Which Polar Bear Trip is Right for You?

Josh Wright and Lorna Griggs

27 Feb 2019

A Comparison of Churchill, Svalbard and Baffin Island

Sightings of large carnivores are often top of the safari-goer’s wish list. Planet Earth has no shortage of fearsome predators to choose from, but even if you’re dead set on a particular species, a range of possibilities still exist that allow you alter your safari experience.

If the lions of the Masai Mara aren’t your thing, you could perhaps opt for the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha, the black-maned lions of the Kalahari Desert, or even the sole Panthera leo population found outside of Africa, the Asiatic lions of India’s Sasan Gir National Park. Tracking Bengal tigers on a traditional Indian safari is a completely different experience to setting camera traps in Russia’s Durminskoye Reserve with Siberian tiger expert Alexander Batalov, while brown bears can be sighted in a host of locations throughout Eurasia and North America, including Alaska, Kamchatka and the Himalayas, with each location home to a different subspecies.

Subspecies are not a factor that must be taken into account with the polar bear. The territory of the largest terrestrial carnivore on the planet is not broken up by impassable mountains or oceans, or extreme differences in climate and habitat. Instead, the realm of the polar bear extends through much of the Arctic, with shifting sea ice allowing the bears to roam between Russia, Greenland, Svalbard, Canada and Alaska, with no care given to international borders. This relatively contiguous habitat has ensured the global polar bear population has remained relatively homogenous.

However, this does not mean that every polar bear encounter is the same. In celebration of International Polar Bear Day, we’ve compared three very different trips in the hopes of demystifying the different options available to the safari-goer across the polar bear’s habitat.

Churchill, Canada

The self-appointed title of “Polar Bear Capital of the World”, is worn with pride by the residents of Churchill, a town that becomes a polar bear hotspot every winter when Hudson Bay freezes over. With a surface area of some 470,000 square miles and shorelines in no fewer than four Canadian provinces – Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec – the frozen Hudson Bay provides a crucial habitat corridor for Canada’s polar bears when temperatures plummet.

As autumn begins to fade, the bears’ migration begins. The animals move towards the shore from further inland, waiting for the Bay to freeze and allow them access to their winter feeding grounds further north, where countless seal breathing holes await. This leads to a large number of bears congregating in the area around Churchill, meaning that – if arriving at the right time of year – a Churchill trip is the closest you’ll get to a guaranteed polar bear sighting.

The ease with which one can hopefully see a polar bear here is mirrored by the relatively painless transport links. There may not be any roads that connect Churchill to other towns and cities in Canada, but it’s no more than a 2-hour flight away from Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba Province. Our shortest Churchill trips are also just 6 days long – great for travellers with limited time.

Churchill also caters to those with limited mobility, as very little walking will be required during your stay. In fact, exploring by foot is actually discouraged, as polar bears are not an uncommon sight even within the town itself; all bear viewing is conducted in specially built tundra buggies. The high concentration of bears in and around Churchill has even given rise to the first ever polar bear “jail”, where troublesome polar bears, at first tranquilised to ensure the safety of the bear and the town’s residents, are held in one of 27 secure cells before being relocated elsewhere.

With little freedom to explore the town or surrounding area outside of organised activities, Churchill does not offer the best experience for those seeking a touch of adventure. The stark expanses of tundra and elevated position of the tundra buggies do not lend themselves particularly well to photography, while the hotel options here in this remote location will not set the world alight. However, if you’re looking for the best possible chance of polar bear encounters without having to travel a great distance or expend a great deal of effort, Churchill is a fantastic option, and what’s more, you may even be able to witness the Northern Lights here – not a bad combo for somewhere below the Arctic Circle.

Our Churchill Tundra Lodge & Town Adventure starts from £7,150pp, excluding international flights.

Baffin Island, Canada

Across Hudson Bay and around 1,000km from Churchill lies Baffin Island, the fifth-largest island in the world, which sits astride the Arctic Circle at the entrance to the Bay. For centuries, Western explorers attempted to navigate Canada’s ice-choked waters in search of the Northwest Passage, a proposed sea route that would connect Europe with Asia. It wasn’t until a 1903-1906 expedition led by Roald Amundsen, who would also lead the first expedition to reach the South Pole, that the route was successfully navigated. Amundsen’s route took him past the northern coast of Baffin Island, and onwards to Alaska.

Having played such a role in the annals of exploration, it is no surprise that a Baffin Island expedition offers the prospect of far more intrepid exploits than does Churchill. Just 10,000 people live here in an area the size of Spain, and the vast majority of the land is a rugged, mountainous and largely untouched wilderness. This is ideal for the adventurous and those serious about photography, with spectacular scenery and bears perched on icebergs providing truly epic photo opportunities. Bear in mind that as you’ll be tracking the bears on foot, a long lens combined with decent camera equipment that will stand up to the elements is essential. This is not the trip for people wanting to shoot on their iPhone!

