Don't poke the bear: A guide to polar bear watching in Alaska
Most people only ever get to see polar bears in a zoo. If you're headed to Alaska, you might want to take the opportunity to see them in the wild. The impressive bears stand up to 10 feet tall on their hind legs and are adapted for life in the chilly waters of the Arctic Ocean. Visit northern Alaska for unforgettable adventures to see these majestic beasts without a fence or glass between you.
Where the wild things are
Polar bears don't hang out around Anchorage, Fairbanks or other popular tourist spots. Instead, you'll need to take a plane ride up to the northernmost parts of the state. The Inupiat Eskimo villages of Barrow and Kaktovik along the Arctic Ocean are the heart of the polar bear tourism industry. Your chances of seeing polar bears are best in Kaktovik, where polar bears sometimes come near the village at night to feed on the remains of whales harvested by local hunters in late summer.
Best season for bear viewing
Polar bears live along Alaska's north and northwestern coasts year-round. However, your chances of seeing one are best during the Alaskan warm season from July through October, when the sea ice breaks up and moves away from the shoreline.
Do-it-yourself polar bear viewing
You're not legally obligated to hire a guide to go see polar bears in many areas, although some privately owned areas do require a local guide to accompany visitors. If you decide to strike out on your own, you are legally required to know and follow polar bear watching rules. Ignoring the rules can result in a $3,000 fine for each occurrence.
Stay far enough away from bears that they don't notice you're there. Disturbing polar bears is illegal, meaning if they raise their head to look at you, run away or act aggressive, you're outside the law. Whistling to get their attention or trying to attract a bear with food is also considered an illegal disturbance. Any change in their natural activity is considered illegal harassment of the animal.
Taking photos or videos of polar bears from a distance that doesn't disturb them for your own use is fine. If you intend to submit the photos for use in magazines, stock photography, educational materials or any other commercial purpose, you need a federal permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You'll also need one from the city of Kaktovik mayor's office if you intend to film or photograph bears for profit within the city boundaries. Contact the refuge 45 days prior to your visit to inquire whether you'll need a permit and ensure there's plenty of time to get one if you do.
Guides and tours
Local guides are the best sources of information about when and where to see polar bears and engage in safe viewing. Guides charging money are required to have a special-use permit for conducting commercial activities.
How to stay safe in polar bear country
Although polar bears develop a tolerance for humans near these tourism villages, they can still be dangerous. Familiarize yourself with polar bear behavior and habitat use before you head out. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends "Polar Bears: a Guide to Safety," produced by the department. Here are some other safety concerns to keep in mind:
- Respect a bear's space. Stay back far enough that the bear continues doing whatever it was doing before you came on the scene. A bear that's okay with your presence might need more space when another bear or more humans arrive or it detects sudden changes like bright lights, unfamiliar smells and loud sounds.
- Don't approach on foot. Stay with your vehicle.
- Leave when you're noticed, especially if the bear is growling, hissing, huffing or chomping its teeth. A lowered head with pinned ears or pursed lips is another sign your presence isn't welcome and you could be in danger from an attack.
- Don't attract bears with scents or food. Don't leave behind human food for the bear. They quickly associate food with humans and will become more dangerous to future bear-watchers. What you consider kindness to the bear by leaving food can actually result in it having to be killed if it becomes dangerous.
- Stay away from bears that appear dead, sick or injured. You might want to help, but bears commonly rest for days at a time without moving a muscle after a long swim. "Don't poke the bear" is more than a cute saying in northern Alaska; it's a matter of life and death.
Bring a camera with a telephoto lens. You're won't be able to snap a selfie with your smartphone. Staying far enough away from a polar bear that he doesn't notice you're there means that he'll be a faint white dot in the distance in photos taken with your phone.