11 Ultimate bear-watching trips
Bear lovers are spoilt for choice in the variety of destinations available. From Arctic icebergs to the mangroves of Southeast Asia, here’s where to get you close to one of nature’s largest predators. Words by Samantha Stocks.
1. British Columbia, Canada
The Kermode Bear – also known as the Spirit or Ghost Bear – is North America’s most mysterious bear. With an important place in the culture and oral stories of the indigenous peoples, the elusive Kermode Bear continues to capture the imagination of people around the world. Travel to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest and you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of white moving between the towering evergreen trees; but sightings remain very rare.
If you don’t see a white Kermode Bear (only one in ten of the bears have white or cream-coloured coats), then don’t feel disheartened. If there’s one thing that British Columbia isn’t short of, it’s bears. So if it’s bears you’ve come to see, you’ve definitely come to the right place. Black Bears are prevalent in the province, with a quarter of Canada’s population being found here and on Vancouver Island, while Grizzly Bears can be found on the mainland, where they account for more than half of Canada’s population.
Best time to go: In spring, bears are emerging from hibernation and feeding after their long winter fast, while in autumn bears feast on spawning salmon as they leap upstream.
Take me there: Natural World Safaris
Tel: 01273 691 642; http://www.naturalworldsafaris.com/Wildlife/bears/spirit-bears.aspx
2. Manitoba, Canada
Churchill, Manitoba is known as ‘the Polar Bear Capital of the World’, and for good reason. The town, situated on the west shore of Hudson Bay, is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild, drawing thousands of visitors from around the world each year.
Be sure to take a trip on the town’s unique tundra buggies; sturdy and large (Polar Bears are only as large as its wheel), these vehicles are specially designed to move smoothly across snow and ice and uneven off-road surfaces. Passengers can feel safe in the buggy if a curious Polar Bear ventures a little too close!
From the safety of the tundra buggy, be on the lookout for other Manitoba natives such as the Arctic Fox and Snow Shoe Hare. And of course, be sure to keep your eye on the sky at night; you may well find yourself treated to the spectacular display of the Northern Lights.
Best time to go: October and November, when the bears move out from inland to hunt on the pack ice.
Take me there: Mighty Fine
Tel: 0333 800 2033; http://www.mightyfinecompany.com/canada/polar-bear-watching-holiday-uwl396mf
3. Alaska, USA
There are few bear sightings more iconic than seeing a Grizzly Bear capturing a wild salmon in its mouth while in mid-leap. Time your visit well, and Alaska will give you ample opportunity to see just this. At Anan Creek in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, an observation platform allows allows you to view both Black and Grizzly Bears fishing directly beneath you feet, or across the river.
Alaska is America’s most remote and least densely populated state, with spectacular and untamed landscapes stretching as far as the Arctic Circle. It is a haven for wildlife such as elk, otters, moose, and bald eagles, and of course its largest predator, the bear, which are numerous in this part of the world. There are more than 50,000 Black Bears and 35,000 Grizzly Bears roaming wild across Alaska, and they can be found in nearly every corner. But for the best places to see them, visit Denali National Park, Katmai National Park, and Admiralty Island. Kodiak Island is home to the largest Grizzly Bears in the world, the Kodiak Bear, which number 3,000 on the island. Here the best opportunity to see the bears is via light aircraft, which take up to four passengers a time.
Best time to go: July to early September is the best time to see Grizzly and Black Bears feasting on spawning salmon.
Take me there: Audley Travel
Tel: 01993 838 755; http://www.audleytravel.com/
Sweden boasts Europe’s densest population of Brown Bear, which number over 3,000 in the country, and the lush, forested and rugged landscape of Hälsingland – just three hours’ drive from Stockholm – offers a great opportunity to see the European (or Eurasian) Brown Bear in the wild. Surrounded by stunning scenery, expert guides will show you just what to look out for in the wildlife-rich forest – home to Golden Eagles, wolves, and moose – for the best chance of sighting one of Europe’s giants in the wild. Comfortable hides in the forest give visitors an 80 per cent chance of seeing a bear, offering incredible photo opportunities of the bears in their natural environment. A rare experience.
Best time to go: Brown Bears are waking from their hibernation in April, mating between May and June, and remain very active from July to September.
Take me there: Steppes Discovery
Norway is famous for its breathtaking fjords, but in the far north it also offers the best opportunity in Europe for seeing the elusive Polar Bear. The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, sitting midway between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole, offers perfect conditions for Polar Bears, which number around 3,000 across the islands.
In addition to the magnificent Polar Bear, the Svalbard archipelago boasts an array of Arctic wildlife not to be missed. Caribou, reindeer, and Polar Foxes trot across the ice, while seals, walruses, and Humpback, Orca, Beluga whales and Narwhal make the most of the nutrient-rich Arctic waters. Colonies of Arctic Terns, Arctic Fulmar, and Puffins also thrive here.
Cruises and boat trips around the islands offer the best opportunity to see this wealth of wildlife, as well as a safe means of viewing Polar Bears where they can be sighted hunting for seals along the coast. When walking around by yourself, it pays to keep an eye out, as you could bump into a bear at any time!
Best time to go: Polar Bears are found year-round here, but July and August, when the sun never sets this far north, is the best time to see them, with the melted ice allowing boats to get closer to coast for sightings.
