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Meet the Polar Bear

6 min read

Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to view a polar bear in captivity, but believe us when we say there’s nothing like spotting one in its natural habitat on an excursion to the Arctic!

This snow-white bear species with thick fur and powerful paws really is a sight to behold. They're amazing animals, but polar bears rely on us to help keep them from extinction.

A polar bear mugs for a Quark passenger's camera in Spitsbergen. Photo: Rob de Haas

These incredible creatures live in many parts of the circumpolar north including Canada (home to approximately 60% of the world’s polar bear population), Greenland, Russia, Norway, and the United States (Alaska).

There’s something so lovable and fascinating about polar bears that despite their hunting skills and predatory nature, they’ve formed the basis of one of Coca-Cola’s most successful advertising campaigns for over a decade.

Just what is it about North America’s largest land carnivore that so captures our hearts and imaginations? Let’s get to know the polar bear.

Facts About Polar Bears: Get to Know the Arctic’s Famed Hunter

Thanks to massive height and weight, there’s nothing quite like watching a polar bear “do its thing.” From its hunting style to the way it walks to a polar bear's fur, you will never confuse this bear with any other.

The males of the species are massive and range from 273 to 544 kgs (600 to 1,200 lbs), while adult female polar bears tend to tip the scales at 181 to 318 kgs (400 to 700 lbs).

The largest male polar bears are a stunning 3.5 meters (10 ft) tall on their hind legs and can reach 771 kgs (1,700 lbs) — reaching up to twice the weight of most grizzly bears.

Pregnant polar bears will dig dens in the snow in which they birth and nurse their cubs. On average, polar bears have two cubs in a litter, and most polar bears will nurse for about 2.5 years.

Polar bear cubs weigh just 1 to 1.5 lbs at birth, but will rapidly grow to several times their body weight in a few short months.

Spitsbergen passengers photograph a polar bear on a passing ice floe

As prolific hunters and natural predators, polar bears primarily hunt seals; in particular, the ringed seal and bearded seals. The seals cut breathing holes into polar ice and can be counted on to surface every five to 10 minutes.

Polar bears wait patiently for a seal to surface, often lying in wait for days on end, before pouncing on their prey. In lieu of their favorite treat, a polar bears eat marine mammals like whales, walruses, small arctic mammals, and bird eggs.

If you spot a polar bear in the wild, it’s likely it’ll be walking or running. With a pace of approximately 3.5 miles (5.5 kms) per hour, the species is not known for its speed. Even so, when necessary, adult polar bears are able to move as quickly as a horse over a short distance, reaching a top speed of 25 miles (40 kms) per hour. So it's always important to heed the advice of your expert wilderness guides when it comes to safety and respecting distances from all wildlife.

Different Types of Polar Bears in the Arctic

Many bear species have a large home range (the distance in which they travel and call home), but none match that of the polar bear. Polar bears can have a home range 300 times larger than brown bears.

The size of its range, however, depends on many factors, including the availability of food and quality of its habitat.  According to Polar Bears International (PBI), an organization devoted to conserving polar bears and the sea ice they depend on, there are 19 distinct populations of polar bears in the circumpolar region.

Learn how Arctic sea ice affects the polar bear population.
Learn how Arctic sea ice affects the polar bear population.

The Importance of Sea Ice Regions

Because several of our Quark Expeditions itineraries visit sea ice regions, many passengers get to view polar bears in their natural environment. Of course, as elusive as these great white giants are, this is never a guarantee, but an incredible highlight when it happens.

Scientists have divided the Arctic into four ice regions, allowing them to track polar bears and assess their health and overall condition. The four regions are:

  • Seasonal Ice
  • Polar Basin Divergent Ice
  • Polar Basin Convergent Ice
  • Archipelago Ice

Polar bears can only survive in sea ice regions, as they need the ice to reach their primary prey: bearded and ringed seals. The primary threat to the future of the polar bear is ice loss, as the result of climate change.

Polar Bears: A Vulnerable Species in Need of Protection

Biologists estimate there are approximately 25,000 polar bears throughout the world. At this time, they are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

As noted by PBI, “Conscientious, respectful ecotourism can help local people earn vital income—and encourages residents and visitors alike to recognize the long-term advantage of conserving polar bear populations and their habitat. After all, it's a habitat we share.”

At Quark Expeditions, we want the polar bear to be around for many years to come. This is why we do our best to share information with others, as it helps people understand the importance of conservation. Wildlife conservation and sustainability are taken very seriously by Quark Expeditions, whose Polar Promise, is one of the most comprehensive sustainability strategies in the polar expedition industry.

Spotting a Polar Bear on your Expedition

On our Arctic expeditions, your experienced guides will let you know when to be watchful for polar bears. In some areas, guides will go ahead to scout out landings to ensure they are polar bear-free and safe for passengers to access.

Still, you may have an opportunity to spot one of these magnificent creatures from on board the ship, or possibly even from the air while flightseeing aboard one of our mighty icebreakers’ on-board helicopters. 

Contact one of our Polar Travel Advisers today to learn which expedition is best for you if polar bears are of particular interest to you.

There’s nothing better than experiencing the beauty of the polar bear in person—at a distance of course!

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