Polar Bear

The unquestionable kings and queens of the circumpolar north: beautiful to behold, terrifying to confront, as emblematic of the Arctic as ice and snow

Antarctic Peninsula

Region: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland, Svalbard

Name: Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Length: 2-2.5 metres (7 feet 3 inches to 8 feet)

Weight: 400–700 kg

Location: The Arctic

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Diet: Main diet is seal; also consumes muskox, reindeer, birds and bird eggs, crustaceans, whale carcasses, walrus, caribou, other polar bears, plants.

Appearance: White and yellowish-white with black noses.

The Laplanders traditionally refused to speak its name for fear of angering it; they would instead refer to polar bears as the Old Man in the fur coat or God’s dog. The Inuit named them the Wandering Ones. The Ket, a tribe of Siberia, call them Grandfather. It wasn’t until 1774 that British Commander C.J. Phipps first called them Ursus maritimus, the sea bear. Norsemen, Russians, Danes, or indigenous folk – whoever they were, whatever they named the polar bear, they always did so with respect. 


What do Polar Bear eat?

The mainstay of the polar bear’s diet is bearded and ringed seals. Not particularly swift of foot, polar bears instead rely on stealth to sneak up on their prey.

They swim vast distances, following their powerful senses of smell to openings in the ice (called leads) where seals congregate to get some air. The bears aren’t fast enough swimmers to keep up with the seals if they escape into the water, so instead they crouch by the seal holes, sometimes waiting hours for an unfortunate seal to pop its head out, at which point the bear will haul it out onto the ice.

If the seals are already out on the ice, the polar bear will lie down about 90 metres away, watching to see if they’ve been spotted. If the seal population remains calm, they’ll slowly stalk forward, keeping downwind of their targets, until they’re only about 10 metres away, and then attack.

An adult polar bear’s diet is centred on the seal’s blubber and skin, which are full of calories, leaving the protein-rich red meat to cubs. 

During the summer, when the ice has melted away leaving seals easy access to air, polar bears will sometimes have to live off the fat stored in their bodies for months at a time.

At the times of these reluctant famines polar bears have been known to eat anything, including hazardous garbage like Styrofoam, rubber, and toxic fluids. It’s during these periods that polar bear will attempt to tackle more formidable prey like muskox, or land-based prey that is far more difficult to catch than exposed seals.

Do they socialize?

Polar bears tend to be loners, roaming the vast distances of the Arctic on their own. When they do encounter other bears, the interaction largely depends on the situation:

  • If there’s food available, the submissive bear will circle downwind of the dominant bear and cautiously touch noses, asking for permission to share in the kill. Permission is usually granted.
  • If it’s not mating season, two polar bears that meet will generally be quite friendly toward each other, engaging in play-fighting, and even cuddling together at night.
  • If an adult male approaches a mother protecting her cubs, the mother will lower her head and make short charges at the male to warn him away.

How fast can Polar Bears move?

A roaming polar bear walks at about 5kms an hour. That speed gets cut in half if it’s a mother leading her cubs. When they hit the gas a polar bear can run up to about 40kms an hour, which is the lower end of speeds reached by galloping horses. Because they’re so bulky, polar bears expend a huge amount of calories when sprinting. In fact, Nowegian scientist Nils Are Øritsland estimated that a polar bear would be unlikely to gain the calories back from a kill after sprinting for more than about 10 seconds. When swimming, polar bears can doggy-paddle 10kms an hour, and with their buoyant bodies they can swim astonishing distances. National Geographic highlighted a study that shows the swimming distance record for a polar bear is 426 miles non-stop.

What are Polar Bear mating rituals like?

Mating generally takes place in late spring, in April or May. A male (starting around 6 years old) will follow the scented tracks of a fertile female (starting at around 4 or 5 years old), often dueling other males in vicious fights that can leave the combatants scarred and sporting broken teeth. The winning male and the female will mate for a week, at which point the impregnated female will go off to gorge and store up as much fat as possible, doubling her weight. Around August or September the female will dig herself a den on land (never on the ice floes). She will then hunker down into a state much like hibernation – she doesn’t sleep the whole time, and her temperature doesn’t drop like it would in true hibernation, but her heart rate slows from an average of 45 beats a minute to 25 beats. The cubs (2 on average) are born anywhere between November and February. The newborns are blind and usually weigh around 1kg. The family will stay holed up in the den, the babies feeding on mom’s milk, until sometime between mid-February through to mid-April. They spend another 10 to 15 days close to the den until the babies get a bit more experience with the world outside, and then they set off on the slow march back to the seal hunting grounds.

How long do Polar Bears live?

Polar bears live to about an average of 25 years. In old age they grow too weak to hunt properly and die of starvation.

How many Polar Bears are there today?

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the wild.

Do Polar Bears have any predators?

When young, polar bear cubs are susceptible to wolves and adult male bears. As adults, polar bears can be injured by other polar bears (males fighting for mating rights) and by larger animals that they unsuccessfully try to hunt, like muskox. As with most Artic species, the greatest threat is from humans. Climate changes have reduced ice packs, meaning polar bears have to swim much further to get themselves out of water and the danger of drowning.

Do Polar Bears attack people?

Polar bears generally will avoid humans, but as the overall ice conditions thin they will be pushed further outwards from the Artic towards human habitations. The bears with regular contact with human settlements will investigate garbage dumps for easy food. Seals are much easier prey, with a far greater reward for the effort. Dangerous encounters with humans are rare; but when hungry enough, polar bears will indeed attack and eat humans. As more polar ice permanently melts, the number of these encounters is expected to increase.

Your Polar Bear experience 

Polar Bear Video (PLA05-16, North Spitsbergen) by Vedat Mihmat 

What Polar Bear Expedition Should I take?

For the polar bear enthusiasts special itineraries are arranged to offer the best polar bear experiences. Our polar bear specials are especially designed to search for polar bears.  

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