Tracking the bears through this hostile habitat, with expert Inuit guides, is about as close to an authentic experience as you can get in the field of polar bear ecotourism. With temperatures rarely rising above -20°C on “warm” days and reaching as low as -40°C in some cases, your physical endurance will be tested; and through all this, you’ll be staying in a tented camp.

A trip like this, one remote in the extreme, will also test you mentally. You’ll have to be willing to forsake most creature comforts, and be content with living for days in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest hub of civilisation. There will be a lot of waiting around for the bears, there will be few opportunities for other activities, and there will be a lot of silence. Nothing but the sound of your frozen breath, the crunch of the snow under your boots, the wind whipping around the natural granite amphitheatres you pass through, and, in time, the whisper of “bear” from the lips of your guide.

A Baffin Island expedition is not for everyone, but it offers an experience matched by few other places on earth. Additional benefits include the chance of witnessing the Northern Lights, the ability to fly drones for aerial photography/videography (not allowed in most other polar bear areas) and, perhaps most thrilling, a good chance of seeing polar bear mothers with their young cubs, just a few weeks after they emerge from their dens, blinking in the Arctic sunlight.

Our Spring Polar Bears and Icebergs of Baffin Island expedition starts from £8,995pp, excluding internal and international flights. Due to a last-minute cancellation, you can save 20% on our April 17th departure.

Svalbard

It may be useful to think of Svalbard expeditions as the midway point between those offered in Baffin and Churchill, what with the combination of incredible scenery and sheer remoteness with comfortable ship-based accommodation and abundant wildlife. However, while Svalbard does indeed provide a fantastic option for those seeking a little more adventure than Churchill and a little less roughing-it than Baffin, Svalbard expeditions are anything but middle of the road.

Firstly, however you choose to experience Svalbard, there is no escaping the remarkable natural wonders on show, from fjords and glaciers to snow-topped mountains and lush green tundra blooming with Arctic wildflowers (depending on the season). The variety of landscapes here is almost overwhelming, and a photographer’s dream. You may also get the chance to photograph bears hunting for seals on the pack ice – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Svalbard also offers a greater ranger of wildlife than Baffin and Churchill. In addition to polar bears, the Arctic archipelago is home to seals, whales, walrus, Arctic fox, numerous species of seabird (as well as the land-dwelling Svalbard rock ptarmigan) and an endemic subspecies of reindeer, the Svalbard reindeer. While Churchill is not particularly conducive to photography and Baffin presents a test for the skilled photographer, it would be more difficult to return from Svalbard without fantastic pictures of wildlife!

With trips departing from spring through to autumn, Svalbard even offers the greatest variety of possible departure dates when compared to Baffin and Churchill. Exploration is possible as soon as the pack ice thaws enough to permit ship traffic through a good portion of the region’s waterways, with voyages occurring throughout the summer – when the midnight sun never dips below the horizon – until daylight hours begin to drop significantly as September approaches. With so many departure dates available, Svalbard is a good option for those who may not be quite as flexible with when they can head off on holiday.

In addition, the time of year greatly dictates what kind of vistas you’ll witness in Svalbard, with pristine snowfall carpeting the land early in the season and greenery becoming more and more prevalent as the months tick on. Photographers will be able to choose which month suits them best, and by speaking to one of our Destination Specialists, you can time your arrival to coincide with the arrival of newborn wildlife, from polar bear and Arctic fox cubs to reindeer calves and walrus pups.

Comfortable expedition ships provide a brilliant base to explore from. Thanks to hot showers and fantastic food prepared on board, there’s no roughing it here. Sea-based expeditions aren’t for everyone though. While most ships don’t encounter rough seas, staying on a ship for the greater part of a day may not be ideal for those who haven’t found their sea legs. Also, Svalbard trips must perforce be longer than Baffin and Churchill trips due to the sailing required to voyage through the area in search of the bears. As a result, Svalbard is not a good option for those with limited time to spare, nor is it ideal for families – the minimum age on the M/V Kinfish, for example, is 18. (Note that select Churchill trips do allow you to bring your kids.) But for the landlubber willing to step offshore and set sail for new horizons, Svalbard offers so much to discover.

Our Svalbard Polar Bear Explorer expedition starts from £7,195pp, excluding international flights. For a limited time, the first 20 bookings on our 2020 departures will receive £500 ($630) off our listed trip price, and if you book yourself a place on select 2019 Svalbard departures before March 15th 2019, you will receive £1,000 ($1,275) off our listed trip price!

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