Halfway between Norway and the North Pole, you’ll find a place where polar bears outnumber people. The area is known as the Svalbard Archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is both the largest island and the only one permanently populated by humans.
You’ll find most of Spitsbergen’s residents (around 2,100) in the town of Longyearbyen, which is recognized as the world’s northernmost settlement with a sizeable population. But the region’s real claim to fame are the polar bears in Svalbard, which are arguably its #1 tourist attraction.
Svalbard was once an active whaling base, where roughly 900 polar bears were killed each year. But thanks to the 1973 International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat, the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, and other government regulations, now a full two-thirds of Svalbard is conserved via nature reserves, parks, and sanctuaries.
Here’s a look at Svalbard’s most famous residents, including when and where you can see them, the threats they currently face, and what’s being done to protect them:
Svalbard's Polar Bears
The largest bear species on earth, the male polar bear is a true heavyweight, weighing in at 1,500+ pounds when healthy. Females, by contrast, generally only reach about half this weight. However, from afar it can prove difficult to tell the sexes apart, as they have only subtle differences. Males tend to show more scars and have a broader neck and a wider head.
Highly nomadic, Polar bears roam vast territories, seeking out Bearded and Ringed Seals, as well as any other source of meat they can find. Their global numbers are estimated to be around 25,000, around 3,000 of which are from the Svalbard and Barents Sea population.
You can see polar bears in Svalbard anywhere and at any time of year, although sightings are relatively rare within the established human settlements. With less than 30 miles of roads on Svalbard, most polar bear tours are usually done by snowmobile or boat.
The bears are incredible swimmers, and can make their way between the archipelago’s islands by paddling distances of 50 miles or greater. They spend most of their time near frozen fjords and bays, where their chances of finding prey are greatest. Some individuals have been known to roam even further afield in search of food, towards Russian territory and Greenland.
Sightings are usually individual encounters, as polar bears are not social animals. They typically only come together for a few days to mate in April and May. Mothers may be seen with their cubs in late March as they emerge from their dens, most of which are located on Svalbard’s eastern islands. The island of Kongsøya has the world’s largest density of polar bear den sites.
The Best Places to See Polar Bears in Svalbard
Your best chance of seeing polar bears around Svalbard lasts from May to September. This is when boat tours around the archipelago are made possible due to the melting of the pack ice. It is also the season of the midnight sun (or polar day), allowing visitors nearly 24 hours of daylight to catch a glimpse of the world’s largest land carnivore.
Cruising the archipelago is your best bet when it comes to seeing and photographing these remarkable creatures. The smaller the ship, the more area you will be able to explore, thereby giving you the best chance to experience multiple polar bear encounters.
Cruises depart from Longyearbyen, with many itineraries lasting well over a week. The exact itinerary of your Svalbard cruise will depend on the weather conditions. But you can usually count on a 7 to 12-day voyage in which you seek out wildlife such as walruses, whales, reindeer, Arctic fox, and, of course, polar bears.
As the bears are highly nomadic, sightings are never guaranteed. But the goal of every ship’s crew is to see at least a few bears along the way. Since the animals aren’t generally in a hurry, most encounters seem to last a while, allowing plenty of opportunities to get great polar bear photos.
Polar Bear Safety Tips
Deadly encounters with polar bears in Svalbard are extremely rare, with only a handful of lethal attacks recorded since 1970. Winter is the most dangerous season, as the polar bear’s main source of prey vanishes and they seek out any available source of food.
Staying within Svalbard’s settlements is usually quite safe from dangerous encounters. But there have been sightings, even in Longyearbyen, in recent years. So it is therefore important to know safety procedures.
When traveling outside human settlements, it’s important to stick to areas with minimal bear traffic. These are usually areas away from the coastline and den sites, preferably with a good range of view. Should you spot a polar bear from a distance, avoid remaining in its path and never approach it.
It is also important to securely store any food items. Polar bears have an incredible sense of smell and will be enticed by the chance of an easy meal. It goes without saying that feeding or baiting bears is irresponsible, highly dangerous, and illegal.
When traveling outside the settlements, it is important to be accompanied by a guide equipped with a high-powered big game rifle. Guides will usually fire warning or flare shots to deter the bear from approaching long before they ever consider taking lethal action. Being accompanied by a knowledgeable guide is your safest option, as they will know when and how to shoot, as well as the proper storage and operation of rifles used.
Threats Facing Svalbard's Polar Bears
Climate change will likely prove to be detrimental to polar bears in the near future. As the Arctic ice cover continues to vanish in summer and is dramatically reduced in winter, the bears struggle to find prey. Each year many either starve or drown while trying to reach suitable hunting grounds. The search for food will also undoubtedly bring them into contact with humans more often.
Polar bear shootings are sadly becoming increasingly common in and around Svalbard. It should be noted, however, that most polar bear shootings involve encounters with scientists. The goal of polar bear researchers is, of course, to save the animals. But in doing so they put themselves in situations which make them more prone to encounters and possible attacks.
Although protected by law, polar bears are allowed to be shot in cases of self-defense or if they impose a severe risk to human life. According to Svalbard law, residents and visitors must always carry bear deterrents when traveling outside of the settlements. Carrying a rifle is also recommended as a second line of defense.
Additional threats to the polar bear’s survival include not having enough snowfall to make dens, inbreeding due to the isolation of populations, and pollutants. Pollution brought to Svalbard via wind and ocean currents could severely affect polar bears, given the fact they are at the top of the food chain and therefore prone to receiving higher concentrations of toxins.
Polar Bear Conservation Efforts
Svalbard is one of the very few places in the world to be recognized as a certified sustainable destination. Only through demonstrating its ongoing commitment towards sustainable tourism and conservation can a destination achieve such an honor.
The International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat was signed in 1973 by all countries that are home to populations of wild Polar bears (including Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the U.S.). The agreement’s aim was to end the decline in polar bear populations and protect the cultural hunting traditions of indigenous peoples.
But long before that agreement, Svalbard was already taking steps to safeguard their population by prohibiting hunting near den sites and restricting the use of poison. In 2001 they passed the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, which prohibits baiting, disturbing, and encounters that may impose harm to the local polar bear population. Travel to high density bear areas was also restricted or fully prohibited in order to ensure the safety of the bears and humans alike.
All of these steps have combined to allow the population of polar bears in Svalbard to recover dramatically over the past few decades. With any luck, the revenue provided by ecotourism will fund conservation efforts that will allow the population to continue to increase for generations to come.
Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.