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Are you wondering about the best place to see polar bears, cubs and northern lights in Canada? If the thought of tiny polar bear cubs trundling after mum makes your heart soar, move a Baffin Island polar bear safari to the top of your bucket list.
A fortuitous meeting with a world-renowned and award-winning wildlife photographer, Andy Skillen, at the NY Times Travel Show resulted in our most enchanting, memorable and adventurous wildlife experience on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. Polar bear cubs now tie with emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica for the most endearing baby animals on the planet.
Baffin Island Polar Bear Encounters
Watching a behemoth, 800 lb (360 kg) polar bear (Ursus Martimus) saunter closer to inspect the interlopers (us) and the enticing smells coming from our Inuit qamutik sled momentarily amped our adrenaline. Knowing our guides are expertly trained in polar bear behaviors and would utilize tactics to distract or deter any super curious bears allowed us to focus on safely photographing this photogenic bear from our sleds.
Shortly after encountering the curious male, a mother and her two-year-old cubs trotted past. Staccato camera shutters filled the air as we photographed this striking family, likely intent on their next ringed seal meal.
We captured unforgettable action shots as they zealously marched forth, interspersed with heartwarming interaction images as she tenderly nuzzled one of her cubs. The battle scar on her nose indicates she’s fiercely defended her family from a male who may have wanted to kill (or eat) her cubs.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Kelvin 7000 (shade) accurately reflects the creamy colored bears amongst the ice. Thanks to Andy Skillen for sharing this expert white balance tip.
I opted for f10 or 11 to make sure mum and cubs are in focus, shutter speed 1/1500 to account for any quick bear movements, Auto ISO and Exposure Compensation +2/3.
Polar Bear Diet
Polar bears venture onto the sea ice to hunt for ringed and bearded seals.
After ringed seals give birth, their pups suckle for two months. The pups sit on a “shelf” beneath the ice in a “snow cave/lair” with a breathing hole nearby. Mum uses this hole to dive into the water, hunt and return to feed her ravenous pup.
While sitting in the snow lair and transitioning from their super warm, white lanugo, newborn coat to their adult fur, pups are incredibly vulnerable to polar bear and arctic fox predation. After pups lose their lanugo coat at three weeks of age, they can enter the water with their now waterproof fur.
FUN FACT: Polar bears can smell seals under the ice up to a 1km away!
Polar bears punch through the ice and use their hook-like claws to extract unsuspecting seal pups and feed themselves and their cubs. Observing, learning and imitating mum’s hunting behaviors is key for young polar bears’ survival. Cubs must learn migration routes, how to move on the sea ice, and how to manage their natural curiosity.
Baffin Island Polar Bears Behaviors
During our second day on the ice, our scouts witnessed a mother digging into a snow drift to create a day den to shelter her two tiny cubs! While they’d seen Baffin Island polar bears in day dens before, they’d never caught mum excavating one.
While grateful for a less frigid 15°F (-10°C) day, these temperatures are quite warm for fur-laden polar bears slogging across the snow. The guides speculated the warmer temperatures might have been the impetus for her digging the den.
Communicating via InReach Explorer satellite locator devices, the scouts sent GPS coordinates to our snowmobile drivers, who expertly ferried us to the location.
Since I’m directionally challenged, I marveled at their navigation across the ice to the Baffin Island polar bear safari locations.
Having used my InReach Explorer for Death Valley, Yosemite and Mendocino hikes, it’s an ideal tool for this remote Arctic region devoid of cellular communication.
After positioning a safe distance from the den, we observed the enchanting trio alternate between yawning, playing, sleeping and nursing.
While intently peering through my 500mm lens, our expedition leader, Dave, surprised me with a bowl of butternut squash soup. A thoughtful touch to ensure I wouldn’t miss a coveted polar bear and cubs interaction shot.
Convinced that the action would commence right as I raised the spoon to my mouth, I quickly gobbled my soup. Fortunately, the family continued snoozing.
Patience is key for this polar bear viewing expedition. After patiently waiting for four hours, mum and cubs curiously peeped out of the den once the snowmobiles were fired up to return to camp. For 20 glorious minutes, we witnessed mum yawning and two rambunctious cubs enraptured with foreign sights (us) and noises (snowmobiles).
Shortly after we departed, the family exited the den, heading towards their next meal.
Baffin Island Polar Bear Cubs
Given polar bears’ dimorphism (difference between the sexes within the species), males can be as large as their polar bear moms by age two!
