Where is the best place to watch polar bears in the Arctic?
Polar bears have been in the news a lot the last few years. Our changing climate will have a huge effect on polar bear biology, behavior, and long-term survival. This has had people calling us with a desire to “see them before they are gone.” Just to be clear, sea ice conditions are changing rapidly and certain populations of polar bears are in decline, but polar bears aren’t going to disappear from the earth very soon. That said, seeing and photographing polar bears in the wild is a powerful experience and there are several places in the Arctic where you can reliably observe them safely and without hugely disturbing them. The best experience depends partly on your goals, but here are our picks for the best polar bear viewing in the world.
#1 Kaktovik, Alaska
As Alaskans, we are clearly biased in this regard, but Kaktovik really does offer a compelling and intimate experience with the bears. What is more, a visit to Kaktovik also gives you a glimpse of modern Inupiat (Eskimo) life in the Arctic.
The polar bear viewing in Kaktovik has changed in recent years and options for lodging are expanding. The primary (and best) opportunities to watch bears are boat-based. Local captains charter their small boats which provide a safe, ground level, and close platform for watching and photographing the bears. The bears are resting, and milling on the barrier islands and a quick trip across the protected lagoon gets you to within about 50 meters of the bears. Polar bears are often seen sparring and wrestling in the water. And because there are bears of all age-classes and genders in a relatively small area there are lots of opportunities to observe social interactions between bears not seen in other places.
The other way to watch bears in Kaktovik is from a vehicle during the twilight hours when they venture closer to the village to scavenge whale meat from “the bone pile”. The bloody remains of the whale make a striking, if gory, backdrop and sometimes there are great numbers of bears all feeding together in the failing arctic light. As of 2019 the Bone Pile was moved further from the village and it may no longer be accessible to the public. Fortunately, watching Polar Bears from a boat is truly world-class.
The accommodations in Kaktovik are spare, but the hospitality in this little town is warm. There are a couple of hotels, and if you are part of a group there is a new and very nice B&B where most of our groups stay. Arctic Wild offers Polar Bear Viewing trips to Kaktovik every year. We can schedule a custom trip for your group from mid-August through mid-October by request. Early booking is essential. A guide will add a lot to your experience in Kaktovik and spending several days in the village will improve your chances of having good light and weather conditions.
The best time to visit Kaktovik depends on your goals. We see good numbers of bears near Barter Island starting in late August most years. An early September trip offers (usually) decent weather, good conditions for boating, abundant bears, and if lucky there will be some whaling activity. But if you want to photograph bears with snow in the background, then a trip in October is a better bet. The downside of October is that the weather can be stormy, further complicating transportation in and out of Kaktovik, and once the lagoon is frozen and boating is not an option, opportunities to see bears are few.
#2 Hudson Bay, Manitoba
Hudson Bay is more than just Churchill and the all too-crowded Tundra Buggy scene. Churchill Wild runs several beautiful lodges along the Hudson Bay coast, giving a select few visitors a chance to live in comfort right in the middle of prime polar bear habitat. This means you can be eating a spectacular meal and have a polar bear walk by the dining room window! And to make it even better, days are spent on foot hiking through polar bear country. There is some risk in this activity, but Churchill Wild has a 17 year track record of safely hiking with bears and the interactions and observations, not to mention the photographic opportunities, are outstanding. They offer several packaged tours which include a couple days in Churchill. I’m not terribly fond of Churchill and in my opinion, a custom-tailored trip is the best way to spend time in this region. Arctic Wild will likely be offering trips in conjunction with Churchill Wild in the years to come.
#3 Svalbard, Norway
Svalbard is a very distant third for polar bear viewing. It is a wonderfully wild, high latitude destination full of wildlife and historical interest, but the bears tend to be scattered and views of them are usually from high on the ship’s deck, making for less than perfect photos and less opportunity for observing behavior. It is possible to get lucky and see lots of bears in this Norwegian archipelago, but we also hear about trips where groups see only two bears in 10 days. Svalbard is a great place to visit, but if polar bears are the focus of the trip, we don’t recommend it.
#4 Churchill, Manitoba
Churchill is a very reliable and relatively inexpensive place to see polar bears. Groups like the Great Bear Foundation out of Montana offer guided trips near to town and the Tundra Buggy experience though, not perfect, does get you close to bears and can yield some decent photographic opportunities. Churchill also has an excellent museum of Inuit Art. For an independent traveler on a budget, Churchill is a good option, plus it is relatively easy to access from most of the US and even Europe.