, and bringing them into closer contact with human communities which can often result in them being shot.

Unfortunately, we may be one of the last generations with the privilege of being able to see polar bears in the wild, and the best way to do this is aboard a non-intrusive Arctic cruise, where you will follow a roaming itinerary that brings you to locations where bear sightings are very likely. In almost every instance you’ll need binoculars, as bears are usually spotted from some distance away (but then who wants to be within touching distance of a polar bear anyway?) and cruises have expert spotters aboard, who will wake you in the middle of the night if there is an exciting sighting to be had.
Patience and perseverance are essential, but the knowledge that a bear can appear at a moment’s notice keeps people rooted to the observation deck. They are seen trudging across pack ice, hunting seals, swimming between ice floes with their cubs, sometimes rearing up on their hind legs to sniff the breeze. Earlier in the cruise season, the bears will be hungry after winter and prowling the barren tundras in search of food – it’s not unusual to witness a thrilling confrontation. Polar bears tend to be solitary, but the carcass of a whale or walrus will draw several in at once and can provide the best chance for a prolonged view of larger numbers of polar bears.
Every effort is made to minimise the risk of encountering polar bears on shore visits as make no mistake, they can potentially be dangerous. Armed guards with expert knowledge of bear behaviours occupy vantage points to watch the perimeters. Bears are generally curious but cautious, and easily startled, so tend to keep their distance from people. Travelling with a responsible operator means you can have confidence that their interests are prioritised at all times. The polar bear is an icon not only of the Arctic but also of the conservation movement and several of the operators on our site also take a proactive stance on conservation, supporting charities and other organisations such as Polar Bears International.

Baffin Island Polar bears

Canada’s largest island, and one of the largest in the world, is thought to have been name-checked in the legendary Icelandic Sagas. It is a landscape majestic in its wildness, and polar bears can frequently be observed along the coastline. Cruises to Baffin Island will often focus on the offshore Monumental Island, where fierce encounters between walruses and polar bears are sometimes seen.

Franz Josef Land archipelago

The only inhabitants of this vast archipelago are Russian military personnel, so the wildlife has been allowed to flourish unhindered. Substantial numbers of polar bears wander scenery that appears almost lunar, and there is plenty of other wildlife, too. Arctic foxes can be seen near seabird colonies, and the waters contain beluga whales as well as narwhals and orcas. Franz Josef Land is almost completely deserted, so tourism is rare, and Arctic cruises here introduce you to some of the region’s most mysterious landscapes.

North East Greenland

Bears prowl the rugged coastline of Greenland, and are often seen drifting on ice floes. The approach from Spitsbergen is suitably dramatic: towering mountains topped with the world’s second-largest icesheet. A great opportunity also to explore Inuit culture, and the history of Norwegian trapping industry here, as well as to see other wildlife including Arctic foxes and hares, and musk oxen on the tundra.
Travel Team
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Svalbard Archipelago

Most Arctic cruises focus on Norway’s far north Svalbard archipelago, and its largest island, Spitsbergen. There are thought to be around 3,000 polar bears living here, more than there are people. The icy plains of Phippsoya and Isbukta are favourite polar bear hunting grounds and a great place to look out for them. They also abound in the Hindlopen Strait to the east, around Prins Karls Forland where you can see the sad remains of bear hunting camps, and especially close to Ny Ålesund, where bears and Arctic foxes alike hang around the Alkefjellet cliffs hoping for bird eggs to drop. As summer continues, the bears move north in search of seals.

Wrangel Island

About as far east as you can get before hitting Alaska, Wrangel Island is predominantly made up of a Russian nature reserve where polar bears breed along with reindeer, musk ox and Pacific walrus. This is a seriously isolated destination right at the top of the world, where woolly mammoths once roamed. Arctic cruises around Wrangel Island take you into nature as its wildest.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Annie Spratt] [Top box: Christopher Michel] [Northeast Greenland: Jerzy Strzelecki ] [Svalbard: AWeith]