The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Self-Study of Polar Bears


Those of you who follow this site may have read my two previous posts on the subject of polar bears (here and here). Taking a risk that I’m beating a dead horse (as one of our commentors said, “Let’s beat a dead horse because details are so important…and it’s fun”), I’m going to detail how our thinking has evolved on the issue of polar bear “management” over the last number of years.

That Was Then…

When John and I first started going north to Labrador, Baffin and Greenland on Morgan’s Cloud, the ice was still in good shape. Polar bears followed the ice as it retreated north in the spring and the few bears that missed the ice and ended up stranded on land were usually shot very quickly by Inuit hunters.

Yes, we carried deterrents and firearms for protection but we never saw a polar bear during our numerous visits north. So we didn’t hesitate to go ashore and carried the guns unloaded as we were more frightened of shooting ourselves by tripping with a loaded gun than running into a bear.

And our experience wasn’t unusual—most summer visitors to Labrador and southern Greenland would be one of a privileged few if they were to see a bear.

Our first polar bear sighting in the wild was in Svalbard in 2002 and that was of its back end as it swam to shore and ran away from the boat. But it was there that we met Louis Nielsen, a trapper who has lived off the land in Svalbard for over 30 years, and he told us that we needed to take polar bears very seriously. He said an unloaded gun is just a stick. He also said that polar bears are fearless and completely unpredictable, even bears that he has interacted with for many decades. (Note that Louis has never had to shoot a bear in all his years of making a living off the land, though he’s come close.)

Even after our discussion with Louis we didn’t feel that the chances of meeting a bear were high enough to forego shore excursions, so the only changes we made in our polar bear “management” strategy were to increase our vigilance, have deterrents on hand at all times, and carry our guns loaded (chamber empty) with the safety on when hiking.

This Is Now

But that all changed in 2011 during our voyage to Baffin and down the Labrador coast. Not only did we see bears on several occasions but other sailors we met mentioned seeing 15 or more.

The increasing number of bears on land in the summer was confirmed by the manager of the Torngat Mountains National Park and the manager at Hebron (an historic site just north of Nain). Added to this, the manager of the Park reported that bears were catching seals from the land and looked to be in relatively good shape.

So all this got me wondering what is actually happening with bears in the north. And, on a very personal basis, if the chances of meeting a bear are so much more likely than before, what does this mean for our approach to shore excursions?

And so I underwent a self-study course on polar bears.

What The Scientists Say

I started with the book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye. An amusing read, it tells the story of dyed-in-the-wool conservationist Zac Unger who goes to Churchill, Manitoba to see polar bears before they are exterminated by climate change.

After getting nowhere with the “big name” scientists who espouse the certain demise of the polar bear, he ends up spending time with an “outlier” scientist who suggests that the polar bear may be able to adapt to climate change by eating while stranded on land.

The next books I read, Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species by Ian Stirling and Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behaviour by Andrew E. Derocher (both scientists belong to the “big name” group that refused to hang out with Zac), are not only intensely interesting, they’re incredibly beautiful books with a wealth of photographs and a ton of information.

Their take is that polar bears are under great threat from climate change, especially the West Hudson Bay group (centred in the Churchill, Manitoba area), as they require seals to provide enough fat to justify the energy expenditure that moving their huge bodies around requires (eggs and birds and berries just don’t cut it), and there aren’t any seals in that area during the ice-free period.

Ring seals, who stay with the ice, provide the vast majority of the polar bear’s food intake as their numbers are large enough to support the present population of bears—worldwide considered to be about 20,000 to 25,000. Young and very old walrus (healthy adult walrus can fight off a bear), beluga whales (the only whale small enough for a bear to manage), larger whale carcasses, other breeds of seals—none of these exist in the numbers and close proximity to each other that ring seals do.

Polar bears need to eat enough over the winter to last them through the fasting period, which can be as long as 8 months (and growing). And this is where climate change is so dangerous—that the length of time that there is viable ice for the bears to hunt from is shrinking and the condition of the ice is deteriorating.

But what about the interesting thing we saw in Labrador, that the bears there are hunting seals (other species than ring seals) during the former fasting time? And we have recently learned that Inuit in Labrador have on occasion observed polar bears hunting caribou. Which does seem to support the suggestion by the “outlier” scientist that bears may be able to adapt by hunting on land.

