Polar bears spend their lives in some of the world’s most remote corners, primarily on ice flows, which means most humans don’t get the chance to see them. And, with the sea ice shrinking by 14% every decade due to climate change, those opportunities are becoming increasingly rare. For now, there are still some good spots to watch them in the wild, safely guided on a tour.
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Lazy Bear Lodge Tour - Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Viewing polar bears is quite the adventure, and a 5-night tour that begins with a flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, makes for the experience of a lifetime. This town that sits along Hudson Bay just below the Arctic Circle may be the world’s most famous when it comes to sighting the animals – in fact, many refer to it as “Polar Bear Town,” the name of a TV series focused on the animals and life in the far north of Manitoba. The excursion includes accommodation at Lazy Bear Lodge, meals, and a Tundra Tour to see the bears. While you’re there you might also spot Arctic fox, Arctic hare, camouflaged ptarmigan and other wildlife.
Norway National Geographic Expedition, Svalbard
Halfway between the North Pole and mainland Norway, the Svalbard archipelago is another one of the world’s top spots to view polar bears, with several thousand inhabiting these northern islands, along with magnificent glaciers and stunning fjords. The best way to experience this snowy wonderland is on an expedition cruise. National Geographic offers a 10-night trip from Oslo to search for the polar bear and other resident wildlife, like walruses, seals and reindeer. The trip includes a National Geographic photographer guide to ensure you’ll take home incredible photos.
Arctic Wildlife National Refuge, Alaska
Expedition Alaska offers a six-night Polar Bear Photo Tour in one of America’s last true wilderness areas, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Many Arctic animals can be found across its eight million acres, including polar bears, brown and black bears, caribou, moose, wolves and musk oxen. There are no hiking trails, facilities or visitor centers, and air travel is the only way in or out, so taking a tour is really a must. You’ll get to join daily excursions on a charter boat to spot the bears on the ice and in the snow with a local Inupiaq guide. You’ll be flown from Fairbanks to Barter Island, with accommodations and meals included.
Greenland with Quark Expeditions
Greenland’s polar bears live and breed in the northernmost realms of its icy wilderness, which means the animals are rarely seen on land. Your best bet for spotting them, along with humpback whales, walrus, reindeer and musk oxen, is to join an expedition cruise like Quark Expeditions. Most trips begin in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, with a flight to Narsarsuaq, Greenland where you’ll embark on the ship. Excursions like a helicopter flight to view the landscape from above, alpine kayaking and mountain biking may be included too.
Heritage Expeditions - Wrangel Island, Siberia, Russia
Heritage Expeditions can bring you to Wrangel Island, which sits off the northeast coast of Siberia in Russia. In 1976, the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve was established to protect the polar bears, walrus and snow geese that flourish here and today it’s considered one of the most treasured wildlife sanctuaries in the country. A 15-day adventure in July of 2020 begins with a flight from Nome, Alaska across the Bering Sea and International Date Line, to the remote port of Anadyr. You’ll not only go out searching for polar bears, but you’ll be able to meet up the locals, hear their stories and even celebrate with them at their annual Regatta and Festival.
Torngat Mountains National Park - Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
Like every other destination on this list, Torngat Mountains National Park isn’t easy to get to, but once you’re there you’ll be immersed in an incredible world with soaring mountains, icebergs, glaciers, caribou and polar bears. It’s made up of 3,745 square miles of unspoiled, remote wilderness that’s been practically untouched by humans. Visiting requires booking a tour or one of the packages through Torngat Mountains Base Camp, which includes accommodation, meals and guided excursions with opportunities to witness the bears, fish, hike and more. Book your flight to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Newfoundland & Labrador and arrangements will be made for your pick up from there.
In the Canadian territory of Nunavut, you’ll have the opportunity to spot polar bears and all sorts of other impressive wildlife along the west coast of Hudson Bay, the route of the polar bear migration known as “Polar Bear Alley.” Arctic Kingdom offers this unique experience that begins with a 50-minute fly-in safari from Churchill, Manitoba. You’ll stay in a camp south of Arviat for eight days with the cabin accommodation strategically placed to increase the chances of safe polar bear encounters. It includes gourmet meals, hikes with Inuit guides and more.
Kaktovik Tours is one of just a few indigenous-run companies that offer polar bear viewing trips in the remote Inupiat village of Kaktovik, another one of the world’s best places to watch the animals in the wild. The local community is permitted to catch a limited number of bowhead whales with their harvested carcasses left on the beach attracting many hungry bears that have been impacted by the melting sea ice. Two and four-day trips are typically offered with special flights from Fairbanks.
Franz Josef Land, Arctic National Park, Russia
Franz Josef Land is part of the Russian Arctic National Park, a former Cold War-era military base turned nature reserve. It’s the northernmost island in the Arkhangelsk Oblast and there is no permanent human settlement here, allowing wildlife to thrive, including polar bears as well as Arctic fox and walrus. Getting there isn’t easy, so most visit by taking a tour, such as Intrepid Travel’s 16-day Jewels of the Russian Arctic Tour that sails round-trip from Helsinki, Finland. Polar bears are often spotted from the deck and the Zodiac excursions that will bring you close to the shore.