Sea Bears, Ice Bears, Polar Bears – Ursus maritimus

I like to call polar bears ‘sea bears’. After all this is the literal translation of their Latin name. Of course if you want to see a polar bear it is rather difficult to do so out to sea. Aim therefore to look for ‘ice bears’ as the Scandinavians and the Germans call them.

Polar bears need ice to hunt effectively and your best opportunity to see them is when they are not spread out around the Arctic hunting. In Summer they are held captive by the lack of sea-ice in Svalbard and in late Autumn they tend to gather around places like Churchill in Canada waiting for the ice to form again so they can fatten up for winter.

The prey of choice for the polar bear is seals. During the winter and spring seals tend to come out on to the ice to rest or give birth near their breathing holes becoming a prime target for the bears. While a lot of this happens far out to sea and a long way from ‘civilisation’ the opportunity for viewing bears becomes greater as the snow melts. There is nothing wrong with this under normal circumstances as it is part of the bears’ annual cycle. However as the sea-ice melts earlier and reforms later each year life is more difficult for polar bears.

Ursus Maritimus is an iconic species and unfortunatley in danger. The giant white bear of the north is endangered with some 20-25,000 living wild depending on the source. Given ever shorter winters and longer warmer summers their hunting seasons are reduced. Therefore to see Polar Bears in their natural environment one needs to hurry.

We can only hope that ethical and conscientious eco-tourism in the Arctic will draw attention to the plight of the bears and promote a healthier-for-the-environment lifestyle around the world.

I outline here the three main, easily accessible areas you can see polar bears in the wild. Northern Alaska, Churchill in Northern Canada and Svalbard in Norway.

Polar Bear in the Arctic, sniffing the air for a hint of dinner. Seals are the bears favourite.

Spitsbergen – Arctic Europe

A lot of people refer to Svalbard as Spitsbergen. To be precise Svalbard is an archipelago and Spitsbergen is its largest island.  Anyway both of them lie about 800 km (500 miles) north of the Northern tip of Norway proper. To get there you need to fly via Norway either from the capital Oslo or from Tromsø in the north.

The only settlement of note in the archipelago is Longyearbyen named after an American miner who founded the Arctic Coal Company. Coal is still about the only thing going on this far north other than tourism and research. The town of about 2000 inhabitants is a good place to base yourself for numerous excursions by both land and sea.

Polar bears are officially everywhere. In fact it is forbidden by the governor to walk outside of town without a weapon for protection. Sometimes even warnings are given about walking within town as well. Most of the time though you won’t see a bear in the Advent Fjord or Longyear Valley, the surrounding area to the main town.

For Bears you have to go further afield and the best way to see them is on a cruise. There are a few day cruises available during the tourist season but a longer one to the further icefields is a better option. Also timing is important. The spring ice break-up is the best time to see bears.

Specially made Tundra Buggys are a must around polar bears. They are a useful way of getting out to see bears in Churchill, Manitoba

The Polar Bear Capital of the World

Churchill in Northen Manitoba is the self-proclaimed Polar Bear Capital of the World. A claim that is hard to dismiss given the numbers of bears that gather here in the late autumn while they wait for the ice to reform.

Churchill is a little bit more accessible than Svalbard. You can arrive by three hour flight from southern Canada or by train over two days and 1700 km. There is still no road linking the town to more populated areas of the country in the South. I say South advisably since Churchill’s position on Hudson Bay is still below the half-way-north line of Canada. Churchill is far enough north though that in October, which is prime polar bear viewing season, the night-time temperatures are pretty much always below freezing.

The big draw of Churchill is really the accessibility of polar bears. One is almost guaranteed a sighting. There are many options but the simplest is one of their special Tundra-buggys. These are really just busses designed with massive wheels to allow you to go anywhere on the tundra over ice and snow and marshy land, permitting you to get up close and personal with the bears. Well personal might not be too accurate as safety of passengers and bears is paramount. Therefore the vehicles are designed to make sure the two stay separate. However you can get very close to polar bears this way.

Tundra tours are generally full day tours and include a picnic style lunch on the tundra. On company offering these tours is Frontiers North. They also offer other tours of the area as there is more to see than just bears in Churchill. Beluga whales come to the river mouth in summer and there is of course the Northern Lights in wintertime as well.

Seals are a favorite food of Polar Bears. They often lie on ice to rest and bears are best at catching seals on ice. In this case though maybe there isn't enough ice.

Alaska

Another top spot for viewing polar bears is the northern coast of Alaska. Once more getting there isn’t easy. Long expensive flights are necessary. Barrow, one of Alaska’s hotspots for bears, is a couple of hours from Fairbanks. One can avoid half the flight by taking the spectacular Dalton Highway north to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean first. The Dalton highway was of course made famous by the Ice Road Truckers tv show. It travels through amazing countryside including the Brooks Range Mountains.

Travel in Alaska though is pretty pricey even if you do everything yourself. My recommendation is to take one of the many tours to the area. Wild Alaska Travel are one such company. Though they aren’t cheap they take care of everything including transfers from Fairbanks. Their polar bear tour takes you to Kaktovik on the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It isn’t luxury but the remoteness of the destination and the fantastic natural wonders make up for it. Included boat excursions and walks mean that you should get to see a polar bear on your trip.

Arctic foxes also patrol the Polar regions.

Other Arctic Species

Of course going wildlife watching doesn’t ever guarantee that you will see what you want. Quite often you don’t. However the most important thing is to keep your eyes open at all times. There is always something else to see in nature.

If you are in the Arctic you will probably be going to see a polar bear and hoping you do. There is nothing wrong with that but some of the other species are just as amazing.

Beluga Whales

If you go to Churchill in Canada at the wrong time then you probably won’t see any bears though you might given how unpredictable wildlife is. However during the summer months (July and August) you are likely to see Beluga Whales. These white whales come into the warmer shallow waters of Hudson Bay to give birth.

Whale watching trips are available and other species are commonly sighted in the other polar bear regions as well.

Wolves

Across Northern Canada and Alaska you will find wolves. They are not so easy to see but some outfitters offer trips to track them, a nice change from trying to see bears out on the ice.

Arctic Fox

Another member of the dog family the white fox is cutest in winter but harder to see. During the summer months though the fox moults and is a darker greyish color. During this time the arctic fox generally is a hunter as opposed to his winter scavenging. Favourite prey is birds and bird eggs.

Around Svalbard the best time to see a fox is in August when the young birds are fledging. Lots of species of sea birds nest on cliffs for protection. However since the cliffs aren’t always directly above the water not all the young can make it to the sea on their first flight. Those that fall short are easy pickings for foxes. Guillemots and little auks make good food for a fox trying to fatten up for the winter.

Arctic Hare

The arctic hare is very visible on the tundra in the summer. Unlike the fox it doesn’t moult. The young however are pretty well camouflaged so it is harder to see them.

Reindeer/Caribou

One of the most numerous non-domestic mammals on the planet the wild reindeer covers the tundra. However given the amount of space they have you might not see them.  Some operators, such as Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures, have camps along the main migration paths. However it isn’t cheap but then again no organised or nearly guaranteed wildlife viewing is cheap these days.