Arctic, Svalbard0 Comments

Visiting The Arctic, Svalbard & How To See Polar Bears

My Decision To Visit The Arctic

It’s been a longtime dream of mine to see a polar bear in the wild and since that’s a rather decadent dream, it’s taken a while to realise it! I actively seek out travel and tourism that supports conservation, which makes finding national parks and tour operators that protect and promote the environment and fenceless habitats my top priority when booking trips.

mother and cub polar bear svalbard pack ice

Svalbard Polar Bears

With plenty of warnings about sea ice diminishing as oceans warm up, it’s been difficult to absorb the impact on the world without understanding how any ecosystems are supported by sea ice. With large fishing vessels depleting the Arctic of its natural resources and cargo ships churning through it with heavy diesel engines, booking travel to such a fragile space was a daunting prospect.
The last thing I want to do is destroy a place that I visit and I’ve avoided it until now for that reason. What shifted my reasoning was comparing African safari tourism with Arctic tourism. To my mind, people don’t protect something unless they care about it and so much preservation of African wildlife and habitat is only due to foreigners having enjoyed a safari there. Sometimes just one day in the bush has convinced someone to get actively involved in conservation in a way they wouldn’t have before and made a huge difference. The Arctic is deteriorating quickly and I’m currently of the mind that, much like African wildlife, sustainable tourism may be the thing that can preserve it. If we must experience something in order to place a value upon it, or if we must place a monetary value on everything (and changing that thinking is a whole other post) then perhaps the best immediate solution is to explore ways of experiencing the Arctic while protecting it. And simultaneously approach new multimedia and social media communication in ways that might deliver the impact of a personal experience with more resonance than has been achieved before.

These are my travel goals: to see the Arctic, understand what’s happening to it and share my experience online in a way that might make someone care for it even if they haven’t seen it in person themselves.
I grew up expecting that abundant wildlife would always be in the world, to see or not see in person, but certainly out there existing alongside us. Within a lifetime, it’s disappearing and yet we have more opportunities to see it for ourselves than ever before. There must be some way to make the latter benefit the environment as well as damage it.

Arctic Expedition Cruise

Arctic Expedition

Why Svalbard?

The Arctic is at the top of the world (just checking you’re on board, a lot of people been asking about my trip to the penguins…) and can be visited in Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Svalbard. I chose Svalbard because I’m fascinated by its neutral status – it’s sovereignty belongs to Norway but it is owned by no one and the Global Seed Vault is there, which even has seeds from North Korea and peace is a beautiful thing.
Most of Svalbard’s landscape as well as its wildlife has been protected since 1973 and was expanded by the Svalbard Environmental Act of 2001 and it is a nomination for UNESCO world heritage status.
Every single nation in the Arctic is involved in whaling, whether for commercial or aboriginal reasons, and Svalbard is the only Arctic territory not whaling because its protected. This is important to note as there are a lot of whales in Svalbard! The blue whale is even increasing in sightings again and supporting tourism in a place that’s protecting wildlife and seeing an increase in populations seems like a good start.

Norwegian Air and SAS have opened up more connections and flights to Svalbard and prices have dropped significantly. If you’re willing to do 2-3 stops, you can fly from Europe to Longyearbyen for less than £/€150 return. There will be a stop in Oslo or Tromsø regardless of where you’re flying from and KLM also goes to Longyearbyen.
I am very aware that flying is one of the most environmentally unfriendly things you can do. I have checked the sailing human footprint of reaching Svalbard and it is currently larger because of the time and distance covered and the vessels required and waste produced.
Truth serum: Svalbard is not the place to fly to just to tick it off and stay in town for a few days. It’s a place to plan your visit to, save up for, research and make into the trip of a lifetime. I met several travellers in Longyearbyen who had taken advantage of a cheap flight deal to tick it off and who were desperately disappointed that they didn’t have the freedom to leave town, weren’t going to see any polar bears and/or couldn’t afford to do any local trips. If you are going to blow those CO2 emissions out the window to visit the Arctic, please plan carefully what you’re going to experience in return and whether the cost is worth it.

