Polar Bears In Norway

Many people believe that there are lots of polar bears in Norway, but this is only a half-truth. While we do technically have polar bears in Norway, most Norwegian people have not even been closer than 1,000 km of one. So, what’s up with the polar bears in Norway?

There are no polar bears in mainland Norway, and the only place you will find polar bears in Norway are on the island Svalbard. This is a remote group of islands that is a lot further north than the rest of Norway. There are around 3,000 polar bears on Svalbard, but only around 2,600 people living there.

Polar bear
A polar bear. Photo published with permission.

This means that you will not be able to see polar bears on a typical vacation in Norway, no matter how far north you travel on the mainland. You won’t see polar bears running around in the forest outside of Oslo, Trondheim or even outside Tromsø.

If you want to see polar bears in Norway, you will be required to travel by airplane or ship to this remote island group with only a single inhabited city with a population size of just about 2,600 people.

Polar bear sign on Svalbard.
Polar bear sign under the aurora borealis (northern lights) on Svalbard.

Seeing polar bears on Svalbard

It is possible to see polar bears on Svalbard (also known as Spitsbergen even though you will probably want to use Svalbard), but this is a very special and expensive trip that requires warm winter clothing and some gear.

It is technically not legal to go on a real polar bear safari with the intent of spotting this large predator, but you have a decent chance of seeing polar bears when you visit the island.

There is only a single inhabited city on Svalbard, called Longyearbyen. Longyearbyen functions as the capital and biggest city on the island, and is the primary tourist destination. There are a few other towns on Svalbard, but these are mostly for day trips.

You can travel to Longyearbyen as a tourist, but you will be required to have an armed guide if you are travelling outside of the main city. This is because the polar bears poses a big security threat to people outside of Longyearbyen.

Longyearbyen is the only inhabited city on Svalbard. This is the main street in the city. Photo published with permission.

This might seem strange to some, but polar bears are extremely dangerous, and one of very few animals that actively hunt humans for food. Statistically speaking, one person is killed by a polar bear every 10 years on Svalbard, and these are usually tourists.

If your goal of visiting Norway is to see a polar bear in the wild, going to Svalbard to see a polar bear is your best and only option. Just don’t expect to go on a safari to find one, but rather have it as a bonus that you might get from your visit.

A visit to Svalbard is a pretty unique experience, but most people does not even consider to visit this island as part of their visit to Norway. This is partly because it takes a lot of effort to get there, but also because it is not really a «true» part of Norway.

Most Norwegians don’t even think of Svalbard as a real part of Norway, but rather a different place that we happen to have a certain ownership over. A good analogy is how Hawaii is part of the US, or how the Faroe Islands or Greenland are a part of Denmark.

Also read: Is it really illegal to die on Svalbard?

Homes on Svalbard
Homes on Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

The polar bear is also considered the big exception to the general rule that there are no dangerous animals in Norway, but the “rule” still holds true since most people don’t think of the remote island Svalbard as part of Norway itself.

How to see polar bears on Svalbard

Since polar bear safaris are banned, you have to have a bit of luck to be able to see a wild polar bear when you visit Svalbard. Some people are very lucky and can even see a polar bear from Longyearbyen, but don’t count on this, since this is very rare.

The best shot at seeing a wild polar bear is to book a guided expedition outside of Longyearbyen. Some examples could be a snow-scooter trip to see glaciers or a boat trip along the coast.

Polar bears are usually very easy to spot from the water, and the guide will be well-versed in spotting polar bears from a distance (since this is a security threat as well as a cool experience).

There are many different options for going outside of Longyearbyen to see the different parts of Svalbard, to pick whichever one you think is most fun and interesting. There are lots of different tour operators who offer these sorts of things, but guided tours are generally pretty expensive on Svalbard.

The chance of seeing a wild polar bear is usually pretty decent if you spend some time outside the city limits, but it’s important to remember that polar bears are still rare.

There’s currently plans to make it more difficult for tourists to disturb polar bears, so it might be a bit more difficult to find guided tours that take you close to polar bears on Svalbard in the future.

A glacier on Spitsbergen
A glacier on Svalbard. Photo published with permission.

Polar bears in Norwegian zoos

There are currently no polar bears in any of the zoos in Norway as of 2022. However, Polar Park in Bardu has plans of getting one, so they might have one in a few years from now. So let’s cross our fingers and hope that we will be able to see a real polar bear in Bardu at a point in the future.

Some people seem to think that the largest zoo in Norway, Dyreparken, has polar bears. This is actually wrong, and they have never had polar bears there. However, they do have brown bears and a lot of other large predators.

Also read: The best zoos in Norway.

Why do people think that there are lots of polar bears in Norway?

That’s actually a very good question. I meet a lot of foreign tourists that seem to think that there are polar bears all over Norway, but no one can really give a good answer to why they believe this.

I personally think it could have something to do with how Norway is shown in regular media abroad, where they show Norway like some icy and rigid place with 2 meters of snow and people dressed like vikings. If you remove the dressed like viking part, a lot of this is actually much more accurate about Svalbard than the mainland Norway, especially during winter.

And while I’m writing about vikings: there are accounts of vikings encountering polar bears, but not in Norway. These encounters are from Iceland where there would occasionally be polar bears.

Could there have been polar bears in mainland Norway?

While it is true that Norway can be very cold in the winter, the climate just don’t fit for polar bears. It is way to warm for them, and while they might be OK during the winter, the summer would simply be too warm for them. They would also have trouble with getting enough food, seeing at their white fur would provide them with little camouflage during the spring, summer and autumn.

As far as we know, there has not been polar bears on mainland Norway since after the last ice age, and it is very unlikely that they will ever find their way this far south, unless it is for a zoo or something like that.

That said, there used to be many polar bears here during the last ice age, when most of Norway was covered in snow and ice.

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