One thing which became very clear in the research I did is that scientists have, because of ease of access, focused mainly on the West Hudson Bay polar bear population and there is no saying whether findings for that population are true for all Arctic populations (scientists refer to 19 relatively discrete subpopulations of polar bears in the Arctic).

So the bears in Labrador may very well have adapted to hunt on land where the bears in West Hudson Bay have not, probably because there is nothing to hunt in the summer in their area.

What This Means For Visitors

Now, only time will tell whether the Labrador and Baffin bears will be able to survive by hunting on land. I certainly hope so. However, either in the short term or hopefully in the long term, what this translates into is a lot of bears along the Labrador and Baffin coasts who are now in full-on hunting mode in the summer.

And what does that mean for our shore excursions? Well, it means we will have to be exceptionally careful about where we go ashore—places where there are good sight lines, where there are no signs of bears, and where we can protect ourselves in case of an attack. Think about it: bears are hunting seals along the shore, you pull up to the shore in your gray dinghy…

But what about within the Torngat Mountains National Park (Labrador) and Auyuittuq National Park (Baffin Island), where Parks Canada is encouraging visitors while at the same time outlawing guns for everyone except Inuit hunters and bear monitors?

(Sadly, as I was writing this post, a hiker was attacked by a bear and severely injured while hiking in Torngat Park—he was in his tent and with a group, both situations which, according to the Park’s bear safety brochure*, are supposed to provide protection from bear attacks. Note that his group chose not to hire a bear monitor.)

Well, if I was on a land-based hiking trip, I would definitely hire a properly trained and equipped bear monitor (note: rusty 22s don’t cut it).

However, visiting the north by boat is a different kettle of fish (sorry!). Since mariners can access these Parks at a number of places, not just through Base Camp or a community, this may rule out even getting access to a monitor. And even if a monitor is available, what are the logistics of having another person aboard, a stranger who is unfamiliar with yachts, etc.?

Personally, I don’t think taking a polar bear monitor aboard a normal sized yacht is a viable option. So that means going ashore while within Park boundaries is not prudent, and John and I will follow this protocol happily, since, with this many bears around, we aren’t comfortable going ashore anyway. As John has been known to say, there’s no good outcome in case of an attack: either we kill the bear, which sucks, or we miss the bear, which sucks.

But what if we have to put in a shorefast for safety? Or if something happens to the boat and we have to take shelter ashore? Probably in these cases force majeure would take effect if we did have to protect ourselves from an attack.

What About Parks Canada?

I believe that Parks Canada needs to make up its mind how it wants to market the Parks, before there’s another tragedy. Either they:

  • continue to encourage visitors to the Parks but mandate that they hire a properly trained and equipped (I’m emphasizing this point) bear monitor if they wish to go ashore; or
  • continue to encourage visitors to the Parks but mandate that they either carry firearms for protection as per the Svalbard model or hire a properly trained and equipped bear monitor if they wish to go ashore (note that visitors to Svalbard are provided with guidelines on how to deter a bear—shooting it being the absolutely final line of defense; punishments are inflicted if a bear is harassed or killed unnecessarily; and all parts of a killed bear must be returned to the governor so that there is no incentive to kill a bear for its pelt); or
  • designate the Parks as bear sanctuaries and prohibit going ashore; or
  • designate some parts of the Parks as bear sanctuaries and some parts where visitors can go ashore but with the above mandates in effect.

A rewrite of the Park’s polar bear safety brochure would not go amiss either: I find it hard to see how a tent is going to offer protection from an animal that is used to punching through the roof of a snow den to get at ring seal pups.

What Next?

Though this third discussion of polar bear “management” might have seemed like beating a dead horse to some of you, for me it provided an opportunity to learn about an incredibly beautiful, interesting, and highly adaptable animal that survives in an incredibly hostile and fascinating part of the world. All in all, a wonderful project.

Now, on to my next self-study project—French. À la prochaine!

*Update April 2017: this brochure seems to have disappeared from Parks Canada’s website. Readers are now referred to a different government website, which makes no mention of polar bears.

