Things to Consider
- The best chances of sightings happen in our favourite 'polar bear hotspots': Svalbard, Canada's Northwest Passage, Churchill and Wrangel Island in the Russian Arctic
- Polar bear distribution isn't uniform across the Arctic, and even in these hotspots sightings aren't guaranteed
- Trips to Svalbard, the Northwest Passage, and Wrangel Island all involve expedition ship-based travel, observing bears in their natural environment
- Bear viewing trips in the Churchill area are land-based with near guaranteed bear sightings
- While Greenland has a healthy polar bear population, they’re generally located in inaccessible areas and other regions offer better opportunities
When to see Polar Bears
March - April
Mothers and cubs begin to emerge from their winter dens after the birthing season, however seeing bears at this time of year is challenging; Wapusk National Park in Northern Canada is the only place where this is possible in very small numbers.
May - August
Svalbard during the summer months offers excellent chances of sightings as part of an expedition voyage. As summer progresses, the break-up of ice allows exploration deep inside Svalbard's fjords, while the best opportunities for bear sightings are in the pack ice.
By late August, Northern Canada’s Northwest Passage is also accessible for a few short weeks by ship. It’s common for polar bears to be sighted, typically collecting around areas of remaining ice or close to favoured hunting grounds where migrating whales are found.
During August, when the pack ice has retreated north, you can also choose to travel to the Russian Arctic and spot the bears on Wrangel Island, the polar bear 'Maternity Ward'.
September - October
Set against a background of autumnal colours, bears begin to descend on Churchill in Manitoba in October. As temperatures drop, more and more polar bears arrive in the area, all waiting for Hudson Bay to re-freeze. It’s the greatest concentration of bears on the planet for a few weeks only.
Bear sightings are done from specially designed trucks called ‘Tundra Rovers’ which offer an safe and warm mobile viewing platform as you search the tundra for bears.
May to November during summer and autumn offer the best opportunities for bear sightings. Where you plan to see polar bears is likely to be the most influential factor in the planning of your whole trip.
Where are the best places to see polar bears?
Combining an easily accessible destination with a healthy polar bear population, Svalbard is a great option for those keen to catch their first glimpse of the great white bear.
The high season in Svalbard runs from May through August, and with more polar bears than people, it's incredibly rare for a voyage not to successfully sight a bear.
Here at Swoop we love that Svalbard offers the best of the Arctic in microcosm; from glaciers and pack ice to wildlife and history, Svalbard has it all. Plus, with shorter distances between places of interest, you'll spend less time travelling and have more time to really explore all the island has to offer.
Svalbard Polar Bear Tours
This 11-day Svalbard voyage is a ‘classic’ providing ample time for near guaranteed polar bear sightings, alongside encounters with the region’s other plentiful wildlife and exploring its dramatic scenery. Phippsoya, 14th of July glacier and Hinlopen Strait are all popular…
Northwest Passage, Canadian Arctic
It’s very rare for an expedition voyage into the Northwest Passage not to sight bears; however they are widely distributed and highly mobile. Nonetheless, Northwest passage trips also often include known ‘polar bear hotspots’, which help increase the chances of success:
- Coningham Bay - a favourite place for whales in the summer, making it a favourite amongst hungry polar bears too
- Croker Bay - the stubborn pockets of ice in Croker Bay means that bears can often be found here
- Lancaster Sound & Bellot Strait - bears are similarly attracted to these areas as they are used as key migratory routes for wildlife
For wildlife enthusiasts, polar bears aren't the only treat the Northwest Passage has to offer, in fact it is also the best place to see the 'Arctic Big 5' - polar bears, musk ox, beluga whales, narwhal and walrus'. With only a short season running from August to September, booking your Northwest Passage voyage early is advised.
Northwest Passage Polar Bear Tours
Traversing the heart of the Northwest Passage this compact trip focuses on the region’s fascinating history and wildlife. Planned visits to numerous locations linked to the Franklin expedition, narrated by onboard historians, combine with renowned wildlife hotspots such as Lancaster…
Spending time exploring Canada’s historic Northwest Passage and West Greenland, we like this voyage’s balance and variety as much as exploring little visited places like Thule, one of the northernmost towns in the world. Big ice, rich history, exotic wildlife,…
This comprehensive westbound voyage stands out for its compelling combination of West Greenland, in-depth exploration of remote Baffin Island and the historic Northwest Passage. Jaw dropping scenery, towering icebergs, thrilling wildlife encounters, Inuit community visits and fascinating history pervade this…
Churchill, Northern Canada
Churchill is the self-styled 'polar bear capital of the world’, and for good reason. For a short time only, during mid-October to mid-November, the world’s greatest concentration of bears collects in the area due to the unique local geological and climatic processes.
We can almost guarantee a polar bear watching in Churchill at this time - Swoop specialist Alex spotted an impressive 47 bears in 2 days. However, as ever with wildlife, its not quantity but the quality of sightings that really matters.
In the controlled buffer zones on the edge of Wapusk National Park you’ll experience the unrivalled opportunity to observe the 'King of the Arctic’ and fascinating behavioral interplay at closer quarters than anywhere else on the planet. Specially designed bear-proof vehicles prove the ideal mobile viewing platform.
There is a compromise for these guaranteed and up close sightings - life on the tundra and in such close proximity to other bears isn’t natural for polar bears, they only do it under duress. As soon as the ice of Hudson Bay freezes again, these Churchill polar bears leave and resume their solitary existence out on the ice in their icy realm.
Churchill Polar Bear Tours
Wrangel Island, Russian Arctic
In spite of being a little known, remote island off Russia's north coast, which until recently had been closed off to visitors, Wrangel is one of the best and most consistent places in the world for seeing polar bears in their natural habitat. Just last summer, a beached bowhead whale provided unprecedented polar bear sightings as hundreds gathered for the feast. Often referred to as the 'Maternity Ward', it is thought that around 500 mother polar bears give birth on Wrangel each year.
Wrangel Island is only accessible during the height of summer - August only - because it's only at this time of year that the pack ice briefly moves north, allowing smaller ships to slide in - this is expeditionary cruising at its very best!
Wrangel island Polar Bear tours
Other Places to see Polar Bears
While polar bears don’t regularly frequent the actual North Pole itself, those undertaking an icebreaker voyage to the roof of the world can be fairly confident of bear sightings during the journey.
Generally located in the less accessible northern and northeastern parts of Greenland, polar bears are much more elusive here than their counterparts in Svalbard or the Canadian Arctic. Though it is not unknown to spot a bear in East Greenland, their wide geographical distribution and caution around humans due to continued hunting means its very unlikely that you’ll see one.
How to find a Polar Bear
The bears actually look quite vulnerable when you see them spreading their weight to walk on thinner patches of ice, but when you see them hunting you get a real sense of their power.
John Newby Polar Specialist
Polar Bears: FAQs
When it comes to wildlife sightings simply can’t be guaranteed, however, in places like Churchill in the autumn, sightings are near guaranteed as there hasn’t been a trip in over a decade without successful sightings. This is as close to a guarantee that you can get.
This one is a hard one to call as it depends on what region you are travelling in and at what time of year. Your best bet is to contact us and we can guide you through the options.
Typically the summer months have the highest sightings, when visitor numbers are at their peak and the bears are out and about. However, Churchill is renowned as the ‘Polar Bear capital of the World’ due to the significant numbers of bears which gather on there in October and November, waiting for Hudson Bay to ice over again.
Safety is paramount when dealing with any apex predator. Safe sightings can be guaranteed, whether you are viewing from an ice strengthened ship, rubber zodiac or tundra buggy.