22 Mar The Three Best Arctic Islands to See Polar Bears
The Three Best Arctic Islands to See Polar Bears
Alex Burridge- Managing Director Arctic Travel Centre
Polar bears can be found right throughout the high Arctic from Canada across to Russia. With that being said, the chances of seeing bears on a cruise to Canadian High Arctic, or to Greenland are lower (they are still seen but less frequently) than on the following three High Arctic destinations. The options for visiting these remote islands have increased in the last couple of Arctic cruise seasons.
#1 Svalbard archipelago (Spitsbergen)
An Arctic cruise to Svalbard, or to the largest island of the archipelago, Spitsbergen, is highly likely to reward you the amazing opportunity of seeing polar bears in their natural habitat. Just how many you might encounter depends on two major factors- both here and at the other two locations;
1. Sea ice. This is an important factor based on the extent of the ice and where you encounter it. The sea ice will vary greatly from season to season and will move with the wind direction. Svalbard is located approximately 750km from Franz Josef Land and during winter (occasionally the northern pack ice is pushed south in summer also forming a ‘bridge’) the sea ice will likely form a ‘bridge’ between them and as a result the polar bear populations are joined/linked.
2. Luck/chance. Most voyages will delight its guests with the sightings of several bears. If luck combined with sea ice conditions are in your favour you may see up to 15-20 bears, some kilometres away, others very close to the ship. Another stroke of luck presents itself if a whale carcass is washed ashore. When this occurs, you can see as many as 40-50 bears at the one site (see the Wrangel Island article below if you believe that’s too many bears in one place).
#2 Franz Josef Land & the North Pole
Franz Josef Land
There are an increasing number of voyages that combine Franz Josef Land (which is a Russian National Park) and Svalbard (Spitsbergen). As I have previously mentioned, the close proximity of these two archipelagos means that they share their polar bear populations (at the very least genetically), Franz Josef Land alone is still an excellent place to witness the white bears. It can be said that as Franz Josef Land is usually colder than Spitsbergen, sea ice will remain longer into the season – and where there is sea ice there are seals, and where there are seals you are more likely to find polar bears.
Land animals in Franz Josef Land are limited to Arctic foxes and polar bears. The surrounding seas and sea ice however boast bowhead, minke, humpback whales, walruses, harp and bearded seals and of course the Polar Bear.
The North Pole
Although it may seem strange, a trip to the North Pole is also a very good option for seeing the elusive Polar bears; in part due to the fact that many of these voyages spend time exploring Franz Josef Land on the way back from visiting the Top of the World.
Even if the voyages didn’t visit the archipelago, a North Pole cruise on its own would still provide a great vantage point to spot Polar bears. A large swathe of the 900km between the Pole and the most northerly point of Franz Josef Land is covered with permanent sea ice, with accompanying seals at ‘breathing holes’. As a result, polar bears are often encountered out in this vast expanse of sea ice.
I was lucky enough to see two magnificent bears approximately 700km from Franz Josef Land, and they have been previously seen at the North Pole by the Russian National Park Guides who escort voyages on-board the 50 Years of Victory. As a nuclear powered ice-breaker, the 50 Years of Victory is well equipped to offer amazing and unique journeys to the Top of the World.
#3 Wrangel Island
Wrangel Island is one of the least well known places to watch polar bears and despite this, is easily deserving of its top 3 ranking. Located in the Russian Far East, Wrangel Island lies between the Chukchi Sea and the East Siberian Sea set at approximately 600km from the Alaska coastline. Known as the last place on earth that Woolly Mammoths roamed and took refuge, the prehistoric feeling of Wrangel Island can be felt once you reach the shoreline.
The Island is one of Russia’s most treasured wildlife sanctuaries, often referred to as the “Polar bear Maternity Ward” with over 300 maternity dens each year, making it the largest density of denning polar bears found anywhere in the world. Similar numbers can be found on nearby Herald Island, lying approximately 70 kilometres to the east. Wrangel Island provides close to the perfect habitat for polar bears because of its large landmass with diverse landscapes and productive marine habitats for optimal hunting, particularly once the sea ice has retreated.
Since the introduction of 20 Musk Ox in 1975 the population has grown to over 200 on the Island along with relatively high numbers of snowy owls also found here. In 1976 the Russian Government declared this region a Nature Reserve in order to protect the Polar Bears along with the Snow Geese and Pacific Walrus’ (who have a recorded population of up to 100,000, the largest in the world). Since the protection was put in place, all species have seen significant recoveries.
On Wrangel Island in 2017, 230 bears were spotted feasting on a bowhead whale carcass.
Image Courtesy of: A.Gruzdev
In 2019 (and 2020) the world-renowned Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov will be heading to Wrangel and Herald Islands. Wrangel Island is also included on a longer National Geographic Endurance voyage.
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