FUN FACT: Female cubs tend to be more clingy than their independent male siblings.
If a cub climbs up mum’s back or perches on her head, it’s likely female. When spying an indifferent cub lagging its mum and twin, it’s probably a male.
Despite their massive size, huge paws and sharp claws, polar bears are incredibly tender with their diminutive cubs. Watching mums lean back to feed, cuddle to warm them or provide a furry shelf for polar bear cubs to nap is incredibly endearing.
Polar bear moms are very protective of their cubs. Some may prefer to keep a distance of 200 meters. As always, the team did an incredible job letting the family dictate the preferred viewing distance.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Having an 800mm lens is nice for a long-distance encounter. Jason and I shot a Nikon 500mm pf and a Nikon Z100-400 + 1.4x tele-converter (560mm equivalent). When bears were at 200 meters (656 feet), we wished we had an 800mm or 800+1.4x tele-converter (1120mm equivalent).
To me, the number priority on any wildlife expedition is to respect the animals’ wishes. It’s a privilege to see them in their natural habitat. It is NEVER acceptable to harass wildlife to get a shot. Pursuing unreceptive wildlife leads to stress for animals and causes them to expend their limited energy. Polar bear moms with tiny cubs have not eaten for four to eight months, so it’s imperative they reserve their energy to hunt and provide for their helpless cubs.
I commend Arctic Kingdom’s approach. They are always aware and cognizant, reading and respecting the bears’ signals. If bears indicate they don’t want observers, we would move on to find other bears.
Baffin Island Polar Bear Mating
From April to June, males pursue females to mate. However, eggs don’t attach to the females’ uteruses until the fall as polar bears have “delayed implantation.” Therefore, different males can father twins or triplets.
FUN FACT: Male polar bears track females by pheromone scented trails left by the females’ footpads.
After gorging to accumulate fat reserves, female polar bears dig a den in a snow drift in the elevated valleys in October or November. Then, snow covers the entrance, allowing them to hibernate and give birth.
FUN FACT: Female polar bears must gain 440 lb (200 kg), doubling their body size, to have enough body mass for a successful pregnancy!
Tiny cubs, weighing one lb (1/2 kg) and measuring 12 inches (30cm), are typically born in December. After fattening up on their mother’s nutrient rich milk (31% fat), they emerge from the den between March and April, weighing 22-33 lbs (10-15kg). Since mums have had neither food nor water since the fall, they are ravenous and eager to replenish their energy and fat reserves by hunting seals.
FUN FACT: Litter sizes with two cubs are most common. Triplets are rare as most polar bears don’t have the fat reserves needed to sustain three embryos.
Sadly, cub mortality is 50% in the first year. This is due to males predating on the cubs or starvation if mum can’t get enough food. If a mum has three cubs, it can be hard for her to sustain and feed three growing cubs.
Cubs typically stay with their mums for two to three years. After that, she chases them away (or a male does) as she is ready to mate again.
FUN FACT: Mating starts at ages 4-6 for females and ages 6-10 for males. Males need to be hefty and strong enough to win sparring matches with larger males before they have the opportunity to mate.
Polar Bear Facts
Adult male polar bears typically weigh 775 -1300 lbs (350-600 kg). Conversely, adult female polar bears are only 330-650 lbs (150-295 kg). To me, this is an astounding polar bear fact that makes the dimorphism most apparent.
Polar bears typically survive 15-18 years. The worldwide population for polar bears is estimated at 20,000-30,000. Sadly, by 2050, it is estimated that 30% of the polar bear population may be lost due to lack of sea ice resulting from climate change. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt their main source of sustenance – seals.
What to Expect on a Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari
After breakfast, snowmobiles are fired up and two people load into the Inuit qamutik sleds in search of coveted polar bears and cubs. Arctic Kingdom has perfected its system, sending two scouts out an hour earlier to search for polar bear tracks and determine if polar bears are amenable to being approached.
Pristine, glittering snowscapes greet you around each turn. This breathtaking and unspoilt landscape is a privilege to explore. Witnessing polar bears traipsing across these scenes makes it even more glorious.
Camera gear is securely transported in your camera backpacks inside Pelican cases on the back of the sled. Tripods typically sit on foam plus a blanket on the sled floor. Removable cushions on your seat help offset the impact as you bounce along the sea ice in search of polar bears.
