Into The Wild: A Guide to Polar Bear Viewing in Svalbard

Have you ever wondered where polar bears are found?

One of the main reasons why people visit Svalbard is to spend time witnessing the vast array of Arctic wildlife that can be seen there. One of the main attractions is seeing a polar bear in the wild. 

In this guide I want to share with you my experience of encountering polar bears in the wild to give you more understanding of what you can expect on your expedition.

Where polar bears are found

Polar bears are only found in the northern hemisphere so don’t expect to see one if you visit Antarctica.

The majority of polar bears live above the Arctic circle and can be found anywhere as far north as the North pole.

In Canada, the Hudson Bay population lives south of the Arctic circle. 

Polar bears live in five different nations, Norway (Svalbard Islands), Greenland (mainly in the north and east) Alaska, Canada, and Russia.

The natural habitat of Polar bears is the Arctic sea ice, where they hunt for food such as seals. The sea ice is vast and constantly shifting.

Polar Bears follow the sea ice to hunt their prey on. In areas with less sea ice Polar bears have to travel farther and have longer periods with no food. 

polar bear in svalbard

This capture was taken at a distance using a telephoto lens from a Zodiac during a misty morning in northern Svalbard.

Where to see polar bears in Svalbard

Polar bears can be seen anywhere on the Svalbard islands. The vast majority of sightings take place away from the human settlements of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.

Polar bears are often sighted on land in the North and East of Svalbard, and hunting on the sea ice which extends from the north of Svalbard all the way to the north pole. 

Throughout the summer the sea ice usually moves away from the land and by late August it can be 50 miles north of Svalbard making it harder to reach.

Svalbard small group tour

The same bear as above after the mist had cleared feeding off the carcass of a dead whale.

The best way to see polar bears in Svalbard

The best and safest way to see polar bears in Svalbard is on an expedition cruise during the summer months. 

For the best chances of polar bear encounters we recommend:

  • The smallest ship sizes possible. This gives greater flexibility and a lot less disturbance than a large ship. At Secret Atlas we offer the smallest group sizes in Svalbard with ship sizes as low as 12 guests. See our Svalbard voyages here.
  • The longer the trip the more time you have to increase your chances of a polar bear sighting.
  • Ensure your voyage is geared toward wildlife viewing (at secret Atlas we always have one guide that is an excellent wildlife spotter to maximise sightings) 

It is important to point out that on any expedition polar bears sightings are never guaranteed. Svalbard is after all a wilderness and not a safari park.

On our expeditions the expedition leader and guide will spend a lot of time on deck keeping a lookout for wildlife. The amount of bear sightings can vary drastically, on one 10-day voyage we saw 2 bears and on another we had over 20 sightings. 

It is important when you join an expedition you don’t have any fixed expectations. If you were every unlucky and didn’t see a polar bear then at least Svalbard has lots of other wildlife you will encounter such as walruses, whales, reindeer and Arctic foxes.  

where polar bears are found in Svalbard

A behind the scenes shot from the above photos showing the position of the Zodiac to the feeding bear.

Encountering polar bears: What to expect

It is much safer to encounter a polar bear on a vessel than on the shore. 

If the expedition leader suspects there is a bear on the shore we will not land. Before every shore landing the guiding team will scan to ensure there are no polar bears sighted. 

If a polar bear is sighted during a shore landing the guiding team will avoid getting anywhere close to the bear and instead get everyone back to the ship. 

Viewing a polar bear from the vessel is a much safer experience and separation is giving between the ship and the bear so as not to disturb it. 

It is the job and responsibility of the expedition leader and captain to ensure a safe distance is maintained at all times and that we do not cause the bear any disturbance.

When encountering polar bears we follow a strict set of guidelines from AECO which you can see here.

  • Never approach a swimming bear from any angle
  • Never feed, disturb or lure a polar bear
  • Never approach closer than 200 meters with an expedition vessel

A polar bear roaming through the Svalbard wilderness by Chase Teron. You can join Chase on a photo tour of Svalbard here.

Advice for polar bear watching

  • It is rare you will ever see a polar bear very close. We recommend bringing a good pair of binoculars. If you are a photographer, a long telephoto lens is needed with 300mmm being the minimum. 
  • When a polar bear is in sight do not make any sounds or sudden movements that could scare the polar bear. Polar Bears are attracted to the human voice, so do not speak. Often polar bears are curious, and it is important to not doing anything that can provoke the bear. 
  • Be patient. This is the wilderness. Encountering polar bears can take time and perseverance. 
  • Spend time on deck keeping a lookout.
  • Keep yourself warm with clothing and hot drinks.

Our favorite polar bear encounters

The team at Secret Atlas have been fortunate enough to encounter polar bears many times in Svalbard, and each time it provides a magical experience.

where how to see polar bears in Svalbard

A polar bear captured sleeping on the sea ice in the north of Svalbard by Secret Atlas co founder Andy Marsh.

‘It’s a humbling experience encountering a polar bear in such a vast wilderness. This image was captured during an expedition in August around the Seven Sisters Islands to the north of Svalbard. It is one of my favourite polar bear encounters in Svalbard.

We could see on the ice chart that this was one of the few areas with sea ice close to the coast.

As we approached the area we encountered 2 bears on ice flows. This sleeping bear was completely unaware of us. We shut down the engine on the vessel to reduce disturbance and spent some time appreciating what was before us. All our guests were very pleased and the photographers onboard got lots of outstanding images.”

polar bear encounters in Svalbard

A polar bear feeding off a walrus it had just hunted on the sea ice north of Svalbard by Lars Korvald who joined one of our expeditions.

Polar Bear Encounters FAQ

Is viewing a polar bear in the wild safe?

Any wild animal can pose a potential danger, but it is our job to ensure that seeing a polar bear in the wild is a safe experience for you. When we travel in areas where polar bears are found then special safety procedures are always in place. 

Our expedition leaders and guiding team are highly trained. They follow a strict procedure to minimise risk. This includes:

  • Checking shore lines before landing for the sign of any polar bears.
  • Not going ashore if there is a perceived risk from a polar bear. 
  • Exercising caution when ashore and keeping a constant lookout. 
  • Our expedition leaders and guides carry polar bear protection including flares guns to scare of bears and a rifle as a last resort. If procedure is followed there should never be a reason for a rifle to be used. 
  • To ensure separation between bears and vessels and to pull back and give more distance as needed.

Does viewing a polar bear cause it disturbance?

We do everything we can to minimise disturbance to polar bears. One of the reasons we only use small expedition vessels as we believe this is the only way to minimise our impact on the wildlife and animals.

We feel large vessels by their nature cause too much disturbance in the water. 

In my personal experience I have not seen a polar bear disturbed by our activity. In this encounter to the north of Svalbard we came across a Polar bear resting on an ice flow. We immediately switched off the engines and spent time drifting in close proximity. Whilst the bear was aware of our presence ( he sniffed the air several times) he did not move away or act in a way that had caused disturbance. He displayed signs of curiosity.

The beauty of a small vessel is that it is just you and the nature. During an encounter guest remain quiet and can appreciate the beautiful scene that unfolds before them. 

For a good chance of seeing polar bears in the wild and lots of other Arctic wildlife please see our Svalbard cruises page.

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