From the Archive: Polar Bear Encounters, Svalbard

Polar bear and cubs, Svalbard (Norway). © www.thomaspickard.com

Polar bear and cubs, Svalbard (Norway). © www.thomaspickard.com

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is home to one of the world’s largest carnivores, the polar bear. This makes for an interesting dilemma when guiding passengers on expedition cruise ships in the Arctic. On one hand, you have passengers who desperately want to encounter polar bears. On the other, you have guides who desperately want to ensure those encounters are safe and the bear isn’t disturbed.

Sightings from the ship are often the best, as they allow for a high-angle view of the bear and its surrounding environment. It also means the bears have no way of actually getting to the people watching the bear. Sightings from a Zodiac are also really great, as you have the flexibility of moving around on a water craft and given how curious polar bears are, they often come very close to the Zodiac for a look (read: great photo opportunities).

Sightings on land, in many ways, are the least desirable way to see a polar bear. While the expedition cruise ships I worked on always did a pre-scout of landing sites, just to ensure we didn’t start landing people right next to a sleeping polar bear, the reality is, a polar bear can turn up at anytime while managing a landing with up to a 100 passengers.

Fortunately, I have never had an undesirably close encounter with a polar bear and a group of clients during a landing. The closest call I have had, was literally minutes after the last passengers left the shore for the ship and just at that moment, some 200-metres away, a large male polar bear swam ashore, shook the water off itself, then lumbered off over the Arctic landscape.

It was a real reminder, that this beautiful Arctic landscape is the home of the polar bear.

Learn more about polar bears at Visit Svalbard.