TOP TIP: If you have any serious neck or back issues, I don’t recommend this Baffin Island polar bear safari as the jolting and jostling traveling over sea ice is significant. We all joked that we planned to see masseuse or chiropractors after the trip. The mild discomfort is 100% worth it though!
If polar bears aren’t immediately located, a “base camp” (with a portable restroom) is set up one to two hours from the tented camp to break up the day. You’ll enjoy coffee, tea, hot chocolate and snacks while awaiting the call from the scouts.
When scouts locate bears, you might stay with them for the day if they are settled down. If they are on the move, you’ll photograph them until they move out of sight and then seek out new bears.
Baffin Island Icebergs
The Baffin Island landscape is dotted with shimmering thousand year old icebergs that have migrated from Greenland (located only ~200 miles away).
Thanks to the spectacular scenery, even the day we did not see bears provided breathtaking memories. On that day, we scaled a luminous blue iceberg a short distance from camp. Being trapped in ice, it’s one of the few times it’s safe to climb an icy monolith. Getting up close and personal with icebergs gives you an appreciation for their enormous size, slipperiness and alluring details.
All prior icebergs we have seen from zodiacs and kayaks were floating in water in Antarctica and Iceland. Therefore, we always kept a safe distance in case they flipped and triggered a huge wave.
FUN FACT: Did you know that the iceberg that you are seeing is only 10% of its size?! 90% of it resides below the water!
Arctic Kingdom sets up the expedition camp near icebergs so that you can use them as foreground elements during sunset and northern lights. Watching the sky above a massive iceberg dancing with aurora borealis is spectacular.
Sunrise at the icebergs is also offered. However, this requires a 4AM wakeup. Since we had cloudy skies the day we planned to go due to snow, I opted to capture sunrise at our camp another morning.
TOP TIP: Bring a super wide-angle lens to capture the icebergs and northern lights. Including a person in the image provides scale for the icebergs. I relished using my Sigma 14-24 f2.8 lens to exaggerate the icebergs’ impressive stature. Similarly, Jason enjoyed shooting the super fast Z 20mm f1.8.
Ultimately, the Arctic Kingdom team hopes to find polar bears and cubs sitting atop icebergs as it makes for the ULTIMATE photogenic backdrop. While polar bear watching one day, we had the privilege of witnessing a four year-old male climb to the top of an iceberg and then slide down on his belly. Hands down, one of the FUNNIEST wildlife moments I have ever witnessed.
When to Visit for a Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari Den Emergence
Four week-long expeditions take place between mid-March to mid-April to coincide with when polar bear families emerge from their dens. They head down the mountains onto the frozen sea ice to search for ringed seal pups in snow lairs beneath the ice. Mum must bulk up after hibernating and feeding her cubs in the den.
Given that cubs stay with their mum for two to three years, you might encounter three month-old cubs, 1.5 year old cubs, or 2.5 year old cubs.
It’s fascinating to observe how size and behaviors evolve as the cubs get older.
Since we were two of 110 people who had ever ventured to this area as of March 2022, it’s highly possible that we were the first humans they had ever seen. Understandably, we might pique their interest.
Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari Safety Precautions
For safety reasons, a minimum distance of 100 meters (300 feet) is typically maintained between you and Baffin Island polar bears. Since polar bears can run 25 mph (40 kph) for short distances, it’s imperative to maintain a safe distance from them. Given that they easily overheat if they overexert themselves, most of the time polar bears walk along at 3.4 mph (5.5kmh)
Guides are very attuned and familiar with polar bear behaviors. As bears are approaching, guides judge their mannerisms and assess if the bear is acting aggressively. If the bear appears to be aggressive or curious and approaching closer than deemed safe, they would utilize the following tactics:
- Uttering “hey bear” often startles the bear
- Turning on the snowmobiles is another effective sound deterrent
- Shooting bird shot into the air results in a large crack that scares the bear
- Firecrackers might also be used to deter the bear
- Shooting a rubber bullet into the snow near the bear. The erupting snow surprises the bear.
- Shooting a rubber bullet into the bear’s bum. Given the thick fur, the rubber bullet doesn’t hurt or injure the bear. Instead, it serves to annoy the bear and encourages it to turn and walk in the other direction.
While all the guides carry guns loaded with bullets, they’ve never had to hurt a bear with a lethal shot.
Baffin Island Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Our expedition team also leveraged the Garmin InReach devices for weather and northern lights updates. Brilliant!
