Thrust into the spotlight as the poster children of the effects of climate change, polar bears have become the endangered celebrities of the animal world.
Yet despite the high cost and relative difficulty involved in viewing these kings of the Arctic in their natural habitat, more and more travellers are now lining up to see them – while they still can.
Listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), polar bears face an uncertain future. But there is hope. In September 2015, the five states whose territories cover this spectacular animal's range – Canada, Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the US – signed the Circumpolar Action Plan, a 10-year global conservation strategy to secure the long-term survival of polar bears, which number between 22,000 and 31,000 in the wild according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). While it’s too soon to measure its success, this joint commitment nonetheless offers some reassurance that these nations are dedicated to the species’ preservation.
Most people who have been lucky enough to eyeball a wild polar bear would agree it’s one of the most thrilling wildlife-viewing experiences on Earth. Still a relatively young industry, polar bear tourism is not without its challenges. An increase in human-polar bear contact in Norway, for example, has resulted in more bears being shot.
It can also be argued that the carbon emissions generated by tourists travelling to the Arctic to spot bears is counterproductive to the marine mammals’ survival. On the other hand, well-managed polar bear tourism is credited with inspiring visitors to see the necessity of safeguarding their fragile environment. If it’s a trip you dream of taking one day, read on for the best places to ogle these majestic beasts in their Arctic playground.
Canada: Churchill, Manitoba
They don’t call Churchill the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ for nothing. Every autumn, hundreds of polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay near the town of Churchill to wait for the sea ice to refreeze so they can return to hunting seals. The world’s most accessible (and cheapest) polar bear viewing destination, Churchill has a well-established tourism industry. Tours are typically conducted in custom-made tundra buggies with indoor/outdoor viewing areas. These vehicles can get close to the bears without jeopardising human or bear safety, though the elevation of the viewing platforms can present challenges for photographers.
When to go: October and November is peak viewing season in Churchill, but some operators offer packages at their remote lodges in March, when mother bears emerge from their dens with their cubs. Bear watching is combined with beluga whale watching in July and August.
Operators: Tours range from half-day viewing tours to multi-day adventures staying in tundra lodges. Operators including Great White Bear Tours (greatwhitebeartours.com), Frontiers North (frontiersnorth.com) and Natural Habitat Adventures (nathab.com) enjoy better access to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (the key viewing area) than others.
Cost: Expect to pay around CAD$470 for a full-day tour.
United States: Kaktovik, Alaska
While polar bear populations in the Bering Sea are thought to be decreasing, bears have become such a common fixture on Alaska’s Arctic coast in summer that a tourism industry has developed around their presence in two Inupiat Eskimo villages: Barrow and Kaktovik. Located on Barter Island, just off the coast, Kaktovik is the best place to spot them – lured by the opportunity to feast on the carcasses of bowhead whales that the community are permitted to harvest, polar bears can be spotted by the dozen hanging out on the sand islands that fringe the town. Visitors arrive via small plane from Fairbanks for three- to four-hour viewing tours conducted in small boats equipped for six guests.
When to go: Boat tours run from mid-August until late September/early October.
Operators: Northern Alaska Tour Company (northernalaska.com) runs a day trip from Fairbanks; several smaller operators including Akook Arctic Adventures (akookarcticadventures.com) offer multi-day photography-driven tours, lodging in Kaktovik.
Cost: At $1799, Northern Alaska Tour Company’s day trip is the cheapest tour. You may get a better deal booking flights directly through Ravn Alaska (flyravn.com), and arranging a viewing session with Kaktovik Tours (US$720; kaktoviktours.com).
Norway: Spitsbergen, Svalbard
Halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard archipelago harbours a rich array of wildlife among its stunning glaciers and dramatic fjords – including several thousand polar bears. Viewing tours take two forms: in winter, full-day snowmobile tours depart the capital Longyearbyen, on the main island of Spitsbergen, for polar bear territory in the island’s east, where bears can (sometimes) be viewed from a distance. It’s a long, cold day out, but it’s cheaper than summertime expedition cruises that ply the west and north coasts of Spitsbergen. Cruises, however, offer much higher chances of seeing bears.
When to go: February to May for snowmobiling tours; June to August for expedition cruises.
Operators: Check out Better Moments (bettermoments.no) for snowmobiling day tours, and Intrepid (intrepidtravel.com), G Adventures (gadventures.com) and Explore! (explore.co.uk) for cruises at the more affordable end. Natural World Safaris (naturalworldsafaris.com) offers cruises and multi-day snowmobiling tours.
Cost: Expect to pay about €356 for a snowmobile day trip, and upwards of €2900 for a seven-night cruise.
Greenland: off the coast
The southern Greenland village of Nanortalik means ‘place of polar bears’, but in truth, Greenland’s polar bears live and breed in the northernmost realms of the nation’s icy wilderness. With bears so rarely seen on land, however, the greatest chance of spotting one is from an expedition cruise along the coast; some operate out of the capital Nuuk, while others travel up Greenland’s southwest or east coast en route from Canada or Iceland to Svalbard, Norway.
When to go: Cruises typically operate between July and September.
Operators: Expedition cruise operators including Aurora Expeditions (auroraexpeditions.com.au), Expedition Trips (expeditiontrips.com), Discover The World (discover-the-world.co.uk), and Quark Expeditions (quarkexpeditions.com) offer various multi-day cruise itineraries taking in the Greenland coast.
Cost: Ten- to 14-day cruises range from around €6000 and up.
Russia: Wrangel Island
One of the world’s least visited and most restricted nature reserves, Wrangel Island lies 140km off the northeast coast of Siberia. This Arctic wildlife magnet is known as the world’s polar bear maternity ward, with several hundred mothers known to land here in winter to raise their young. It’s possible for intrepid travellers to visit on expedition ship tours (departing from the Russian port of Anadyr), which offer opportunities to view bears – as well as walrus, grey whales, reindeer, and other Arctic animals – from sea and on land.
When to go: Cruises run from early August until mid-September.
Operators: 56th Parallel (56thparallel.com), Heritage Expeditions (heritage-expeditions.com), Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk) and World Expeditions (worldexpeditions.com) offer expedition cruises to Wrangel Island.
Cost: 56th Parallel currently offers the cheapest Wrangel Island cruise, starting at US$11,200 for 14 nights.
Sarah Reid travelled to Alaska as a guest of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (adventuretravel.biz), Visit Anchorage (anchorage.net), and Northern Alaska Tour Company (northernalaska.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies for positive coverage.