Spitsbergen is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears. According to tourist legend, there are more polar bears than people on Spitsbergen, although this is not strictly true – latest figures suggest that there are around 1000 polar bears on the islands, compared to a population of around 3000 people.
Polar bears usually live out on the sea ice, where they hunt for seals, but when food is particularly scarce hunger occasionally forces them to scavenge close to populated areas. A number of people have been killed by polar bears on Spitsbergen over the years, so local law requires travellers walking outside town to be accompanied at all times by a guide armed with a gun.
Polar bears are under severe threat from Global Warming, which is causing the increasingly rapid melting of their Arctic Ocean habitat. Recent years have been the warmest in recorded history, and the area of permanently frozen sea ice in the Arctic is now the smallest that it has ever been. Polar bears are consequently finding it harder to hunt for seals, their main prey, which they find under the sea ice, and as a result polar bear numbers are decreasing throughout much of the Arctic.
Nonetheless, cruising in an ice-strengthened ship around the islands of Spitsbergen is one of the best and most exciting ways in the world to have a chance of seeing polar bears, and there’s also lots of other magnificent Arctic wildlife to be seen along the way, such as walruses and arctic foxes. To do this, PolarQuest Expeditions are highly recommended (www.polar-quest.com).