Being above the Arctic Circle with zero light pollution is the PERFECT place to see the northern lights. Solar flares were BONKERS during our trip, so we were treated to aurora borealis on five of our eight nights. It also helped that we were in the waning crescent moon phase so moonlight didn’t taint our photos.
TOP TIP: If you are like me and severely near sighted, hang out in the dining tent until 10:30PM or 11PM each night to see if the northern lights appear rather than going to sleep.
The first night I made the ROOKIE mistake of taking my contacts out and tucking into bed shortly after dinner. When happily awakened by the call for northern lights, I scrambled to put my heavy clothes back on and grabbed my glasses. However, transitioning from my toasty tent to sub-zero temps resulted in my glasses irreversibly fogging. With no way to wipe them, I stumbled around with my camera and tripod, listening for people’s voices. I feared lighting up like a Christmas tree if I accidentally stumbled into the electric fence surrounding our camp. Fortunately, and unbeknownst to me, they had turned it off. Phew!
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Bring a fast wide-angle lens to shoot northern lights. I shot a Sigma 14-24mm 2.8 and Jason shot a Nikon 20mm 1.8.
Focus to infinity and be sure to test this BEFORE it gets dark. Use an aperture of f 2.8 (or whatever your largest aperture is), ISO 1600, 10-15 seconds (depending on how fast the lights are dancing), and opt for a 2 second timer or remote release so that you won’t get any camera shake.
TOP TIP: To truly capture the northern lights’ magic, make sure to do some time-lapses too so that you can experience the dancing again and again!
What to Wear for Baffin Island Polar Bear Den Emergence
With temperatures ranging from -40°F to -4°F (-40°C to -20°C), cold weather gear is CRITICAL. As someone who is ALWAYS cold and wears a light down jacket year-round in San Francisco, I fretted over how I’d fare in the frigid temperatures.
It’s important to know that your ski pants WON’T cut it in the Arctic. You need SUPER warm, down filled, waterproof gear to stay comfortable and safe in the Arctic’s often harsh conditions.
TOP TIP: If you don’t own Arctic-rated gear, definitely opt for the polar clothing rental package, which includes:
1) Canada Goose Waterproof and Windproof Expedition Parkas
FUN FACT: The parkas were developed for scientists working on McMurdo Station in Antarctica and are rated for temperatures -30°C (-22°F and below).
2) Canada Goose Tundra Waterproof and Windproof Down Snow Pants rated for temperatures 20°C to -10°C (-4°F to 14°F)
3) Baffin Impact Boots rated for temperatures to -100°C (-145°F)
TOP TIP: Despite this temperature rating, my toes got cold by, so I recommend toe warmers or heated insoles for maximum comfort.
4) Outdoor Research Alti Gloves. While the waterproof and windproof outer gloves and inner liners don’t offer much dexterity, they will keep your hands incredibly warm.
TOP TIP: Inserting a hand warmer in the inner pocket makes them extra cozy. Two brands I recommend are Grabber or Ignik. Ignik are compostable.
While shooting, we used only our thin North Face liner gloves on our shooting hands. To defrost our fingers, we’d stick our hands back into the Alti gloves when the action subsided.
TOP TIP: Rental gloves are men’s sizes, which are too large for small women’s hands. If you plan on doing more than one super cold weather trip, I recommend buying Women’s gloves from REI for a better fit. See below for some other gloves to consider.
Layering for a Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari
To keep warm each day, I layered as follows:
On my feet:
- Thin liner socks + Grabber toe warmers stuck to the top of the liner sock
- Knee high Smartwool socks
- Baffin Impact boots
TOP TIP: For our next Arctic trip, I will likely opt for battery powered heated insole liners that our friend on the trip, Candy, showed me to minimize the waste associated with Grabber toe warmers.
On my hands:
- Thin liner gloves with touchscreen capability. These are CRITICAL if you want to use your iPhone as you risk frostbite if your hands are exposed to the biting cold for any period of time. Also, don’t make the mistake we did and try to touch tripod legs, camera bodies or camera lenses without protection.
- Outdoor Research thicker inner liners + Grabber hand warmers in the pocket
- Outdoor Research windproof Alti mitts
TOP TIP: For our next Arctic trip, I will likely opt for battery powered heated thin liner gloves + Heat company windproof outer gloves that allow me to unzip and have access to my thumbs and fingers. Thanks again to our friend Candy from the trip for recommending these and letting me try them on!