Take me there: Baltic Travel Company
Finland is home to over 1,000 Brown Bears, and the best place to see them here is in the remote eastern wilderness of Kuhmo, where the bears make their home in its ancient taiga forests. Although the Brown Bear is seldom seen during the day, an overnight stay in a hide will give you the best opportunity to get a close view, watching them forage for food, clambering up trees, or simply playing. But bears aren’t the only animal you might encounter on your stakeout; you’ll also have the opportunity to see Wolverine, lynx, Honey Buzzard, and reindeer, all amidst truly wild surroundings.
Best time to go: Beginning July to the middle of August is when bears are at their most active, building up their body weight and foraging for food in preparation for hibernation.
Take me there: Discover the World
7. Kamchatka, Russia
Russia’s remote wilderness is vast, and over on its far east, the Kamchatka Peninsula is one of its most breathtaking and wild landscapes. With more than 200 bubbling volcanoes, fields grazed by reindeer herds, salmon-rich rivers, lush forests and rugged mountain peaks, the peninsula is aptly known as ‘the Land of Ice and Fire’. And it’s not just the salmon and reindeer that call this untamed landscape their home; wolves, wolverine, and foxes inhabit the rich landscape, while nine species of whale, thousands of sea otters, and huge colonies of seabird make their home around the coast. Kamchatka is a wildlife lover’s haven, but it’s the Brown Bear that is king here. There are over 15,000 of them on the Kamchatka Peninsula alone.
Visit the Kronotsky Nature Reserve to catch sight of them feeding on salmon in the crystal clear rivers of the park.
Best time to go: August is the best time to see Kamchatka’s varied wildlife at its most active.
Take me there: Go Russia
The forest of the Carpathians (spanning Slovakia, Poland and the Ukraine as well as Romania) is second only to Russia for unbroken expanse of forest habitat. Currently around 8,000 Brown Bears roam here freely. Walk the forest paths amidst the beeches and pines and you might see tell-tale claw marks breaking the bark on the side of a tree here and there; a sure sign a bear has passed through this way.
A visit to Romania’s Piatra Craiului National Park will offer you the best opportunity to see the Brown Bear, along with other wildlife. Wolves, lynx and chamois are also residents of this forest, along with numerous birds of prey (look out for the Ural Owl and Golden Eagle) that soar around the peaks of the Carpathians.
Best time to go: Between May and September, Brown Bears are at their most active, and the weather in Romania is at its most pleasant.
Take me there: Wildlife Worldwide
Think of China, and one of the first things that springs to mind is the much-celebrated Giant Panda. Endemic to China, the bear’s natural habitat is Sichuan Province. Chengdu, the province’s capital, is home to the Panda Conservation Centre, which offers visitors views of the iconic bear up close. Although the pandas are not in the wild, the centre provides large enclosures for them that mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. Here you can see first-hand the efforts being made to conserve this endangered species, which is under threat from poaching and is hindered by a low birth rate.
Outside of the conservation centre, visitors to won’t be disappointed by Sichuan’s stunning natural landscapes. Within easy reach of Chengu are Nine Villages Valley, with its impossibly clear lakes and gushing waterfalls, and Huanglong Pools, where hundreds of turquoise lakes are surrounded by waterfalls, hot springs, and forest; both are considered two of China’s most beautiful areas, and it’s easy to see why.
Best time to go: You can see pandas at the Panda Conservation Centre year-round, but the best time to see Sichuan’s spectacular scenery is during April to May for lush greenery, and September to October for beautiful autumn colours. Avoid peak tourist season from July to August.
Take me there: Wendy Wu Tours
Tel: 0844 288 5396; http://www.wendywutours.co.uk/china-tours/sichuan-explorer-31.htm
The endangered Spectacled Bear is found only in fragmented ranges to the east of South America, and the Chaparri Ecological Reserve in the foothills of the Andes is one of the best places to see them. It isn’t known how many Spectacled Bears remain in the wild, but it has been estimated that they number fewer than 3,000. However they remain relatively common in their limited range in the reserve. Guides here will be able to educate you on what to look out for when looking for bears, as well as when and where is best to see them. If you’re unable to see a Spectacled Bear, there’s still plenty of other wildlife that surrounds you at Chaparri Ecological Reserve. Sechuran Fox, White-tailed Deer, and Guayaquill can be seen, as well as numerous bird species including Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, White-edged Oriole, White-winged Guan and more.
While in Peru, travel further south for a great chance to see the Andean Condor, which is listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Best time to go: Tours run from September to October, avoiding the rainy season in the Andes.
Take me there: Naturetrek
Borneo might be best known for its Orangutans, but it is also home to another large mammal: the Sun Bear. Found only in Southeast Asia, the world’s smallest bear (only about half the size of an American Black Bear) are most prevalent in Borneo. Sadly, they are currently under threat from habitat loss and commercial hunting, targeted for the bear bile trade in the region.
Undoubtedly the best opportunity to see Sun Bears is at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre at Sandakan – the only conservation centre of its kind in the world – which has been set up to raise awareness of the bear and to help conserve it. This brand new centre opened very recently in October 2014, and is currently home to over 30 bears.
Don’t miss a visit to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre, which is nearby, and while staying at Sepilok, take the opportunity to make the most of boat trips that travel through mangrove forests, and keep a look out for Proboscis Monkeys and a rich variety of bird species.
Best time to go: Sun Bears can be seen at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre year-round. Avoid travelling to Borneo during rainy season between November and January.
Take me there: Odyssey World
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre http://www.bsbcc.org.my/