Further Bibliography

Polar Bears: A Guide to Safety

Polar Bear Safety PDF

Polar Bear Specialist Group

Polar Bears International

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem is a fascinating look at species conservation.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, and Some We Eat by Hal Herzog is a very interesting analysis of why we are so conflicted in our relationships with animals. The title says it all!

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Marc Dacey

A well-observed and practical guide. Thank you.

I suppose the irony here is that the same forces that are forcing the bears to congregate on the inappropriately ice-free shores are the same forces that are allowing greater numbers of park visitors to access these high-latitude locales in the first place. Tourists will inevitably show up on the menu, we being the size of a smallish caribou or an average seal, though I doubt we are nearly as nutritious to a bear!

If the situation was normal, they would be so spread out as to be the rare sight they once were. I also believe that if hungry enough, they will eat each other if they can. Certainly the adult males will consume cubs if seals run out.

Tom Chapman

If you choose to enter that part of the food web and are eaten by a bear, that’s not a tragedy…that’s nature. But an excellent piece. Thank you.

Dick Stevenson

Phyllis, Thank you. That was quite interesting. I assume that, over time, you have come across the extra-ordinary movie of polar bears: the one done by the extremely creative photography units that look like R2D2. It is not scientific, but is terrifically entertaining and shows the curiosity and intelligence of polar bears impressively. If you have not seen it, I will try to find its source for you.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Patrice Venne

Unless things have changed in the last 40 years (since I use the parks), Park Canada’s policy have always been firearm free zone. All you need is a bit of luck and a good karma. It’s part of a decision to go to the wild or not. I spent a summer with my girlfriend in 1982 in Banff, Jasper and Mount Robertson areas. Before leaving, we had to visit and register at Park Canada office where a ranger will show us on our maps were the Grizzly bear population was last seen. So we new where we entered bear territory. Did it gave us something? Absolutely not, it does not matter if you know, the same precautions apply and it’s all about if it is check out time or not. We had 3 bear encounters; the first at night at the Lake Louise campground, it went for our food which was hanged on a tree (apparently not high enough), the second was on the North Boundary Trail (a 200 km trail linking Jasper to Mount Robertson) we were on the trail hiking the mother was very protective and decided to charge us but fell short of attacking us ( you have to stand ground and not run) and the last one was, on the same trail a few days later, I came face to face ( less than 30 feet) with a beautiful golden brown grizzly bear. Needless to say the bear did not want to play with me and I had a good karma. Every year in the Rockies, hikers, climbers, mountaineers and visitors have black, grizzly bear encounters, most live to tell the tale others don’t. I always wanted to hike Baffin Island but refrain from it precisely because of the polar bear factor. It’s a personal decision that everyone of us has to take seriously. In my personal opinion firearms are not the solution. Sailing is much safer.

John Harries

Hi Patrice,

It is a very bad and potentially fatal mistake to equate what works with grizzly bears with polar bears. While it is true that the two animals are closely related and can even interbreed, they hunt completely different prey in completely different ways.

All the karma in the world is not going to help you if a polar bear, as frequently happens, decides to hunt you for food.

This is exactly the problem with Parks Canada’s policy: applying a rule that works with brown bears to white ones. The Norwegians, who administer Svalbard, require you to carry a fire arm at all times because they understand the difference. Or, as Phyllis recommended to Parks Canada, they simply ban humans from important polar bear areas.

RDE (Richard Elder)

Hi John,

You point that polar bears and the grizzlies in Victor and my back yard are two different animals can’t be emphasized enough. Although the mountain biker who found herself in a race with one a mile or so from my house probably wasn’t convinced that it made much difference! Glad to hear they “pray in completely different ways” That always helps! LOL

If one does choose to buy a weapon for hikes in polar bear country forget about a bolt action and look for a Browning BAR semi automatic in one of the larger calibers, and then spend some time learning how to accurately rapid fire it. They are very common used for as little as $600.

John Harries

Hi Richard,

Thanks for the proof read, something I always need.

Be aware that automatic military type weapons are illegal in Canada and possession of said will, I believe, get you serious prison time.


Hi John,
Sometimes typos have a hidden content! And humor.

