Polar bears are like the real life version of unicorns: white, powerful, majestic, surrounded by mystery and wonder, and seemingly right outside your reach. Out of your reach, that is, unless you happen to be in Svalbard where polar bears outnumber people.

Polar bears are adapted to survive in the far north on sea and ice habitats; therefore you will only find them in these 5 nations: Canada, Russia, USA, Greenland, and Norway.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to see a polar bear, expect them to be large, generally slow moving, and very intelligent.

polar bear in the arctic
Polar bear just hanging around. Click to enlarge. Photo: Stefan Cook, Flickr.com

They are bigger than you think!

Most people get shocked when they see these animals in real life. The weight of a grown bear ranges from:

  • Males: 775- 1200 pounds
  • Females: 330 – 650 pounds

Just how do they balance on ice?

Polar bears use their massive claws to help keep traction as they walk in the snow and ice. In addition to this, the bears have black footpads on the bottom of their paws called papillae that grip the ice and keep them from slipping.

When the ice is very thin, the bears will extend their legs far apart and lower their bodies to spread their weight more evenly to not put too much pressure on any one spot.

Polar bears can run up to 40 kilometers an hour, but only for short distances, before they overheat. This is why you often see polar bears wandering around slowly to conserve energy and stay cool.

On the hunt

Polar bears mainly dine on ringed seals. They can patiently wait for hours to days for seals to rise to the surface from underneath the ice, which is when polar bears make their move on them. Polar bears also stalk seals as they bath and sleep above water and can pounce on them from over 20 meters away.

Two walking polar bears
Strolling along the ice. Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantick, Flickr.com
  • Being the intelligent creatures they are, polar bears have been known to pry open ice blocks to extract fish trapped inside.
  • They have curved and sharp claws over 2 inches ( 5.1 centimeters) long. They are used to catch and hold prey.
  • They can eat up to 100 pounds of seal blubber and skin in one sitting.
  • Will travel over 100 kilometers to locate a food source.
  • Can swim over 10 kilometers per hour in chase of seals.
  • They can go for 9 months without food. If they are stuck on land, away from ice and their food source, polar bears often have to fast until it becomes cold enough again for them to wander back to their hunting grounds.

Polar bears are not actually white!

Polar bear reflection
Curious polar bear. Photo: Stefan Cook, Flickr.com

I know it’s hard believed but polar bears hairs are pigment free and transparent. Their fur scatters and reflects visible light from their surroundings. They appear white because they are almost always around snow and ice.

Underneath their fur they have black skin that can be 4.5 inches (11.5 centimeters) thick. This helps keep them warm while they are swimming in the freezing water, but makes them overheat while running.  Again, this is why they often appear lazy and carefree.

When and where to see them in Svalbard

  • Svalbard holds 1/6th of the world’s population of polar bears and people often travel here to seek them out.
  • While there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, they are most commonly found on the east coast of Spitsbergen. There is more ice in this area of the island which makes it more suitable for polar bears hunting for food.
  • There is no guarantee to see polar bears, they’re masters of blending in, but they can be seen in theory all year long.
  • In the spring and summer, when the ice is melted and ships can travel freely to the east, people can seem them in this manner.
  • In the winter months, you often have to use a snowmobile or dog sledge team to get around the island. If weather conditions are not too extreme, it is possible to go east and around the island searching for them.