5 Polar Bear
RANGE: As few as 22,000 polar bears live across Arctic and sub-arctic regions.
THE EXPERIENCE: Zipping amid crazy-paving pack ice in a tiny Zodiac is how most people are introduced to one of the most jaw-dropping sights in the frozen north. Here, polar bears linger on floating islands, hot-stepping ice floes as they hunt seals. A remarkable sight.
NEED TO KNOW: Taking an expedition cruise is the best way to see polar bears, with a small ship (no more than 100 passengers) maximising the number of Zodiac/shore excursions you can take. These are also more manoeuvrable and useful for reacting quickly to wildlife sightings. Look for on-board expert naturalists and a 24-hour bridge, so you can escape from the cold when wildlife-viewing at midnight.
BEST PLACE TO SEE… Norway’s Svalbard archipelago is one of the best locations around to spy polar bears in the wild, with abundant sightings in its less accessible northern and western parts. For that, you’ll need a cruise ship (Jun–aug), though sightings can be had on land-based snow-mobile trips around Spitsbergen (Feb–mar), or even on dog-sled trips to the east.
If you’d prefer to stick to dry land, Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, is the self-proclaimed ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’, with bears mooching across the frozen Hudson Bay around October- and November-time, while organised Tundra Buggy trips (look for 18-person vehicles to ensure you get a window seat) tootle out to meet them.
Living on the edge A polar bear investigates the water at the base of its ’berg in Svalbard, Norway