Polar bears are impressive creatures. The biggest breed of bear and the largest carnivore on earth, a fully grown polar bear can grow up to ten feet long. Adult males can weigh up to 1,800 pounds, and females about half that. Polar bears roam up to 20 miles a day on land and can swim great distances for days at a time without stopping, using their large and powerful front paws to maintain speeds of up to 6 mph swimming from one piece of floating ice to the next.
Where do polar bears live?
There are 19 recognized polar bear populations worldwide, the Barents Sea being the most important. Barents Sea polar bears live 50 degrees north, in Svalbard and the western Russian Arctic.
Are polar bears endangered?
Polar bears are categorized as vulnerable, and while estimates vary, there seem to be between 20,000 and 30,000 polar bears remaining worldwide. The largest population of 3,000 lives on the edges of the Barents Sea, where they have their hunting grounds at the ice edge all year round.
Are polar bears dangerous?
Polar bears can only be observed from a safe distance, although polar bear attacks are extremely rare. A 2017 Wildlife Society paper cites 73 polar bear attacks globally between 1870 and 2014, 20 of them fatal. However, receding habitats and melting ice are bringing them into closer contact with humans. In the tiny, remote town of Wales in Western Alaska, a polar bear attacked and killed a woman and a boy on January 18, 2023.
How do polar bears hunt?
Polar bears work hard to catch their prey, spending half their time doing so. To survive, a polar bear requires about 4.5 lb of fat every day. Their main prey is ringed and bearded seals, one of which can, if fully grown, provide enough energy for over a week.
Polar bears catch seals in one of three ways: by breaking into a pup den, by lying in wait at a breathing hole or on the edge of the ice, or by attacking seals that have hauled out onto the ice, for example in the breeding or birthing seasons. They have a highly developed sense of smell, detecting a seal at a breathing hole from well over half a mile away. They can even smell a seal in water through three feet of compacted snow. Despite their swimming prowess and keen sense of smell, they successfully catch prey just 2% of the time, resorting to carrion, small mammals and vegetation to supplement their diet in times of scarcity.
Polar Bears gather to feed on a whale carcass. Source: Canva
Are polar bears hunted?
Bears were once hunted in Svalbard. Up to 30,000 were killed annually until an agreement was reached to conserve polar bears in 1973. They now face the challenge of receding ice, although so far populations have not diminished. Adult polar bears have no natural predators, but small cubs sometimes fall prey to wolves or foxes.
When and where are polar bear cubs born?
Polar bear cubs are born and raised in dens, which are hollowed out in the ice. These are only built by adult females on two famous archipelagos, Svalbard north of Norway and Franz Josef Land in the western Russian Arctic, over 500 miles from Svalbard. The winter climate in Svalbard is dry but windy, so snow gathers on the leeside of cliffs and crags. The pregnant polar bear will seek out deep snow, preferably several meters deep, and dig a den. The cubs are born about eight months later, in midwinter, usually twins although sometimes just one, or occasionally three. They are hairless when born, so the mother stays with them to keep them warm. They will then all remain together in the den until about mid-March to mid-April.
If they are lucky enough to survive the harsh environment, polar bear cubs are not weaned until they are two years old – so female polar bears generally only give birth every three years, unless they lose their cubs.
How long do polar bears live in the wild?
Polar bears can live between 25 and 30 years in the wild, although many will not live beyond 15. The oldest recorded wild polar bear lived for 32 years. The oldest polar bear in captivity reached 45 years of age.
Do polar bears hibernate?
Unlike other breeds of bear, polar bears do not hibernate, as their main source of food – seals – are available all year round. Mother polar bears den for almost 5 months, but their heart rate does not drop, and their body temperature only reduces one or two degrees, to conserve energy. During this period the female does not hunt or eat but lives off her body fat which she stored up in autumn, losing about a third of her body weight. Every few days she scrapes a hole in the ceiling to allow oxygen in, and these vent holes are sometimes visible from the outside, revealing the presence of a polar bear with cubs.
What are polar bears’ closest relatives?
Polar bears evolved from grizzly bears, about 150,000 years ago. This is relatively recent in evolutionary terms, so they can still interbreed. The mothers of the wild hybrids, known as ‘grolar bear’ or ‘pizzly’, are usually polar bears. The cubs are thus raised as polar bears and behave like them, even though they may look different.
Where to see polar bears in the wild?
Observing magnificent polar bears roaming free in the wild is the real highlight of an Arctic expedition. The word ‘Arctic’ comes from the Greek word ἀρκτικός (arktikos), meaning ‘near the bear’, so the chances of spotting them are high in the right places.
Svalbard is arguably the best location to experience polar bears in the wild. While remote, the archipelago can easily be reached by ship from northern Norway and there is a high density of maternity dens on the island.
When is the best time to see polar bears in the wild?
The whole summer season from May to September is perfect for spotting polar bears, when pack ice recedes, allowing closer access by ship, and the bears are hunting on the edges of the ice and at breathing holes. The cubs have come out of their subterranean ice caves by late April to start playing and learning to hunt just before the start of summer, remaining on the pack ice until autumn.
A skilled captain can bring you very close to polar bears by ship. Early in the season, there is plenty of fast ice, ice which is attached to the land rather than floating around, and there may be more than one bear in a single location.
More adventurous expeditioners will want to go trekking for two or more days to get up close to the polar bears. This may lead to a close encounter, or sightings at greater distances. Or there may be a bear ashore, in which case it is important to follow experienced staff instructions on evacuation. Be sure to consult our experts to help you choose the right expedition group for you according to how quickly you can move!
An eleven-day expedition cruise in the Svalbard archipelago travels all along the coast of the largest island, Spitsbergen, offering many opportunities to sight these magnificent creatures.