NatureWildlifeAre There Polar Bears in Iceland?
are there polar bears in iceland and are there icelandic polar bears?
Go Car Rental Iceland travel writer Aron Freyr
By Aron FreyrDec 13, 2023 • 11 min read

Are There Polar Bears in Iceland?

A majestic creature of the North, the polar bear is often associated with the icy landscapes of the Arctic Circle, not the volcanic terrain of Iceland. Yet, these marine mammals have been making sporadic appearances on Icelandic shores, sparking a flurry of interest and concern. But why “are there polar bears in Iceland”, native to the Arctic, being sighted in Iceland? Let’s delve into this intriguing mystery.

Key Takeaways

  • Polar bears are not native to Iceland, but have been sporadically sighted due to climate change and drifting ice.
  • International cooperation is essential for the conservation of polar bears, with sustainable tourism practices playing an important role in their preservation.
  • Iceland also has a diverse range of wildlife including puffins, gyrfalcons, Arctic foxes and whales, Some species populations have decreased significantly due to environmental impacts.

The Polar Bear Situation in Iceland

Polar bear mother and cubs in the snow

For comprehending the presence of polar bears in Iceland, we must first establish that these creatures are not native to this country. In fact, the island’s environment isn’t suitable for these maritime mammals. The absence of year-round Arctic sea ice and the limited diversity of prey in Iceland’s marine ecosystem make it inhospitable for polar bears.

Yet, sightings of polar bears in Iceland do occur, but only under certain environmental circumstances. Occasionally, a couple of these majestic beasts might be spotted in the country, but such occurrences are rare. There is no permanent population of polar bears in Iceland, and these sightings often raise questions about climate change and its impact on the natural habitats of these Arctic dwellers.

Given the unsuitability of the environment, one might wonder why polar bears are sighted in Iceland. The answer lies in a combination of factors, predominantly related to climate change and drifting ice. These forces sometimes compel polar bears to travel vast distances, occasionally leading them to Iceland. However, the sporadic nature of these visits and the hardships faced by polar bears in Iceland make it unlikely for a permanent population to thrive here.

Climate Change and Polar Bears

The rising numbers of polar bear sightings in Iceland can largely be attributed to climate change. The only bear species found in the Arctic, polar bears are directly affected by climate change, which has led to the melting of polar ice caps and a significant reduction in their natural habitat.

With escalating temperatures and shrinking sea ice, polar bears are encountering increased challenges. Their primary prey, seals, become more difficult to hunt, leading to longer fasting periods for the bears. Consequently, polar bears are forced to seek alternative food sources, sometimes resorting to scavenging for waste or searching for food on land. This quest for sustenance is why we occasionally find polar bears venturing as far as Iceland.

Historical Sightings of Polar Bears in Iceland

Centuries have passed since the first recorded sightings of polar bears in Iceland. These sightings can be traced back to the early colonization of Iceland, with the frequency fluctuating over the years. Approximately 700 sightings have been recorded since the country was settled in the 9th century, including sightings of both male and female polar bears.

The earliest recorded sighting of a polar bear in Iceland dates back to 890, just 16 years after the arrival of the first settlers. Given that polar bears are marine mammals, they can occasionally reach Iceland from Greenland, especially when polar bears arrive from their natural habitats. The increase in sightings in recent years, however, can be attributed to the effects of climate change on the polar ice caps in the northern hemisphere.

Polar Bear Migration to Iceland

The intriguing question is, how do polar bears, non-native to Iceland, end up there? The answer lies in their migration patterns, which are influenced by environmental factors. Polar bears reach Iceland as a result of melting ice and shifting patterns, causing them to drift on ice or swim in search of new territories and food.

Bears can find their way to Iceland from Greenland on icebergs or by swimming long distances. This polar bears travel journey is a rare occurrence. It’s worth noting that polar bears are adept swimmers and can traverse distances of up to 100 kilometers in approximately 11 hours. They can even swim continuously for a week without pausing to reach destinations such as Iceland. However, it is challenging to estimate how many polar bears reach Iceland, as sightings are rare and sporadic.

