At Intrepid, we believe that all animals are created equal. But let’s be honest, not every animal is worth planning your entire holiday around. That’s probably why we don’t get many people booking our Asia trips just to see a donkey. And we don’t see many travellers flocking to Kenya to see the giant African millipede…
But polar bears are different. With the swagger of a prize-fighter, these epic beasts can weigh more than 540 kilograms and can reach heights of almost 3 metres tall. But it’s not just their imposing physique. There is a definite soulfulness about these lonely, highly intelligent creatures living a solitary existence on never-ending deserts of ice.
Seeing a polar bear in the wild is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, possible in only the most remote regions of the planet. But with a bit of luck, plenty of planning and some very warm clothes, a journey to one of the following Arctic destinations is your best bet for making this distant white dream a reality.
Polar bears love ice, and Greenland has almost 2 million square kilometres of the stuff. Unfortunately, the sheer size of this mini-continent makes it almost impossible to pinpoint where the bears will be at any one time. Many travellers report having spotted from the deck of their cruise ship the off-white fur of the polar bear, but seeing them up close is much more challenging. If you can somehow manage to pronounce it, the grammatically impossible settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit is a good place to start. Aim for April/May – that’s when the ice begins to break up and the bears start searching for food.
Each year, around October and November, a peculiar phenomenon occurs in Churchill, Canada. As the tourists begin to arrive, thousands of polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay, waiting for the water to freeze over and provide them with a passage north to hunt for seals. While polar bears are normally thought of as an unsociable species, many ecologists have noted that during these months polar bears can be seen forming friendships and occasionally engaging in combat. Currently, there are concerns about the increasing number of tourists causing damage to their habitat. In recent years, locals have also reported a rise in human–bear interaction around the town, leading to conservation efforts to return these bears to the wild.
When you think of Alaska, you can’t help but think of bears: brown bears, black bears, polar bears. The place is overflowing with them, right? Not exactly, and things are a little more complex than you might think. The polar bear actually evolved from the brown bear about 200,000 years ago, meaning that no matter what colour bear you see, you’re probably looking at the polar bear’s distant cousin. Like anywhere, bears are a protected and endangered species in Alaska, but brown bears are easier to locate than their white furred relatives. If you’ve got your heart set on seeing a polar bear in Alaska, the best way to do it is from the air. It’s pretty expensive, but watching a lonely bear plod across the tundra from above is a unique way to appreciate the extreme conditions that these animals live in.
You may not be able to point it out on a map, but the Svalbard archipelago is any polar bear enthusiast’s dream come true. Giant wilderness area? Check. Minimal human population? Check. Easy Access? Well, kind of, but this is still a seriously remote place. Tucked away just inside the Arctic Circle, these islands are Norwegian territories, with only Spitsbergen boasting scattered human settlements. There are weekly connections to and from Svalbard from the mainland, making it a great base for exploring the surrounding Arctic regions. Oh, and they are also home to a sizeable polar bear population, so your chances of seeing one are pretty damn high.
Did we mention that Intrepid has just launched our first ever Arctic trip? It’s called Spitsbergen Explorer, and apart from the chance to spot polar bears, you’ll be exploring an Arctic wilderness that’s full of unique birdlife, walruses and seals. Plus in 2014 we have a special Arctic with the Experts departure escorted by polar adventurer Tim Jarvis and photographer Steve Davey.
Photo: courtesy of Quark