Spotting Polar Bears in the Arctic

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Travel off the beaten path, or rather way off the beaten path, and experience some of the three thousand polar bears on the island of Svalbard in the Barents Sea.

Svalbard is an island chain between Norway and the North Pole, well inside the Arctic Circle. There are no cities, no roads and if you want to get around you will need snow shoes, a dog team or snowmobiles, and that’s what Spitsbergen travel offers any visitors wanting to track polar bears. They will also remind you to bring a rifle, because carrying a gun is the law.

Spitsbergen is certainly a particular place. The temperature never go above 45°F (6°C) and four months out of the year the sun never sets.

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After being briefed and equipped by the professional tour operator, you head out of Longyearbyen by snowmobiles towards the East coast of Spitsbergen. You’ll experience the characteristic natural beauty of Svalbard, over wide plains and narrow valleys, with plenty of stops underway, you can enjoy the ice covered mountains and nowhere can a tree be found. But it’s indeed far from lifeless. Svalbard is great for viewing birds, reindeer, arctic fox, whales, walruses, dolphins and seals. If you are lucky, you may see polar bears on the pack ice.

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How do you spot a polar bear?

If your aim is to spot polar bears, you should rather hop on a boat cruise specializing in wildlife tours. They know what visitors want to see and know exactly where to go to get up close to these impressing beasts. The boats also allow you to squeeze into breathtaking fjords.
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There are, however, lots of alternatives to choose from; exploring ice (glacier) caves, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, hiking and ice-hole fishing. Rent a kayak and follow the gentle whales and playful seals. Visit the coal mines and small villages and try the arctic cuisine.

You may read about alternatives here.

The best time to go is during summer from June until early September.

The best way to get there (if you’re not on a boat safari) is by scheduled flights from Oslo and Tromsoe.

We recommend you to:

  • Make your travel arrangements before you arrive on the islands.
  • Learn how to shoot a rifle. Knowing how to use one is useful if a polar bear attacks.
  • A longer excursion will be an unforgettable experience.

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We recommend you not to

  • Go there unless you have sufficient savings for the trip. The island is very expensive.
  • Forget your camera.
  • Go anywhere outside of town without a guide and your gun.

Nice to know

  • A little more than 2,700 hard core people call Svalbard home.
  • Norway’s largest glacier, Austfonna, lies on Svalbard. Austfonna is the world’s third-largest icecap after Antarctica and Greenland.
  • In terms of precipitation, Svalbard may be described as an “arctic desert” with annual rain and snowfall at a mere 200 – 300 millimeters.
  • Adult male polar bears weigh from 775 to 1,200 pounds.
  • Five nations have polar bear populations: the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland (Danish), and Norway.

All images: Spitsbergen Travel
Spotting Polar Bears in the Arctic, written by Tor Kjolberg