Svalbard vs. Churchill for Polar Bear Sightings

Mike Gurrey

13 Oct 2017

The land of the polar bear

If you are having trouble deciding which destination to visit in search of the majestic polar bear, the Svalbard archipelago or the far northern reaches of Canada, then hopefully this short blog will provide some guidance. 

I’m very lucky to be able to say that I have Visited both, and hopefully can help set the scene for you to compare these two unique arctic destinations.


Svalbard Landscape

The landscape of Svalbard is soaring skywards in one glance, and then plunging deep into the icy waters in another. You can easily understand why it’s necessary to explore by boat, with tiny settlements (mostly from a former era) looking like they’re tentatively balanced on the edge of frosty bays. Huge glaciers and big chunks of electric blue icebergs slowly plough their way through rock and ocean. You can go ashore to trek over mossy terrain and snow laden ridge, but the interior of most of Svalbard remains largely impenetrable.

Churchill Landscape

The Churchill area is very different, but no less beautiful. Here is a flat tundra which goes on for miles. Endless horizons only broken by the odd spruce tree, like skeletal wire brushes sticking up from a stage set. There’s something about the great distances and flatness that gives you an impression of wilderness very different to that in Svalbard. A bleak and eerie vastness that reminds you just how insignificant we are to natures powers. Not much can survive up here, but the creatures that do are amazing! Thousands of years of evolution have created only a few species of plants and an extremely hardy collection of fauna who call this place home - and some crazy humans too!



Let’s start with the mighty polar bear. In Svalbard, the best time to see them is in the summer time (Late May – August) on one of our small ship expeditions. You want to aim for the mid-season so the ice has melted enough to access the fjords and get around the island, but not so much that the bears have gone north with the ice floe.

Other than the huge alluring white beast, Svalbard has a host of other enticing wildlife. My favourite, the walrus, occupies a pretty high spot on the food chain so is in plentiful supply. These big piles of blubbery mass can be found on rocky shores, playfully rolling around in the water or climbing on top of each other sleepily. Seals of various species are present but understandably elusive, being the favourite food of the king of the Arctic. Whales often surface, and there 12 different species of them, including humpback, sperm, and minke whales. On land you may encounter the lovable Arctic fox or the shaggy Arctic reindeer. 

Then there are the birds! The arctic vista wouldn’t be complete without the soaring, swooping and gliding of these well-honed polar professionals.

Churchill WILDLIFE

In Churchill, polar bear season starts as early as March (for seeing cubs in the denning areas) or June in some areas (if tracking them on foot in the wilderness). Or, if its high bear density you’re after, then head to the Hudson bay area for October/November, as this is the time when the ice first starts to freeze and the bears can head out to hunt for seals. Later in the season, when the skies are getting darker, you also have the alluring presence of the northern lights, a most spectacular backdrop to your polar bear experience! Churchill’s animal population is most abundant in the late summer and autumn, when beluga whales arrive in Hudson Bay, and you can enjoy them in the water (either in kayaks or just a wet suit). You can stay in a rustic lodge and watch the caribou with their majestic antlers, migrating in their hundreds of thousands over the colourful tundra. There are wolves and black bears out foraging for such caribou, Arctic hare or musk oxen carrion, and birds aplenty (such as gyrfalcons, snowy owls and tundra swans). 



In Svalbard you will most likely embark on a voyage around the Svalbard archipelago. From the deck of the ship you will be witnessing Polar Bears from an elevated view, or from small zodiac boats and therefore at a closer range. The ships on offer vary in size, but most take a similar route circumnavigating the mountainous island, venturing into fjords and getting as close to the pack-ice and glaciers as possible in search of wildlife. You will get to explore further inshore by going out on small zodiac boats, and having a number of hikes on the tundra. I loved being able to go ashore and stretch my legs! 


In Churchill, you will either be in a specially designed tundra vehicle (the polar rover), or tracking the bears on foot. From the vehicle you are also above the bears, but the vehicle is a source of curiosity so the bears do wander close to inspect this strange lump of metal in their otherwise pristine wilderness. When I was out there a bear same right up close, stuck his nose in the air, and climbed up on his hind legs to sniff at the windows! Tracking the bears on foot you can’t cover as much area so won’t necessarily see as many bears, and you have to keep an obviously preferable distance. However, the experience of being totally immersed in true wilderness, and the possibility of being at eye level with the great ice bear himself, on his territory, is an unparalleled one, and not something you will easily forget!

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