Sue Halliwell on the where, when and how to see polar bears sustainably.
In the clear light of an Arctic night I saw my first wild polar bear. Ursus maritimus, ocean, ice or polar bear, by whatever name he was a bold and beautiful creature.
From the deck of the MS National Geographic Explorer I watched his masterful dissection of a seal atop a large chunk of sea ice, leaving me in no doubt about his king of the Arctic status.
He was the reason I'd come to the Arctic, and I wasn't alone. Arctic tourist numbers have boomed in recent years, statistics revealing most to be "last chance" tourists rushing to reach the ice and its bears before climate change does.
Like me, many are also older travellers. They seek safe, comfortable, well-provisioned and sociable Arctic sightseeing options, and to that I added my personal priority of sustainable. I wasn't about to compromise the bears, their habitat, or my grandchildren's chances of seeing them one day, too.
That established, I could look at where, when and how to best achieve it.
WHERE TO SEE POLAR BEARS
Polar bears are found in all Arctic regions, with the most reliable places for sightings being Norway's Svalbard, Russia's Far East, northern Canada and Greenland.
While Greenland has lots of ice bears, they are distributed over a vast coastline and are harder to locate. It is also the most expensive destination to reach from New Zealand, and means the most plane flight carbon emissions.
Ice bears are also present in large numbers in Canada's north, especially in the coastal settlement of Churchill where they gather in October and November to wait for their winter feeding grounds to freeze over. Though I might also see the Northern lights then, those months were too cold for this old girl.
Russia's Far East is the Arctic's fresh frontier, particularly with ice melt opening up the Northwest Passage. Again it is a complex and costly destination to reach, though the low tourist numbers and high polar bear concentrations at places like Wrangel Island make it very tempting.
In the end, Svalbard was my pick. The archipelago
is ideal for ship-based tourism, especially small, eco-cruise ships such as the National Geographic Explorer, that can manoeuvre quickly in response to a wildlife sighting. And, where they can't go, their zippy, inflatable Zodiac boats can.
Svalbard is also the easiest Arctic destination to reach from New Zealand. A long, carbon-offset haul to Oslo, short one to Bergen and I was aboard Explorer for its Norwegian Fjords and Arctic Svalbard cruise, a Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic partnership taking in Norway's spectacular fjords and offshore islands, and Svalbard.
WHEN TO SEE POLAR BEARS
The cruise departed late May and into 24-hour daylight, meaning I would get ample opportunity to see bears, whales, beluga, walrus, reindeer and Arctic fox, but would miss the swarms of insects and tourists arriving with July and the warmer weather.
The best polar bear viewing is from May to late August, Churchill aside. Beyond those months, the issue is not so much the lack of bears, but the lack of light in which to see them.
HOW TO WATCH POLAR BEARS
However, the Arctic's long dark is not an ice bear tourist's biggest challenge. Climate change is.
A gargantuan 95 per cent of the Arctic's thickest, oldest multi-year ice has been lost to climate change-induced planetary warming in the past 30 years, and 40 per cent of the sea ice on which polar bears depend for survival has melted in the past four decades.
Never has sustainability been a more important consideration when deciding how to visit polar bears, especially if we want future generations to have the same opportunity.
I chose my cruise because it led the way sustainably, most notably by offsetting all carbon emissions, contributing to local conservation projects, eliminating or recycling plastics, maximising fuel efficiency and using local, sustainably-sourced food. Conscience clear, I could wallow in its fine dining, luxury living, top-notch crew, and daily off-ship expeditions.
In polar bear territory, those expeditions were chaperoned by guides carrying flare and gun bear- warning systems. Not wanting to put the bears — or us — through that, I was grateful that the nearest we came to them on land were a few sets of fresh, frypan-sized pugmarks.
Nonetheless, I kept a wary eye out for the makers of those prints. The world's largest terrestrial carnivore, an adult male polar bear can weigh up to 800kg and I was eager to avoid that much- toothed attention.
The ship was my ideal bear-watching platform. Day or night, we'd get one announcement of a significant wildlife find and the ship — and its passengers — would go silent. No engine noise, voices or banging doors. We could nudge soundlessly to within the legal 200m of the animals and not make an impact their important bear business.
Meanwhile, it was our important business to learn what to do around them. The ship's lecture on sustainable polar bear encounters was compulsory and informative, and included guidance on minimising the impact on their environment and appropriate action should one approach us ashore or in the zodiacs.
The guidelines protect both humans and the bears. Thankfully, polar bears already have safeguards in the form of the Arctic-wide 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and the 2015 Circumpolar Action Plan's 10-year polar bearconservationstrategy.
These measures bring hope for the mighty kings of the Arctic who have now so unwittingly become a climate change poster species and "last chance" tourism icons. But, hope also lies with those tourists. Young or old, as each adds sustainable viewing to their polar bear wish list, they give the bears — and their grandchildren's aspirations of seeing them — less of a last chance and more of a fighting one.