Zodiac Glacier Cruise Svalbard

Glacier Cruise In Svalbard

Polar Bear Viewing In Svalbard

This was so much harder to research than I imagined! I’m going to cut through some of the search engine faff and get straight to the point. In order to see healthy polar bears in Svalbard, in a way that doesn’t endanger them and with high chances of spotting them, you should:

  1. Get on a boat
  2. Go to the pack ice

I must have Googled every single variation of ‘polar bear trips in Svalbard’ over 6 months, with ‘eco-tourism’ phrases thrown in and out, and all I got were snowmobile tours and hiking tours. Now that I’ve been – and this isn’t going to be popular but it’s true – don’t see polar bears on foot or on snowmobile safaris from Longyearbyen because to get that close to a very hungry Apex predator means putting it in danger and causing it the anxiety of whether to spend energy trying to hunt you or not. It also requires a guide with a gun that must shoot the bear if it does come near you.
Being armed with a rifle outside of Longyearbyen is the law, and there are polar bears around so it’s a necessary law. Many tours I saw use polar bear imagery on their advertising because that’s all anyone asks about when they arrive, and it’s misleading. The idea of any foot or snowmobile tour is to avoid polar bears as they’re protected in Svalbard and to kill one means a lot of paperwork and strife. They are also the most aggressive bear species living in the harshest environment so actively seeking them out for your own amusement and then seeing the state they’re in while looking for food might leave a bitter taste afterwards.

Important note: This isn’t to say that hiking and snowmobile tours from Longyearbyen are a bad thing. They are incredible! They are of the highest quality I’ve experienced with brilliant guides and so much to see. And if I can disavow anyone of the notion of using them purely to see polar bears and instead to see the mind-boggling landscape and alternative wildlife that Svalbard has in abundance, you’ll have the greatest time ever. They’re just not an ethical or economic way to view polar bears in the wild.

Svalbard Polar Bear Pack Ice

Polar Bear On Pack Ice

Pack Ice Bonus

I suggest going to the pack ice because the (smart) polar bears go with the floating pack ice in summer, as this is where the seals are, and those that stay on land are screwed. Polar bears have a thick layer of blubber, just like seals and whales, so although it might seem like they can chomp on a reindeer if need be, the heat they build up by chasing one would probably kill them, seriously. They like to be really cold at all times, eating seals because seal fat is the only thing with high enough energy content to keep a polar bear going, and they need pack ice to do it on.

Polar bears can survive for many months without eating but during such time their energy reserves are low, they’re in walking hibernation and every step is considered. Many polar bears that don’t go with the pack ice starve to death without that precious seal fat and this could be the polar bear you meet on land in Svalbard – the starving one. I saw one from the ship as we were sailing from land and it was very painful to observe.
There it is: smart bears follow the ice, the rest barely make it until the ice returns. So why don’t they all follow the ice? Well, the ice is further and further north, there’s less and less of it and those healthy bears we found at 82.46 degrees north were floating on pack ice around 150 miles from land. There are studies showing that many polar bears are riding the pack ice from land, out to sea and back to land each year, but with temperatures rising and ice reducing, more and bears aren’t making it back to land or out to sea. It’s pretty dark, I know, but important to be aware of.

I want to finish this post with an extract from a really useful article by Thea Bechshoft, a researcher working with the University of Alberta in Canada and Aarhus University in Denmark. The full article is available on Aeon here.

‘Polar bears are what we call an indicator species: how the bears are faring is a marker of the state of their environment as a whole. Hungry bears on land can’t be seen as a standalone ‘bug in the system’ to be fixed. Instead, they are symptomatic of an Arctic ecosystem in turmoil, where complex and sensitive ecological relationships are unravelling as we speak.’

These are my reasons for visiting the Arctic and viewing polar bears and what I discovered while researching how to do it in Svalbard. In the next post I cover how I researched cruise operators in Svalbard and which one I went with: 82.46 Degrees Of Separation – Choosing A Svalbard Expedition Cruise.

Sea Ice Polar Bear

Pack Ice Polar Bear

mother and cub polar bear svalbard pack ice

Svalbard Polar Bears

Leave a Comment