The reason I suggested the BAR is that it is a non-military sporting style rifle that is both cheap and commonly available. Don’t know how Canada’s laws view it, but it isn’t an AR-15 that can be converted to full automatic, and you can get it in large magnum calibers.

Patrice Venne

Sorry I clicked the wrong button, my comment was not meant as a reply to your post. How are you doing? We got Resourceful on the hard yesterday.

Victor Raymond

Thank you Phyllis for the interesting post. Here in Jackson Hole we have both black and grizzly bears. We even have had them at the house on occasions as well as moose, elk, deer, moutain lion etc. So it is still a wild place but with children in the neighborhood. So what to do? Whose land is it afterall?
One thing we did learn from reputable bear scientists is that there have been no known bear attacks on humans where there is a group of three or more (humans). Obviously if you all scatter to the winds when you see one approaching, you are fair game. But there is safety in numbers apparently.
Having said that a very hungry animal may exhibit unusual behavior, but like everything we do, statistics in this case are in your favor if you follow this simple rule.
I personally have managed to get bears to stand down on several occasions by not starring at them, or being aggressive but appearing taller by climbing on a rock. Also bears are trained by their mothers to be fearful of certain sounds or sights. If you can reproduce those, there is a great chance they will high tail it when you approach. For black and grizzly bears it is the sound of a cracking branch or twig. In bear territory we always carry one to break so they will be alerted that danger is coming.
Another final point if camping out in bear country. Do not cook, prepare food or have anything that smells good anywhere near where you are to sleep. It is just too tempting for them. We always hang our packs with everything except our sleeping bag and tent a very long way from the campsite. It is a pain but worth it for a safe and hassle free night.

John Harries

Hi Victor,

See my comment above about the dangers of applying brown bear rules to polar bears. While there is probably some safety in numbers effect with polar bears, it is much less than that with brown bears. A fact that has been born out by at least two recent attacks on larger groups of people (10-20) by polar bears, one in Labrador and one in Svalbard. One ended in the death of a young man and in the other the armed guard shot the charging bear.

This is like the dangerous fallacy that a tent will make you safer from a polar bear. Tell that to a Svalbard resident who must build his cabin like Fort Knox with steel doors and long sharp spikes pointing outward to deter polar bears.

Marc Dacey

My wife has a degree in animal behaviour studies, and commented once that a typical cabin to a polar bear is akin to a blister pack to a human: a little frustrating to open, but you eventually extract the contents.


Just found your site, it appears to be a great resource.
As one commenter noted, federal parks are no firearm areas. I visited Kootenay National Park when I was young (oh so long ago). The park is also has a highway running through it. At that time firearms needed to be sealed and if the seal was broken you could be fined. The same problem existed with grizzly bears. There were warnings at every entrance and information stop. I didn’t even really think about it being young, stupid and firm in the belief that I would never die. At least until I came across some fresh tracks in mud. The paws were bigger then my head, and that didn’t include the claws, each of which were longer then my hand.

I’d also like to comment on your link to the book “Don’t Go Back To School”. The site itself doesn’t take comments, which I believe is ironic considering that is the major failing with the philosophy. Humans have many failings, and one of the worst is we have a tendency to reinforce previous held beliefs even if they are baseless or completely contrary to reality. We tend to filter out information that doesn’t match our expectations and when we meet information that contradicts, we ignore it and double down on our false assumptions. A good example is the subject of climate change which so many deny is happening, even though there is plenty of information on the subject available. A person who denies climate change is likely to stick sources that reinforce that belief and ignore any sources that give conflicting information. The same holds true for both evolution and geology for young earth creationists, who believe the earth is only six to ten thousand years old. They have to ignore museums and universities full of information and evidence that deny their beliefs, and that is exactly what they do.

The internet has given us more opportunity for learning then anyone has ever had before, yet at the same time it is aiding people who are pulling themselves into a bubble of information that reinforces there beliefs. We are seeing the results of this taken to the absurd in the USA.

But I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t want people to learn by themselves. I do. I wish more people do what you did, learn about something then share it with others. But I very much want my doctor to have a university medical education.

Thank you for your site, your efforts, your knowledge. Sorry for my semi rant on a tangential topic.


