Is it your dream to see a polar bear? It was mine too. Fortunately, we were able to make this dream a reality with a lot of luck and a little bit of planning.
I’ve shared all the information we learned on our trip in this guide to help you set the best expectations for how to see a polar bear on your next trip to Norway.
This guide will tell you when is the best time to see a polar bear, how to see a polar bear, where to see a polar bear and help you set the right expectations for your trip.
POLAR BEARS ARE NOT IN MAINLAND NORWAY
I repeat: polar bears are not in mainland Norway. To see a polar bear in Norway, you must travel to Svalbard, located high in the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, there is a 0% chance of seeing a real polar bear in mainland Norway.
You may see plenty of statues or displays of polar bears, but it is no substitute for the real thing!
WHERE IS SVALBARD?
Svalbard is an archipelago and is part of the Kingdom of Norway. Within Svalbard, there is only one populated area called Spitsbergen. In Spitsbergen, there is the town of Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen is where you want to go to set up camp. Located less than 700 miles from the North Pole, your best chance to access this magical area is to fly there. To travel to Longyearbyen, fly to the Longyearbyen (LYR) airport. The LYR airport is the only commercial airport located in Svalbard. You can typically find a flight to Longyearbyen from Tromso or Oslo in mainland Norway.
I know I threw out a bunch of different locations, which can be confusing, so I’ll break down the locations for you. To rephrase: Longyearbyen is a town located on the island of Spitsbergen, which is part of the Svalbard archipelago and a part of Norway.
Kingdom of Norway -> Svalbard -> Spitsbergen -> Longyearbyen -> you, on an amazing trip of a lifetime!
WHAT IS IT LIKE IN SVALBARD?
Once you arrive in Longyearbyen, you will find several hotels, restaurants, shops, and activities to choose from to enjoy on your trip. On our trip to Svalbard, we stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel and Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg. We had to stay at two hotels due to weather delays, which brings me to my next point.
While you are in Svalbard, be flexible!
We found the weather forecast is more of a horoscope in Svalbard. It is very unpredictable at times, and it can impact your trip. For example, on our arrival, the plane tried twice to land before it touched down at the airport. We learned that two times is the limit for pilots to try to land before the plane has to return to mainland Norway.
The day before our arrival, the flight had to return to Oslo due to the difficult weather conditions when trying to land. Our flight also got canceled the day we expected to leave Svalbard. We watched as the incoming plane tried twice to land unsuccessfully.
Due to the weather conditions, we were forced to stay an extra night in town. Thankfully, the airline put us in a hotel and served us a warm meal. We also made a new friend while waiting in line for the bus and went on a fossil-finding excursion with her the next day while we waited for our plane. While we arrived at our next destination in mainland Norway two days later than planned, we made the best of our extra time in Svalbard.
My best advice is to roll with the punches, stay flexible while visiting Svalbard, and consider it a blessing you can stay in this magical place for a little bit longer.
THERE ARE NO POLAR BEAR EXCURSIONS
While there are no polar bears on mainland Norway, Svalbard is home to approximately 300 polar bears year-round. However, polar bears are losing out on their prime real estate as the arctic sea ice continues to recede yearly. Polar bears are classified as endangered creatures and become more at risk for survival each year.
Because polar bears are protected animals, you cannot actively search for them. For this reason, there are no dedicated excursions you can book to see a polar bear. Remember, protecting polar bears is the most important priority!
WAYS TO SEE POLAR BEARS IN SVALBARD
Even though there are no dedicated excursions to book to see a polar bear in Svalbard, there are still opportunities to spot them.
My best advice for how to see a polar bear in Norway is to book a boat excursion while in Svalbard. There are plenty of tour guides that offer a variety of boat tours. Depending on the adventure you seek, you can choose an enclosed boat or a rib boat, go out for half-day or all day, or go during the morning or evening. There are many options available based on your preferences!
Even if you aren’t lucky enough to spot a polar bear on a boat excursion, you will still be amazed by the landscape and other wildlife. And if you are lucky enough to spot a polar bear on your trip, consider it an exception to the norm!
The Visit Svalbard website is the best place to find excursions. This website had up-to-date booking availability and made it an easy one-stop shop for us.
We were lucky enough to spot a polar bear in Svalbard on our “catch of the day” tour through an operating company called Better Moments. The boat tour led us to see a fantastic glacier while the guide taught us stories about Svalbard’s interesting history.
YOU WILL RARELY SEE POLAR BEARS IN WINTER
Svalbard typically has more polar bear sightings in the summer because the sea ice has melted, and polar bears are confined to a smaller surface area. As winter arrives, the sea ice builds up, allowing the polar bears more room to roam. Due to the increase in sea ice, seeing polar bears on your trip to Svalbard in the winter will be scarce since they have more surface space.
