Arctic: The Best Places to see Polar Bears in the Wild

Travel Advice

Do polar bears live in the Arctic or Antarctica? Where can I see a polar bear? These are questions we are asked frequently, and the best place to see polar bears in the wild is indeed the Arctic, in the far north of Scandinavia and the Nordics. Here's all you need to know about one of the best places in the world to see polar bears on an expedition cruise.

The polar bear is the Arctic's most emblematic species, a majestic and powerful creature that also symbolises the fragility of the ecosystem it inhabits. The Arctic is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears in the wild, along with walruses, whales, Arctic foxes, reindeer, puffins and more.

Best Place to see Polar Bears in the Wild: Svalbard

The best place to see polar bears in the wild is the Svalbard archipelago, far north of mainland Norway in the Arctic Circle. The Svalbard archipelago is a true wilderness, a land of snowy peaks, frozen tundra and glassy seas. You'll likely have no fixed itinerary here, due to the unpredictable nature of an Arctic expedition; be prepared to drop everything and rush up to the top deck for the chance of a polar bear sighting! On Svalbard's main island of Spitsbergen, two tiny towns, Longyearbyen and Ny Alesund, are home to scientists and a few adventurous visitors - and they're surrounded by polar bears, meaning anyone venturing beyond the boundaries must bring with them a rifle - or an armed guide!

With small ships allowing you to push through chunks of floating ice where the polar bear may be hunting, sleeping or even with its young, an expedition cruise is one of the best ways to see polar bears. On an expedition cruise you'll have the chance to see these mighty animals in their natural habitat, with Zodiacs getting you up close without intruding on the bears' territory. Fascinating lectures on board the ship will likely cover such topics as the life of the polar bear, the history of the race to the North Pole, the habits of Arctic birds and much more.

polar bears in the Arctic in Svalbard Norway

When to Spot Polar Bears in the Wild

It may surprise you to know that polar bears can only be spotted in the Arctic's late spring/summer months - between May and August - due to the 24 hours of darkness and increase in sea ice making it near impossible. Cruises don't tend to call here during the winter months, apart from some unusual Northern Lights itineraries.

May offers good opportunities to potentially spot a polar bear as they hunt for seals, and temperatures slowly get warmer, with the end of May offering 23 hours of daylight. Come June and you'll be greeted with full midnight sun - when the sun never sets - and, if the weather plays ball (which you can never guarantee in the Arctic!), there are more likely to be seals perched about on the ice and therefore more polar bear cubs on the hunt alongside their mothers. July offers a little more warmth and is an excellent time to spot polar bears as they continue their hunt for walrus and seal pups. Finally, August offers chances for a complete circumnavigation of Svalbard with the retreating of the ice, and this is the final month to spot polar bears.

Seeing a polar bear in the wild is never guaranteed but rest assured your expert onboard expedition team, particularly on smaller, adventure-focussed vessels, will work as hard as possible regarding spotting the bears, often waking you up (should you wish to!) in the middle of the night if a bear has been spotted! Under the endless glow of the Arctic's midnight sun, it's easy to spend hours watching these incredible creatures.

polar bear in svalbard

Get your free Arctic guide here

Our expedition cruising guide to the Arctic will tell you everything you need to know, including when to visit, what to see and how to get there.

Polar Bear Cruises in Svalbard

Day by day on your Svalbard expedition cruise, your expedition leader plans how to make your adventure as stimulating as possible. Guests are divided into groups to minimise queuing when you set forth to explore by Zodiac, or for a hike ashore.

Look for Arctic expedition cruises that go on a whole circumnavigation of Svalbard or cruise around Svalbard for at least five days for the best chance to spot polar bears among Svalbard's incredible glacier-carved valleys, steep mountains, stark glaciers and beautiful offshore islands, and include the frozen seascape of Eastern Svalbard, home to the archipelago's largest population of polar bears.

HX Hurtigruten Expeditions offer polar bear-focussed itineraries that circumnavigate Svalbard between June and August, while Ponant have incredible two- and three-week journeys that visit the geographic North Pole alongside exploring Svalbard. Polar experts Quark offer in-depth Svalbard sailings alongside their excellent expedition team and the chance to add on a whole host of extras such as helicopter flights, camping and rock climbing, while AE Expeditions are the perfect choice for adventurous travellers who like to be active with opportunities for trekking, scuba diving in polar ice, sea kayaking and polar snorkelling on offer (at an extra charge).


Polar Bears in Arctic Canada

Although Svalbard is one of the best places to spot polar bears in the Arctic, Arctic Canada is also a fantastic choice to witness the mighty King of the Arctic in his natural habitat. Unlike polar bears in Svalbard, the polar bears in Canada spend each summer on the green shores when the sea ice has melted, and between seasons hunt along the ice floes in Canada's Arctic Islands, returning in autumn and gathering onshore as they wait for the water to freeze. This means the season is a little longer, beginning in April as cubs emerge, though we'd recommend visiting from the end of May onwards to enjoy spotting polar bears in the Canadian Arctic in slightly warmer temperatures!

In June, the midnight sun starts to set forth and Bafflin Island in particular is home to myriad wildlife on the ice, while July offers fantastic whale watching alongside polar bears as they hunt on the shores. August brings with it the possibility of sailing the fabled Northwest Passage and is the warmest time in Arctic Canada, with the absence of any snow and ice, while come September and October, polar bears congregate on the shores as the sea ice starts to return, hunting seals and teaching their cubs, though cruise ships are unlikely to sail here any further into the season than the beginning of October as winter start to set in.


Polar Bear Cruises in Arctic Canada

Most Arctic Canada cruises focus on the Northwest Passage, with many also calling in to the giant fjords and national parks of Greenland.

Highlights include Ellesemere Island, home to polar bears and muskoxen; Devon Island, the world's largest uninhabited island, a barren and frozen place home to bearded seals, harbour seals and humpback whales, and polar bears; and the Inuit community of Resolute Bay at the northern end of the Northwest Passage.

polar bear in the yukon canada
Meet the author

Claire is Marketing Manager at Mundy Adventures, having worked with the company for nearly a year and in travel for over 8 years. Her most recent adventure was a cruise on Seabourn Venture and she has also sailed with Ponant. Her favourite adventure destination is Sweden however she's also enjoyed adventures in South America, the Galapagos, Australia, Northern Europe, Southern Africa, and the Far East. When she’s not travelling she loves walking, skiing, camping and weekends away in the countryside.

More about Claire

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