On my legs:
- North Face or Patagonia Capilene long underwear bottoms
- Quick dry hiking pants
- Canada Goose Tundra down pants
On my upper body:
- North Face or Patagonia Capilene long underwear bottoms
- Arc’teryx Delta LT lightweight fleece as a mid-layer. I got chilled the two days I didn’t wear this. If you don’t get cold easily, you’d probably be ok without this additional mid layer.
- North Face fleece as a second mid-layer
- Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Hoody
- Canada Goose Expedition Parka
On my head and face:
- Buff Windstopper balaclava
- Northface fleece lined wool hat that covers the side of my face
- Ski goggles
Packing for a Baffin Island Polar Bears Den Emergence Trip
We were limited to 50 lbs (23 kg) TOTAL for our checked baggage plus our camera gear on the charter flight. Since our camera gear weighs 25-30 lbs, we minimized the clothing we brought. You won’t sweat unless you wear too many layers. So, you don’t need to bring much. I recommend packing the following in a non-wheeled, soft-sided duffel. We love our Patagonia 100 liter Black Hole duffels.
- 3 pairs of long underwear – I kept one clean pair to sleep in. North Face and Patagonia are my favorite brands.
- 2 pairs of lightweight hiking pants – KUHL is my favorite brand
- 3 pairs of wool knee high ski socks – I love Smartwool socks
- 3 pairs of thin liner socks – these are key so you can put toe warmers on top of these before pulling on your wool socks
- 10 pairs of underwear
- 2 thin fleece – I kept one clean to sleep in. Arc’teryx is my favorite.
- 1 thick fleece. I love the North Face Fleece I’ve had for 10 years.
- 1 thin 700 fill down jacket to wear under your Canada Goose jacket
- 1 thick 700 fill down jacket to wear around camp. I love my North Face Nuptse that I’ve had for 20 years.
- 1 thick wool hat that covers the side of your face to keep warm on the sled
- 1 thin wool hat to sleep in if it’s extremely cold
- 10 pairs of disposable hand warmers or battery powered heated liner gloves
- 10 pairs of disposable foot warmers or battery powered heated insoles
- Balaclava to protect your face from the sun and wind
- Buff to keep your neck warm
- 1 pair of down booties to wear in the tent
- 1 pair of fleece pants to sleep in
- 2 pairs of thin touchscreen liner gloves – I always travel with 2 pairs in case I lose a glove, which happens to me frequently
- Goggles to protect your eyes
- Small quick dry face towel
- 1 travel size dry shampoo
- 1 pack of 8 count Sea to Summit Wipes -I recommend the Extra Large (8*12 inch) Wilderness Wipes as they are biodegradable
- Rental gear, which you pick up in Ottawa includes: Canada Goose Expedition Jacket, Canada Goose Waterproof pants, Baffin Boots, Outdoor Research Alti Gloves
- Headlamp with red light setting. We love our Black Diamond Storm 400 headlamps and always travel with an extra set of rechargeable batteries.
- Eye Mask – a MUST if you are sensitive to light like I am as the stove in the tent gives flickers all night and it starts getting light at 4AM
- Upwade Surge Protector – we plugged this into the surge protector in the tent as it has 4 USB chargers and gave us space for 2 extra battery chargers
- Aquaphor – your hands and lips will get very dry
- 2 20 Liter Sea to Summit Ultra Dry Sil Dry Bags – to store any cameras you travel with on your lap in the Qamutik sled and when you leave them outside in your tent’s vestibule area each night. My husband and I have different colors so we can tell our cameras apart.
- An Insulated Hydroflask water bottle. Nalgenes will freeze in the sub-zero temps. The camp also provides a branded thermos for you to keep that you can bring hot water for coffee and hot chocolate in and it stays hot all day!
Due to the cold temperatures and weight restrictions, we did NOT bring computers or hard drives to download and review pictures each night.
Camera Gear for a Baffin Island Polar Bear Expedition
For safety reasons, you are typically at least 100 meters (300 feet) from polar bears.
Therefore, bring the longest lenses you have. While the bears are sometimes closer as they are ambling past, plan for them to be far away.
