What To Do If You See A Polar Bear

what to do if you see a polar bear

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Polar bears are only found within the arctic circle so unless you are packing your bags for your upcoming trip to Greenland, Alaska, Canada, Denmark, or Norway you will only see polar bears if you visit a zoo. 

However, if you live in polar bear country or are really going on a trip there it’s of vital importance you are prepared and know what to do if you see a polar bear as this is the largest land predator in the world and, unlike other bear species, humans could easily be on their menu. 

Read on while I answer all your burning questions regarding polar bear sightings and list the steps you should take in order to survive an encounter.

What Should I Do If I See A Polar Bear In The Wild?

Experts will tell you that if you see a polar bear in the wild with your naked eye, you are definitely too close!

A polar bear encounter is not something to look forward to and should be avoided at all costs as it could really become a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and not in a good way. 

polar bear
Image: Ucumari Photography via Flickr

If you took all the necessary precautions and still happened to stumble across this colossal predator then this is what you should do: 

  • REMAIN CALM! I know it’s way easier said than done but panicking will just make you an easy target. If you become loud and erratic it will just get you noticed by the polar bear more quickly and leave you with a lot less time to escape the situation.
  • Inform those with you about the situation. If you’re not alone then calmly inform the rest of your group that you’ve just spotted a polar bear. Let them know exactly what the bear is doing and its location. Then, inform the possible exit routes and plan and begin backing away.
  • Back away as quietly as possible and try to leave the area either through the same route you came in from or by making a wide circle around the polar bear.
  • Position yourself downwind of the bear so that it can’t pick up your scent if it hasn’t already. This means that if you see a bear in front of you the wind should be blowing against your face and not into your back. 
  • Never lose the bear from your sight. These bears are skilled hunters and usually sneak up on their prey. Make sure you know where the bear is at all times.
  • Don’t run. You will not be able to outrun this apex predator and running will just alert it of your presence and send it on a chasing frenzy. By running away you will also lose the bear from your sight and when you do see it again it will be too late for you.
  • Inform authorities. Once you are safe and away from the polar bear inform local authorities about your encounter being as specific as you can regarding the location, the bear’s behavior, how long the interaction lasted, etc.

This will allow authorities to keep an eye on the area and issue warnings for other 

people to be informed of the situation and take the necessary precautions. It will also be 

helpful information for scientists studying polar bear dynamics and behavior.

Would A Polar Bear Attack A Human?

YES. A polar bear will attack a human and it has happened before.

Unlike other bear species, and predators, polar bears view humans as a potential source of food, so although they will prefer feeding on a delicious meal of seal, narwhal, and beluga if a hungry polar bear comes across a human it will gladly go in for the kill.

Now don’t go thinking that polar bears are man-killers walking through the streets looking for people to hunt and eat.

In a span of 145 years (from 1870 to 2014) only 20 fatalities occurred worldwide so you’re far more likely to be killed by mosquitoes or even your dog than by a polar bear.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that attacks have increased in recent years because of 2 factors:

  1. Climate change: melting polar ice and shorter hunting seasons means more starving polar bears that are desperately looking for food in places they normally wouldn’t such as trashcans and neighborhoods. 
  1. More people venturing into the polar bear country: as more hikers and amateur explorers venture farther up north looking for adventure the chances of encountering a polar bear obviously increase. 

Can You Outrun A Polar Bear?

You can NOT outrun a polar bear so don’t even try it as it will just increase your chances of being attacked. 

With a weight of up to 800 kg / 1,764 lbs., it’s easy to assume that polar bears are slow-moving creatures but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Reaching speeds of around 40 km / 25 miles per hour only Usain Bolt would be a decent match for a polar bear and even then the bear would easily catch up to him.

Never try to run away from a polar bear as this will only increase the chances that the bear will come after you.

Steps To Survive A Polar Bear Encounter

  1. If you’re anywhere where there are polar bears, always have polar bear deterrents on you and make sure you know how and when to use them. 
  1. Learn to identify the signs that let you know when a polar bear has spotted you and is interested in you.
  1. Start backing away as quietly as possible.
  1. Keep your eyes on the bear at all times.
  1. Try to position yourself downwind from the bear.
  1. In case I didn’t make myself clear earlier I will say it again: DON’T RUN
  1. If the polar bear comes right up to you and charges you this is not a bluff! Stand your ground and fight the bear with all you’ve got.

Final Thoughts

I hope that you will find this guide helpful when planning your trip to the arctic circle and that you always remain safe!

Remember polar bears are not our enemies but simply apex predators that are becoming increasingly more negatively impacted by our actions. 

Until next time.