Arctic Polar Bear Tours
For many wildlife enthusiasts a Polar Bear tour to see these great white bears of the Arctic in their natural surroundings is right at the top of their wish list. The polar bear is a stunningly beautiful and regal creature that just demands respect! It is the largest land predator in the world and an extremely powerful hunter. Its flat, oar-like feet make it a remarkable swimmer, while its acute sense of smell allows it to locate seats even under the ice. Watching a polar bear hunt its prey is an unrivalled wildlife spectacle.
There are two relatively easy to access regions of the world where you can reliably view polar bears on the ice, from a safe distance and in natural habitat: Churchhill in Arctic Canada, and Spitsbergen, an island off Norway.
Churchill Arctic Polar Bear Tour
The world’s densest population of polar bears are found in Churchill, Canada, where the WWF estimates that there are as many as 1,000 of the bears. The bears of Churchill gather along Hudson Bay in the autumn, where they wait for the ice to freeze, allowing them to hunt. Of course, with the recent situation of a warming climate, the melting of the ice sheets is a real danger to the Bears’ future.
From Churchill you can travel out onto the tundra in vehicles designed specially for Polar Bear tours, with large windows and spacious decks (with steel mesh for safety) allowing for easy viewing.The vehicles are able to get relatively close to the bears without disturbing them, and at the right time of year you can often expect to see polar bear cubs.
Polar bears are found at all times of the year in Churchill, but the best time of year is during the late autumn (October to November), when they begin to congregate on the edge of Hudson Bay. This is our recommended time for a Churchill Polar Bear tour.
Spitsbergen Arctic Polar Bear Tour
The second option for viewing Polar Bears is to sail around the pack-ice of North Spitsbergen, Svalbard, during the summer months, which provides excellent opportunities for polar bear viewing. Apart from a few settlements, there are no roads on Spitsbergen, so the best way to reach the more remote regions of the island are on a cruise, with the option to head ashore on Zodiacs.
Departing from the town of Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Svalbard archipelago, the polar-bear viewing cruises set sail to various locations around the archipelago, providing an opportunity to admire the region’s stunning, unspoilt scenery – of fjords, ice floes and glaciers, as well as its wildlife. (The birdlife is also brilliant, the Arctic supporting a remarkably wide variety of birds including rarities such as the King Elder, as well as thriving seabird colonies that are visible among the cliffs of the region)
This region is the natural home of the King of the North, the Polar bear, and while sightings are not guaranteed, they are typical. You will not typically be able to get as close as you can in Churchill, but expect to see the beautiful creatures out on the glacier from a distance, with great opportunities for keen wildlife photographers. Cruising Spitsbergen you might also spot that largest of marine mammals, the whale; Fin, Humpback, Blue and Greenland Whales, are all found in the region.
If I had to weigh up the relative advantages and disadvantages of Spitsbergen and Churchill for polar bear viewing, I’d say that Churchill offers the best opportunities for close-range viewing as well as more or less guaranteed sightings–and in comfort (the lodge at Churchill is wonderful)! Spitsbergen offers remote wilderness and greater opportunities for viewing wildlife other than polar bears. It is also, for our UK clients, a relatively short flight away.
If you have been on a Polar Bear tour we’d love to hear about your experiences. Let us know in the comments below.