We brought the following camera gear with us for our Baffin Island polar bear safari:
- Nikon Z9 + Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S + Z 1.4TC resulting in an effective focal length of 140mm – 560mm
- Nikon D850 + 200-500 f/ 5.6
- Nikon D850 + PF 500mm f /5.6
- Nikon Nikkor Z 20mm f/1.8
- Sigma 12-24mm f/2.8 Art lens
- 2 extra batteries for each camera – we never used an entire battery, but if it’s really cold, you might
While I definitely preferred the faster focusing and accuracy of the PF 500mm and used it 95% of the time, I did miss having the opportunity to zoom out on a few occasions as bears were moving closer.
If we ever do this trip again, we would like to have a Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 +1.4x TC, resulting in an effective focal length of 1120mm. That extra reach would have been really helpful while watching a protective polar bear mom feeding her cubs 600 feet (200 meters) away. I’d also likely opt for a 100-400mm or 200-600mm to have more flexibility when the bears’ distance shifted.
I missed having my 70-200mm lens on a few occasions, so I’d bring that next time too.
Given the bright conditions, you don’t need to shoot wide open. You will often shoot f10 or f11 to ensure both the polar bear mothers and cubs are in focus, so a super heavy 600mm f4 isn’t needed. In many cases, you’ll find yourself lying on the ground or standing on your Qamutik sled handholding and shooting so lighter lenses are preferable.
Since Baffin Island is one of the best places to see polar bears and northern lights, I LOVED having the Sigma 12-24mm f2.8 to take beautiful pictures of soaring icebergs and to capture aurora borealis during five nights of our trip.
We transported all our gear in 18L and 26L Thinktank MindShift Backlight backpacks.
A Typical Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari Den Emergence Itinerary
Our chef, Patrick, and assistant chef, Jaime, worked wonders in their yurt kitchen at the camp.
- 6-630AM: Wakeup and Get Ready – since 10 people share the two restroom tents, you might have to wait a few minutes to access the restroom tent.
- 7-730AM: Eat Breakfast – Different options each day included: delicious pancakes, frittatas, French toast, omelettes, bacon, eggs benedict, hot chocolate, tea and coffee. My favorite drink offered is a delicious Inuit recipe for a hot lemon and ginger tea. Our group loved it so much that Patrick had to make numerous pots per day!
- TOP TIP: I typically intermittent fast for 16-18 hours a day. However, I don’t recommend doing that on this trip as lunchtime is unpredictable based on bear sightings and you need the calories to keep you warm.
- 8-830AM: Load into the Qamutiks (sleds)
- One morning while we were waiting near our qamutiks (sleds) to hear from the scouts about polar bears, they delivered banana, cranberry muffins filled with jam straight from the oven! Absolutely divine!
- TOP TIP: If you are someone who typically runs late, make sure you are 15 minutes early for the sled departure. Tardiness means everyone gets out later to see the bears and that’s what everyone is there to see.
- 830AM-530PM: Search for polar bears and cubs aboard two-person Inuit Qamutik sleds pulled by Ski-Doos (snowmobiles).
- Hot lunch is transported on a large sled that follows the group – hearty soups, paninis and quesadillas are offered. Lunch is typically sometime between 1130-130 depending on what is happening with polar bear sightings and encounters.
- They bring a George Foreman grill and portable generator out on the ice to make hot paninis and quesadillas. Brilliant!
- 530-6PM: Appetizers in the dining tent – Delectable offerings included: sushi rolls, nachos, kale chips, charcuterie boards with figs, toasted squash seeds and pickled radish.
- 730PM: Dinner – Scrumptious dinners with caribou, Arctic char, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, pasta, and soda bread. Followed by delectable desserts including cakes, ice cream and crumbles. You will NOT go hungry on this trip. Vegetarian options are created for every meal. I came back a few pounds heavier.
Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari Expedition Camp
To be honest, we found the thought of camping on the ice in -40°F (-40°C) temperatures incredibly intimidating. Most of our friends and family thought we were bonkers to even consider a trip like this.
Upon arriving, all our fears subsided when we saw the GENIUS polar bear safari camp. The camp team spends 10 days constructing the camp from scratch before the four 8-day expeditions arrive.
With only 10 people on the expedition, two people share 124 sq feet Arctic Oven tents that stand 6.5 feet tall. The tents sit atop constructed wooden platforms to ensure the tent floors don’t get wet. Amazingly, they manage to insert stoves in the center of the tents that keep the tents SUPER TOASTY.
Sleeping in -20°F sleeping bags (inside an optional fleece liner) atop cots ensures you stay cozy. While I slept in multiple layers one night, most nights I slept only in long underwear as the tents were incredibly warm and comfortable.
