Photographing Polar Bears in Alaska's High Arctic
7 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Fairbanks, Alaska
Our polar bear photography adventure begins in Fairbanks, Alaska’s thriving capital of the Interior. Fairbanks, less than 120 miles from the Arctic Circle, retains its frontier flavor with pioneer saloons, paddlewheelers on the Chena River and mining camps on the edge of town. Fairbanks is home to the main campus of the University of Alaska, a global research leader on Arctic concerns, including polar bears. Meet your traveling companions at a welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Exploring Fairbanks—Museum of the North / Large Animal Research Station
We've built this day in Fairbanks into the trip to ensure that any potential travel delays don't impede our guests' ability to get all the way to Kaktovik with us. And, it's a terrific introduction to Alaska and the Arctic beyond before heading nearly 400 miles farther north to reach our destination tomorrow.
At the University of Alaska's Museum of the North, we get an overview of Alaska's natural history, wildlife and diverse Native cultures. This acclaimed educational enterprise is the only research and teaching museum in Alaska, with a collection of 1.4 million artifacts and specimens that represent millions of years of biological diversity and thousands of years of cultural traditions in the circumpolar North. Exhibit highlights include ancient ivory carvings, the state's largest public display of gold, a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison, and an ever-changing sound and light installation driven by the real-time positions of the sun and moon, seismic activity and the aurora borealis.
We continue with a visit to the university's Large Animal Research Station, a 134-acre facility adjacent to the campus. The land, originally a homestead, was deeded to the university in 1963 for use in a muskox domestication project, initiated with a herd of 33 animals moved from Nunivak Island. In 1979, the station was founded in its current capacity through a grant from the National Science Foundation. It continues to support a colony of muskoxen for research, as well as studies on resident reindeer and cattle. Educational outreach is an important part of the station's mission as it introduces students of all ages to wildlife research and supports a popular summer tourism program.
Day 3: Private Flight to Kaktovik—Polar Bear Viewing
Transfer to the airport this morning for our private chartered direct flight to Kaktovik. Because we have arranged a chartered aircraft for our small group of just eight guests. The 2-hour journey over the Arctic Circle offers a stunning aerial overview of northern Alaska’s varied geography, from the vast Yukon River basin and boreal forest to the icebound Brooks Range and barren North Slope. Below us sprawls the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19-million-acre preserve that's home to caribou, muskoxen, Dall sheep, wolves, migratory waterfowl, black and grizzly bears, and, of course, the polar bears we have come to see. As glaciated peaks give way to coastal plain, we land on Barter Island on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. From the airstrip, it's a short drive into the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. This isolated outpost occupying one square mile in the high Arctic is home to about 250 residents who have long relied on a traditional lifestyle of subsistence hunting and fishing.
Befitting its austere setting, many of Kaktovik's rustic residences and small businesses are fashioned out of old shipping containers. Just a few dirt roads lace the town, and most locals drive 4-wheeler ATVs rather than cars. We check in to our simple motel and have lunch, then head out on our first polar bear excursion aboard small boats operated by local residents. Though each boat has the capacity to hold six guests, we put just four on each to ensure your comfort, plus plenty of room for your camera equipment.
We spend three hours cruising the coastline in search of bears this afternoon. Your Expedition Leader, who is both an expert Arctic naturalist and an accomplished nature photographer specializing in Alaska’s legendary wildlife, is on hand to interpret all we experience. While the Southern Beaufort polar bears historically spend most of their time on drifting pack ice, many females come ashore to dig dens in snowdrifts, and more bears are spending time on land as they wait for coastal sea ice to form. We return to town for dinner followed by time to review and edit our photos, with our Expedition Leader on hand for advice. And, as darkness starts to return to the night sky by late summer, we may have a chance late tonight to look for the northern lights.
Days 4 & 5: Polar Bear Photography in Kaktovik
Over the next two days we are immersed in the world of the polar bear. Each morning, following breakfast, we board the boats to spend three hours cruising close to shore to look for bears. After returning for lunch and some rest time at the hotel, we depart on another three-hour outing each afternoon. The sight of the bears induces sheer delight, and we may get photos of lone males, mothers with growing cubs, or sparring juvenile males learning to play-fight. At times, the bears may be resting, so we never know exactly what to expect. Keep your camera poised for other Arctic wildlife, too, such as wolves, Arctic fox and seabirds. The realm we explore is one of the most primitive and untouched places on the continent. Protected as part of the Arctic Refuge—the largest wildlife sanctuary in the United States—this land is unmarred by any roads or trails, and Kaktovik is the only human habitation inside its bounds.
While we can never predict how many bears we may see, their numbers are increasing around Kaktovik. The reason is a warming climate. In years past, the Beaufort Sea remained mostly frozen year-round, with pack ice accessible not far offshore. Now, the ice is melting earlier, what remains may be 200 miles away, and freeze-up happens later. Since seal hunting—the polar bears’ main means of sustenance—requires sea ice, the Southern Beaufort population is being forced to adapt. In Kaktovik, the bears have found an alternate food source to sustain them through the lean summer and autumn months: the carcasses of several bowhead whales that Native villagers are permitted to harvest seasonally as part of their traditional subsistence lifestyle and ancient cultural practice.
While we are here to enjoy the presence of wild polar bears and to capture thrilling photos of them, we are also witnessing profound changes in a rapidly warming Arctic, which are creating the very phenomenon we have come to see. Evening conversations with local people provide further insight into Arctic life in the 21st century, and we learn about how people are also trying to adapt.
Day 6: Polar Bear Viewing / Fly to Fairbanks
After breakfast, we are scheduled to make a sixth and final boat excursion among the polar bears, capturing a final chance to capture photos that are the hallmark of this singular experience. We return to the hotel for lunch before boarding our private chartered flight back to Fairbanks this afternoon. On arrival, transfer to our hotel on the banks of the Chena River in the heart of lively downtown Fairbanks. This evening, share your favorite moments with the polar bears over a farewell dinner.
Day 7: Fairbanks / Depart
Today, our Alaska polar bear photo safari comes to a close as we transfer to the airport for flights home.
All This Included
At the top of Alaska, where the coastal plain meets the Beaufort Sea at 70 degrees north latitude, wild polar bears roam the shoreline in late summer and fall, waiting for the Beaufort Sea to freeze. While this icon of the Arctic has been at home on the edge of Alaska’s North Slope for millennia, its numbers have been increasing around the tiny hamlet of Kaktovik in recent years, where bears come ashore in search of sustenance until the winter seal-hunting season begins. Surrounded by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Kaktovik offers Alaska’s best opportunity to photograph polar bears at eye level from small boats that cruise the coastline. This exploratory trip provides an unusual chance to learn about the impacts of climate change from the frontline as we witness changing polar bear behavior and learn how local Inupiat people are facing challenges to their age-old subsistence lifestyle.
Fairbanks: Springhill Suites Fairbanks
Kaktovik: Marsh Creek Inn
Terms and Conditions
For Natural Habitat Adventures terms and conditions, please click here.
* The prices shown are U.S. dollars per person, based on double occupancy, and subject to availability. Prices quoted for land/cruise arrangements are subject to increase without notice. Once we have received your deposit, land/cruise prices are guaranteed. Air prices quoted via phone or email are subject to increase and are guaranteed only from the time that full payment is received. Also, air prices or air promotions mentioned on this site or on the phone do not include baggage fees imposed by airlines.