I see I also have to apologize for the grammar and sentence structure in my previous comment. I’ve had a run of sleepless nights due to my arthritis and I was falling asleep at the time I wrote it.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tom T

I have posted on your previous polar bear thread, but I will mention again here that I have always found the metabolism of “walking hibernation” of polar bears interesting. Not much can be found on it in the research literature, though. Like true hibernation the utilization of fat, relative sparing of muscle, and recycling of nitrogenous wastes is highly efficient, such that the bear can maintain normal body temperature (or elevated body temperature in the case of a hibernating pregnant female polar bears within a den) with little to no excretion of urea, which is recycled back to amino acids. I haven’t found documentation, but I would think that, similar to hibernation in dens, fasting, walking hibernation polar bears do not pee.

John Harries

Hi Tom,

Yes, that was one of the most fascinating parts of Phyllis’ study that she shared with me. You will find a full chapter on it in Ian Sterling’s book that Phyllis links to above.

Tom T

The use of deterrents (“crackers”, bear spray) has been discussed in the comment sections of your previous threads. It is a no-brainer to have bear spray, and to practice its use, but the integration of bear spray and rifle (in a well-practiced team approach) in the instance of a charging bear is open to debate.

Regarding rifles, this has also been discussed in the comment section of your previous threads, and I will reiterate that the decision to bring a rifle into polar bear country is wise only with scenario-based target practice; learned consideration of caliber, bolt versus lever, bullet versus slug (ie. 12 gauge pump action shotgun); and practice of possible integration in a team approach with other deterrents. A vulcanologist friend of mine once had daily encounters with brown bears (and yes, they are not polar bears) in the Aleutians, over the course of an entire study season, and they were taught by the Alaskan wildlife folks to have two people standing side-by-side, one with deterrents, and the other with the rifle.

John Harries

Hi Tom,

Absolutely. Phyllis and I always practice, including rapid live fire, before heading north. We also carry, and have practiced with, deterrents.

You will find several pages of recommendations in our Norwegian Cruising Guide, Volume 1, that are based on extensive interviews with experienced residents of Svalbard.


Hi Phyllis, great post!
I hope this is not an overly silly question, but could a polar bear board a yacht from the water, attracted by the smell of food inside?
Best regards, Alex

John Harries

Hi Alex,

Not a silly question at all, in fact a very good one.

There have been several incidences where a polar bear has boarded a yacht directly from an ice flow.

However, I know of only one case where a bear boarded a yacht from the water, and that boat had a sugar scoop stern making a “ladder to lunch”.

Having said that, this is an animal that can explode out of the water and onto an ice flow to catch a seal, so in a situation where a bear was in the water next to the boat I would be extremely vigilant and have a rifle close to hand.

Svein? Any thoughts? I’m traveling and don’t have DNL 7 to hand.

Svein Lamark

Hi Phyllis and John, thanks again for interesting reading.
I think many of the questions can be answered by reading Norwegian Cruising guide 7 th edition Vol. 1 page 79 an so on. The pilot book gives valuable advice on how to handle ice bears.
On size of caliber: When hunting of polar bears was legal, most bears were killed by one shot of the light 6,5mm rifle Krag Jørgensen. ( In the 1960 years I shot many bears this way which I regret to day). This caliber is so light that it is forbidden on big game hunting in Norway to day. The officers of The Governor of Svalbard that I know, used a .308 to kill aggressive bears, but sometimes more than one shot. You do not need a big gun, you need to be smart and careful.
The big question to day is: Can the bear survive global warming and less ice, longer summers? I doubt it. In 2010 I sailed around Svalbard and came close to 37 bears. I found a whale cadaver in Holmiabukta with many fat bears, see picture in the same pilot book Vol 3, page 332. A friend of me did the same trip this summer. He saw one fat bear, and some very slim bears. Another friend of me sailed north of Svalbard to locate the limit of the drift ice. He found the limit at 84N. That is close to the pole. He saw many fat bears there, but the ice was soft and weak. If this process continues with the same speed, there will soon be open water to the pole. And then comes the hard question, where shall the polar bear then go?
Some new rules: Because of the longer starving periods in summer time, the bear left on land is very hungry. They will search the rubber dingy carefully and open it up completely, especially if you have been sitting on the sides, the bear can smell it. This can be very problematic if you are on the beach and the ship is at anchor. The dingy should be made of wood, alu or GRP fore safety reasons and have no closed rooms that the bear will need to open. Bear on deck? See the same pilot book.