They also run electricity to each tent. You’ll have an overhead light and large surge protectors for charging batteries and phones overnight.
TOP TIP: For safety reasons, I don’t recommend charging lithium batteries if you won’t be in the tent. We always unplug any charging cables or batteries when we leave the tent to minimize fire risk as fires have happened on dive boats as a result of lithium batteries charging.
We stored most things we needed to stay warm on the hanging shelves at the end of our bed. At the end of each day, we hung our hats, gloves, balaclava, and long underwear from the lines inside the tent and from the convenient hanging hooks.
TOP TIP: At dinner each evening, they offer a hot water bottle that you insert into a fleece liner to put in your sleeping bag to warm it up. I highly recommend taking advantage of this as it ensures your sleeping bag is nice and toasty when you climb in it for the night.
The camp is surrounded by a waist-high electric fence to protect from polar bears.
Maintaining Camera Gear on a Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari
On our last polar bear expedition to Seal River and Nanuk Lodges with Churchill Wild, we learned transitioning camera gear from sub-zero temperatures to room temperature can lead to condensation and other potential issues for cameras and lenses.
Since the tents had a large vestibule area outside with a plastic stand, we would remove batteries and then leave our cameras in our camera bags or put them into thin Sea to Summit Dry Sil bags to protect them and help them adjust. We NEVER brought them inside the tent due to the significant temperature difference. You can see the vestibule area in the image of the tents at the top of the prior section.
TOP TIP: These thin dry bags can also be helpful to use on the qamutik sleds to protect your camera from snow while traveling.
Given that it’s a great time for northern lights (aurora borealis), we also set up our tripods before dinner each night and left them in the vestibule.
After fumbling the first night, we learned to have our wide-angle cameras set up with all the settings prior to going to dinner. Fortunately, we were treated to northern lights on four additional nights and were properly set up for them. The combination of the moon phase, solar flares and being in a remote place with zero light pollution resulted in EPIC northern lights.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: For northern lights, start with the following settings: f2.8 (or whatever your largest aperture is), ISO 1600, 15 seconds, manual focus to infinity, 2 second timer or remote release. I recommend bringing gaffer tape to “lock” your manual focus to infinity and cover the pre-flash/timer countdown light on the camera.
After commenting on the spectacular nature of the first night’s display, I quickly learned Mother Nature had more in store, blowing our minds on the subsequent nights. Seeing the northern lights above our camp, lighting up the sky above icebergs and cascading down to the horizon is jaw-dropping to behold.
Restrooms for the Baffin Island Polar Bear Safari
The thought of not showering or washing our hair for 8 days gave us pause before this trip.
Dry shampoo and wet wipes will be your best friends! The good news is you don’t really sweat in these conditions. And, you’ll have a hat and perhaps a balaclava on so no one will see the hot mess that your hair will become.
TOP TIP: I personally love the Sea to Summit Extra Large Wilderness wipes . In addition to being double the size of normal wipes, they are compostable since they are made from Viscose.
The polar bear expedition camp bathrooms are equipped with a raised toilet, table, hot water dispenser and bowl. So, you can easily wash your face and brush your teeth. And, a portable heater keeps it warm as well.
TOP TIP: I recommend bringing a small quick dry face towel to dry your face. I also use Bite toothpaste bits to minimize my environmental footprint as they are shipped via ground and come in a small glass jar (rather than plastic). Here are some other ideas with 41 of my favorite sustainable travel products.
While out on the ice photographing polar bears, the expedition team sets up a portable toilet inside a privacy tent.
Baffin Island Travel: How to Get to the Polar Bears in Nunavut, Canada
To travel to Baffin Island, the entry point is Ottawa, Canada. Meeting up with friends in Ottawa whom we met on our prior polar bear safari with Churchill Wild served as a fantastic bonus and unexpected highlight, allowing us to photograph our first ever owls! Seeing two long-eared owls and northern saw-whet owl is not a bad way to kick off Canada adventures.
TOP TIP: I recommend arriving at least one day early to explore Ottawa. For remote trips like this, we always arrive two days early to account for flight or luggage delays as your cold weather gear and tripods are critical.
From Ottawa, you fly three hours north to Iqaluit on Baffin Island.
TOP TIP: Request a window seat so you can marvel at the Arctic landscapes beckoning you. Unexpected fog snaking amongst the fjords surprised and mesmerized me.