During the winter months, Svalbard also has 24 hours of darkness. It would be hard to spot polar bears without some sunlight! If you find yourself in Svalbard in the winter, you can still find adventure. There are opportunities to see the northern lights, and Svalbard is the only place you can see the northern lights in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, polar bear sightings are rarely part of your winter Svalbard itinerary.
YOUR CHANCE OF SEEING A POLAR BEAR IS LOW
Ok, so you’ve booked your trip from mainland Norway to Svalbard to see a polar bear. You’ve got your hotel set and a couple of boat excursions planned. Will this planning allow you to see a polar bear while in Svalbard? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not.
I want to ensure you have the right expectation when visiting Svalbard to see a polar bear. Don’t get your hopes up. While there, we learned there is only a five percent chance of you seeing a polar bear on a trip.
I know what you’re thinking, “so you’re saying there’s a chance.” Technically yes, but the chance is so tiny. When we spotted a polar bear on our boat tour, the guide popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate. That’s how rare it is!
DON’T GO TO SVALBARD ONLY TO SEE A POLAR BEAR
Many people go to Svalbard only to see a polar bear and leave highly disappointed. Set the right intentions for going to Svalbard, and you’ll have a fantastic time.
Svalbard is an adventurer’s paradise! There’s so much opportunity to have an action-packed trip while in Svalbard. Make sure you are going to Svalbard for the right reasons – to see part of the world many will never experience, to get as close to the North Pole as possible, and the chance to see some fantastic wildlife like whales, walruses, and reindeer. And yes, maybe a polar bear.
YOUR IPHONE WILL NOT CUT IT
If you are lucky enough to see a polar bear in Norway, don’t expect to get very close. If spotted, boats must maintain a safe distance from the polar bear. Ideally, the polar bear should never know you are there.
For that reason, in the exciting and unforgettable moment you spot a polar bear, your iPhone or Android will probably not take the best photo. Prepare to pack a quality camera with a high zoom capability to take photos of wildlife in Svalbard.
We took a photo of a polar bear with a cell phone and excitedly sent it to my family. Their response? “What are we looking for?” Thankfully, my husband’s passion is photography, and he had his zoom lens ready to go.
WHEN TO SEE POLAR BEARS
Plan for a trip to Svalbard in the late summer for the best time to see a polar bear in Svalbard. We were lucky enough to see a polar bear while visiting Svalbard in August, and we feel this may be the best chance you have to see them.
The tour guide explained that the polar bears stay dispersed and primarily stay on the east side of Svalbard throughout the summer, and there are rarely any sightings until late in the season. When you start hearing reports of polar bears in the area, it means their food supply on the island’s east side has run out, and they have to move toward the island’s west side to hunt until the ice starts to form. The guide explained that this typically happens in August, and sightings become more frequent.
A mom with a cub was spotted close to Longyearbyen multiple times during our stay. As exciting as it may sound, it can be scary for polar bears and the residents. We learned the polar bears were airlifted to a different area of Svalbard, so there was no risk of injury to either party.
DO NOT LOOK FOR POLAR BEARS ON YOUR OWN
Svalbard is not the place to see independent adventure. Do not try to find a polar bear on your own.
Visitors in Svalbard can safely walk around Longyearbyen but are advised not to go outside town limits without a guide or proper equipment. There are signs warning visitors of the danger from polar bears outside the town’s limits and indicate where those limits are.
While it may feel thrilling, you should not go past the signs alone. One tour guide explained that as long as you can see the town of Longyearbyen, the people in Longyearbyen can see you. This area is a safe zone. If you can’t see the town, the people watching over the town for polar bears cannot see you or protect you if something happens.
When you book an excursion in Svalbard, you will notice that all the guides carry two things: a flare gun and a rifle. Even our kayak guide had a rifle with him. The guides always carry protection if you come across a polar bear unexpectedly. They are the experts, not you!
After our trip to Svalbard in August, we read in the news about a man killed by a polar bear in town only three weeks later. It was the fifth attack in 50 years. And it happened at a campsite right by the Longyearbyen airport. Unfortunately, the polar bear also was killed as it was a risk of hurting more people in the future—a heartbreaking situation for both the person and the endangered animal.
Thanks for reading my guide! You should now have all the information you need to plan your trip.
- Seeing a polar bear in Norway is a fantastic bonus, but don’t travel to Svalbard only to see polar bears, as you may leave disappointed.
- On the slight chance, you encounter a polar bear, have the right equipment ready to capture the best shot!
- Don’t risk your life by trying to find a polar bear on your own.
- Book boat excursions for the best chance to see a polar bear in Svalbard. And you will have a fantastic day either way!
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One thought on “See a Polar Bear in Norway: How To Guide”
Sad ending for the human and the polar bear.