John Harries

Hi Svein,

See my comment below for my general thoughts on your great comment.

A very good point about the problems with rubber dinghies. We have always taken a second small rubber boat ashore with us and placed it some way from the first in case of bear destruction. But of course that is no guarantee since the bear could easily destroy both. You recommendation is clearly better.

How sad that your friend saw so few bears after a few short years. I would hope that this just reflected the more northern position of the ice edge, but I fear that your conclusion is the more likely.

Wilson Fitt

My up-close-and-personal experience with polar bears is limited to stroking a pelt that was stretched out to dry on a frame when I was visiting my good friend Sandy Macdonald in Iqaluit, Baffin Island several years ago. Big and with very coarse hair is my recollection.

Sandy has lived, worked and travelled on land and water in the far north for many years. I brought this thread to his attention and his comments, quoted with permission, are as follows:

“Polar bears are unpredictable and can be very aggressive. I used to put rubber shot in the [short barreled] shotgun and/or a banger or two (my magazine will hold 6 shells) ahead of the lead slugs. For the last few years I load the shotgun with slugs and buckshot. If a bear is menacing I believe that I need to make the first shot my best shot. I have had an experience where the bear banger shell jammed the barrel of the shotgun rendering it useless like the club described in the article.

“Attacks on people in tents are not new in polar bear country so I’m not sure what the brochures are describing. A pair of friends who travelled on Bylot Island for two summers in the 1990’s were attacked in their tent. A tourist was attacked in his tent near Kimmirut (about 70 miles southwest of Iqlaluit on Hudson Strait) about five years ago.

“I don’t hesitate to go ashore in the Arctic with deterrents and a gun. If camping I always have a gun/monitor and keep watch. We camped at Frobisher’s mines in August at the mouth of Frobisher Bay in 2004 [an open boat trip of about 125 nm] and there were plenty of bears about so we kept a bear watch all night and had guns.

“I’m not sure about the climate change effect but those are my thoughts on polar bears.”

John Harries

Hi Svein and Wilson (and Sandy),

Your comments based on real first hand experience over many years are hugely useful, thank you.

Once again they highlight the difference between reality as you have experienced it, and the misconceptions about polar bear safety often held by the general public and reinforced by Parks Canada’s flawed policies and videos.

Svein Lamark

Hi Phyllis and John again,
I forgot to tell the main rule I learned as a kid I the arctic: Before landing from a ship, use your binoculars carefully (at least 30 minutes) looking for bears. Even though the bear is white and so is the snow, the bear is more yellow and after some time you will spot the bear. If bear, do not land. Of course the bear is smart and can hide and wait for you. If you think this is possible, send in a dog to locate the bear or leave the place.
I heard this summer from locals at Svalbard that many of the normal birthing places for polar bears on Svalbard have been empty the last years. The main birthing places was Hopen and Edgeøya, both islands in the eastern region of Svalbard. Hopen has had no baby bears the last years and Edgeøya only two. Edgeøya used to have many bears. Maybe they get babies somewhere else or maybe they do not get babies any more because the starving period has become too long and the drift ice is too fare away. I do not know, but reproduction is vital.

Nick Kats

2 comments on this.
In Ireland it is impossible to get a bear gun. Very strict laws here! But shotguns, no problem (well, a lot of paperwork). Seems if a bear gets too close, say 10 feet, it should be straightforward to destroy his eyes with a blast of pellets. Shredding his nose & the interior of his mouth helps. In this situation, I would use a double barrel shotgun for security.
Yes I’m aware bear guns can be rented or brought in Greenland & Svalbard.

The other comment – I do not know if this is apocryphal or true. Long ago I heard of a hunter in Alaska who was seized by a grizzly. The grizzly pulled the man towards his mouth. The man had his wool hat in his hand. He drove his fist down the bear’s mouth & gullet and let go of the hat. The bear instantly let go and died. The hunter was OK I think.


