Polar Bear Tours in Svalbard: An Introduction

The chance to spot the ‘King of the Arctic’ is one of the many reasons people come to visit Svalbard

Svalbard is known as one of the top locations in the world to spot polar bears, although there are plenty of other reasons to visit the archipelago.

Whilst there are no official polar bear tours or safaris in Svalbard, the best way to encounter them in the wild is by joining one of our Expedition Micro Cruises or Photography Tours in Svalbard. 

What is the Best Way to See a Polar Bear in the Wild?

With its stunning, glaciated Arctic landscapes, it’s easy to see why Svalbard is one of the best places on earth to see polar bears! Our expeditions, tailored to just 12 guests, give you the perfect opportunity to see these magnificent creatures roaming in their natural habitat from the safety of a small ship. Whilst we can never guarantee a sighting, encounters with polar bears are common occurrences on our expeditions.

Conscious Expeditions

Our small-group expeditions are carefully designed to have a minimal impact on this beautiful place and all its wildlife. All of our encounters with polar bears (and all wildlife) follow strict Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) guidelines to ensure we don’t cause a disturbance to wildlife.

Factors to consider if you want to witness a polar bear in the wild

Timing is key when it comes to polar bear sightings. Our expeditions run from April – September giving the highest chances of seeing polar bears in the summer, from May onwards. This is because the ice has melted enough for ships to pass, making it easier to access the coast where polar bears hunt on the ice and in the sea. It’s also the season of 24-hour daylight, which definitely helps visibility!

Weather and sea conditions are not something we can guarantee, but in calm, conditions our small vessel is perfect for getting right up to the edge of the sea ice, (the ideal hunting site for polar bears). 

Also, the length of your trip is as important as the timing. There is a better chance of spotting them on longer trips, so factor that into your planning. While polar bears may steal the spotlight, Svalbard is also home to walruses, reindeer, Arctic foxes, whales and an abundance of bird species. All of which are sure to add an extra wow factor to your expedition and photographs. 

21 Animals to See During Your Expedition to Svalbard

“In a world where humanity has imposed boundaries and ownership upon nature, Svalbard stands as a sanctuary disconnected by such constraints. It remains one of the last truly wild places on our planet. Watching her roam free in her natural habitat, her home, I felt a profound sense of liberation—in my eyes, this is how it should be.” 

Polar Bears in Svalbard

Often known as the ‘King of the Arctic’, the polar bear is the largest bear species in the world!

Often known as the ‘King of the Arctic‘, the polar bear is the largest bear species in the world! And there’s approximately 3000 living on Svalbard in the Barents sea. 

Did you knowadult polar bears grow to between 180-260 cm in length? Males can weigh between 300-700 kilos, while females weigh half the size, between 150-300 kilos. But their weight varies drastically depending on the seasons, particularly with female polar bears that can double their weight between spring and late summer.

We love that polar bears can roam freely on Svalbard but they spend much of their time on the sea-ice, hunting ringed seals, bearded seals, harp seals. Their diet also includes seabirds, swiped bird eggs, and even the corpses of dead whales. Unlike other marine mammals like walruses, polar bears are solitary, apart from mothers who spend about two years with their young and male-female pairs during mating season. During particularly rough weather, polar bears hide out in temporary dens for days and even weeks at a time.

Where in Svalbard is the best place to encounter polar bears?

There is a low density of bears in the west of Svalbard (Spitsbergen). However, higher numbers can be found along the east coast and in the fjords to the north. Polar bears tend to hunt north of Spitsbergen glacier fronts in spring, where there are plenty of ringed seal lairs.

Read our informative blog on ‘Polar Bears in Svalbard: Tips on where and how to see them best’.

small ship cruises to svalbard

Why There Are No Official Polar Bear Tours in Svalbard?

Polar bears are a vulnerable species and have been protected by international law since 1973. Because of their protected and vulnerable status, there are no polar bear safaris on Svalbard. However, they can be spotted across the archipelago, and the only way to see them safely and responsibly is by joining expeditions with trained guides. 

Visitors are warned not to leave settlements without a guide because polar bears roam freely across the archipelago.  During the winter, they can travel hundreds of miles. But, they spend most of the summer following the sea ice in the north-east of Svalbard (Spitsbergen). They don’t just travel great distances on land; polar bears are excellent swimmers – paddling with their front paws for over 50 miles (80 km)! You might see one close to the fjords and bays where they have a good chance of catching prey.

It’s important to remember that polar bears can be extremely dangerous, and they are wild animals. Attacks are rare, with very few recorded since the 1970s, but they do occasionally wander onto settlements like Longyearbyen, which is why there are essential safety measures in place for tourists and locals. 

Sustainability and Polar Bears

It’s well known that the polar bears’ habitat is under threat due to climate change. But, important work is being done to protect them, and Svalbard is one of the few places in the world to be recognised as a certified sustainable destination by Green Destination.

Projects working towards them aren’t new either. In 1973, all countries that are home to wild polar bears, including Norway, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and the U.S., signed ‘The International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat’ to end the decline in polar bear populations and protect the cultural hunting traditions of indigenous peoples.

More recently, in 2001 the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act was passed, which prohibits baiting, disturbing, and encounters that may impose harm to the local polar bear population. This act also restricts or prohibits travel to high-density bear areas, which is safer for polar bears and humans, and stops over-tourism.

1% for the planet

That’s why we’ve joined 1% For the Planet to help support organisations and projects doing groundbreaking work to help protect the beloved polar bears.  All of this combined action has helped Svalbard’s population to recover in recent decades, and money generated by ecotourism can help fund more conservation.

Witnessing a polar bear in the wild in an incredible privilege, and for many, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Our Best Polar Bear Cruises

We want to make your next adventure simple! We’ve put together an abundance of articles and information to help you plan your expedition to Svalbard.  

If you have any other questions, you can always reach out to us directly – we’d love to hear from you. 

A Guide to Polar Bear Viewing in Svalbard Where to Photograph Polar Bears in the Arctic How Polar Bears are Affected by Climate Change Svalbard Wildlife Guide