FUN FACT: The brightly colored buildings in Iqaluit, a small Inuit community with a population of ~7000 people, are intended to boost happiness and diminish depression during the long, dark winters.
After overnighting in Iqaluit, you’ll fly two to three hours to Qikiqtarjuaq (often referred to as ‘Qik’), a small Inuit community with 700 residents on Baffin Island’s northeastern edge.
You might take a commercial flight on Canada North or a charter flight as we did.
On the charter flight, everyone has a window seat and can marvel at the jaw-dropping mountains, glaciers and fjords. If you are lucky, you might spy a polar bear plodding along the ice as we did!
Where to Stay in Ottawa
To maximize your Ottawa explorations, stay at the Westin downtown, which is ~30 minutes from the airport and across the street from Parliament.
TOP TIP: Stop by the Canada Goose store, try on an Expedition Parka, and step into their cold room, which simulates wind and cold in -28°C (-18°F). We rented the Expedition Parkas for our trip.
You’ll be ASTOUNDED by how warm the parka is. Canada Goose is located in the mall next to the Westin; the mall is conveniently connected via a bridge on the Westin’s third floor.
Since we had an early morning flight back to the United States after Baffin Island, we opted to stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites a few minutes from the airport. They offer a free shuttle that runs every 30 minutes.
TOP TIP: Ottawa airport security can take a long time as they pull most bags for additional inspections, especially those with cameras and batteries. Therefore, make sure to arrive at least two hours in advance for both domestic and international flights.
Where to Eat in Ottawa
Stop by The Grand Pizzeria for flavorful wood fired pizza and boneless chicken wings with their famous spicy sauce. While the sauce has some kick, it won’t blow your head off your neck.
After dinner, stroll across the street to BeaverTails and satiate your sweet tooth.
TOP TIP: Order the Triple Trip pastry at BeaverTails. You’ll thank me later! This delectable dessert has chocolate hazelnut spread, peanut butter and Reese’s Pieces. It’s rich and large, so I recommend sharing.
If you are a pumpkin lover like I am, complement your pastry with a pumpkin hot chocolate. It’s divine!
If you are seeking the adventure of a lifetime, I highly encourage you to consider a polar bear safari with Arctic Kingdom. While it is a significant investment, it is worth every penny!
A huge thank you to our Arctic Kingdom expedition team for a truly unforgettable journey: Dave, Jaime, Caleb, Jay, Raymond, Jay, Marcus, Patrick, Jaime, Cyle, Johan, and Barry.
We laughed harder than we ever have on any trip thanks to our hilarious photo lead Andy Skillen and the wonderful group of people with whom we traveled: Emma, Russell, Barbie, Louis, Candy, George, and Suzy.
This post is dedicated to Andy MacPherson, a talented and one-of-a-kind “polar bear whisperer,” whom Jason and I had the privilege of learning from on our Churchill Wild polar bear safari in Fall 2019. He exuded his passion for polar bears and developed the protocols used for walking and interacting with them safely. His love for nature and sense of humor left an indelible mark. Sadly, he passed away shortly before our Baffin Island polar bear safari. Otherwise, he would have been one of our trip leaders. Rest in peace, Andy.
awesome blog!…dammit you are making this a really hard decision!!
Marielena Smith says
It’s a truly incredible, once in a lifetime experience. You will love it if you go! Polar bear cubs and their antics are absolutely heart melting. And, to have the chance to see northern lights displays with no light pollution above icbebergs is spectacular!
Molly Katz says
Wow! If I didn’t already want to go to Baffin, this blog has made me start packing my bags. This beautiful description and step by step guide of what to expect, the joys to experience the dreamy vistas, and the polar bear encounters that change your life! I appreciate all the “hot tips” and information about the guides, food, how to be prepared for the arctic climate and most importantly the respect for the wildlife. The photography is exceptional and captures the full experience. Thank you for this post! I keep reading it over and over again.
Marielena Smith says
Molly, I’m delighted this guide is so helpful! Since a lot of planning and preparation goes into a once in a lifetime trip like this, I wanted to create a resource that encapsulates the unforgettable encounters and includes all the information for someone embarking on this trip. You will be treated to breathtaking wildlife and landscape encounters that will touch your soul. And, thank you so much for your kind compliments about my photograph; Baffin Island provides an extraordinary backdrop for capturing contextual wildlife imagery.