One of the things I love about living in the U.K. is that, no matter what your interest, you can always find associations, clubs and courses to help with it. Seems unlikely, but, the UK National Rifle Association offers a ‘Polar Bear Protection Shooting Course’ on demand at its facility in Bisley, Surrey. We plan to head north next year and are currently weighing pros/cons of arming and all the hassle, training and expense that entails, or, deciding to just not go ashore.


We read all your info on polar bears before heading north to Labrador and Greenland this summer. Although we saw no bears on the trip north, we did see plenty on our return. We saw the first at Baffin Island where we stopped for a night, then saw 17 more in Labrador. All appeared to be very healthy and many of them were swimming – it looked to us like they were looking for seals or something in the water. We did go ashore for some hikes in areas where we had good visibility and there were no signs of bears. We did not carry guns but had a variety of other bear deterrents, stuck close together, and kept a close watch. Fortunately we did not see any while we were ashore. We were enchanted with Labrador and hope to come back in 2016.

John Harries

Hi Kathy,

Great to hear that the bears seem to be doing well this year.

One caution though, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to go ashore unarmed, even with deterrents and in an area which looks to be clear of bears. The authorities in Svalbard know more about this risk and have more experience dealing with it than anyone and their absolute rule is no going ashore unarmed.

Recent attacks have shown that deterrents are of only limited effectiveness and being in a large group is no guarantee of safety.

Having said that, we always carry deterrents and would use them first before using a firearm.

Trevor Robertson

There appear to be very few polar bears on the Greenland side of Davis Strait/Baffin Bay, probably because of hunting pressure. In the course of two years in northwest Greenland, I have seen none and only heard of only a few sightings. An encounter with a polar bear is much more likely to on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay or in Labrador, where the population density is lower and there is less hunting by the indigenous population. There seems no reason to carry a rifle in Greenland, and the bureaucratic impediments to having one in Canada are considerable.

My experience with polar bears there is far too limited to be of any value, but the polar bears I have seen seemed to be more curious than anything else. Our only close encounter occurred in Labrador when a polar bear swam out to the boat and gave the rudder a couple of slaps that were loud enough to get us out of bed. It then swam around the boat for a few minutes before losing interest and swimming ashore and disappearing up a cliff into the fog. Judging by the way it went up the cliff, the bear would have had no difficulty in getting aboard Iron Bark if it had wanted to; it just was not interested.

As far as I can ascertain, no one from a cruising yacht has ever been attacked by a polar bear while on the vessel. nor have I ever heard of a polar bear boarding a vessel at sea or anchor. They do occasionally board a vessel stuck in pack ice or wintering in fast ice, when the vessel is effectively part of the icescape but a yacht on a summer trip to the Arctic is seldom in this situation. Any danger appears to be ashore. Most of the very few polar bear attacks are on campers, not sailors on fairly short trips ashore. I know of no sailor who claims to have beaten off a polar bear attack using a rifle.

The chance of needing to use a rifle to solve problem with a polar bear seems tiny; the inconvenience of carrying firearms is considerable. Given this, I long ago decided forearms were not worth the effort. Few countries will allow them to be kept aboard while in their waters, even in a sealed locker, and the penalties for having undeclared firearms are often draconian. Firearms are a nuisance on a vessel travelling beyond North America.

Incidentally, a Greenlander told me a bear will normally lead with its left paw in an attack, so your best chance is to dive left. That probably gives you a better chance of survival than if attacked by a saltwater crocodile. Unlike polar bears in the Arctic, crocodiles in northern Australia do kill the odd cruising sailor. Despite this, it is considered unnecessary and illegal to go armed like John Wayne while in Australia; you take your chances or stay at home. Perhaps that view could be extended to the Arctic. There are plenty of dangers there, but polar bear attack barely figures in them.

Trevor Robertson
Iron Bark
Ullapool, Scotland


Hi Phyllis,
I ran across this recent scientific paper (July 2017) that might interest you and others on AAC:
“Polar bear attacks on humans: Implications of a changing climate”
The entire paper is available

John Harries

Hi Robert,

Thanks very much for the link. I certainly learned a lot from reading it. Two important take aways for me were that bear spray may be more effective than we thought and that in more than half of fatalities the victim never knew the bear was close by prior to attack.