Drifting Ice and Icebergs

One way polar bears reach Iceland is by drifting on ice floes or icebergs. The phenomenon of ice floe drift in the Arctic is affected by various factors, including wind, ocean currents, and temperature gradients. Fluctuations in weather patterns due to climate change can impact ice drift by modifying wind patterns and ocean currents, and by inducing melting and fragmentation of the ice.

The movement of ice floes and icebergs is notably affected by climate change. Rising temperatures result in the melting of sea ice and diminish its capacity to reflect sunlight, thereby causing additional warming. The accelerated melting of glaciers in regions such as Greenland also plays a role in the movement of ice masses due to the warming climate. As a result, polar bears find themselves on ice floes drifting towards Iceland, particularly during the spring months.

Swimming Abilities of Polar Bears

Polar Bear Swimming

Polar bears are not just skilled at drifting on ice; they are also excellent swimmers. Two polar bears, for instance, have sizable, webbed paws that function as efficient paddles for propelling through water. Their hollow fur contributes to buoyancy, enabling them to float and navigate cold waters adeptly.

These bears exhibit remarkable endurance when it comes to swimming. They are capable of swimming continuously for an extended period, covering great distances. There is a documented record of a polar bear swimming for nine days straight, spanning a distance of 426 miles (687 kilometers). Their typical swimming velocity is around 6.2 mph (10 kph).

Encountering Polar Bears in Iceland

While it’s rare to encounter a polar bear in Iceland, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Despite the slim chances, awareness of safety measures for potential encounters is vital.

If you come across a polar bear, follow these guidelines:

  1. Remain composed and assess the situation.
  2. Appear larger by raising your arms or holding objects above your head.
  3. Refrain from approaching the bear.
  4. If feasible, gather in a group.
  5. Avoid sudden movements.
  6. Avoid making eye contact.

These practices can help ensure your safety when encountering a polar bear, including a female polar bear.

Staying Safe Around Polar Bears

If you happen to encounter a polar bear, the first order of business is to remain calm. Making yourself appear larger, avoiding approaching the bear, and grouping together if possible are recommended behaviors. If you can’t leave the area immediately, it’s suggested to protect your head, neck, and core, and use any available objects to hit the bear in the face, aiming for the nose or eyes.

Tourists can also take certain precautions to prevent encounters with polar bears. Here are some measures to consider:

  • Refrain from camping in regions with active glaciers, pack ice, or documented polar bear activity.
  • Stay in designated campgrounds or in proximity to farms, as these areas are considered safer.
  • If a polar bear is sighted, maintain a safe distance and promptly vacate the area.

Reporting Polar Bear Sightings

Speedy reporting of any polar bear sightings in Iceland to local authorities is of utmost importance. This helps safeguard the well-being of both humans and the animal. You can contact the local authorities, such as the police or the coast guard, to report the sighting.

When reporting a polar bear sighting, try to include specific details like:

  • The location
  • The date and time
  • A description of the bear’s behavior
  • Any accompanying photos or videos

While waiting for authorities to arrive, prioritize safety. If possible, leave the area or take an alternative route. If leaving is not feasible, wait for the bear to move away and ensure it has an escape route. It’s important not to run and to remain composed. Stay informed about local news for any developments regarding polar bear sightings.

Polar Bear Conservation Efforts

International cooperation for polar bear conservation

The increasing frequency of polar bear sightings in Iceland draws attention to the broader issue of conserving these creatures. Protecting polar bear habitats and populations requires comprehensive efforts, ranging from international cooperation to responsible tourism practices.

Addressing climate change is a key aspect of these conservation efforts. The loss of Arctic sea ice due to rising global temperatures poses a significant threat to polar bears. Oil spills have profound impacts on polar bears. It can damage their fur’s insulating properties, expose them to toxic chemicals and potentially lead to poisoning..

The tourism industry also plays a crucial role in polar bear conservation. By promoting sustainable tourism practices and raising awareness about the importance of protecting polar bear habitats, the industry can contribute significantly to conservation efforts.

International Cooperation

Polar bear conservation is a global effort, requiring international cooperation. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears is a key international legal measure established to safeguard polar bears. Endorsed by the five nations with the most substantial polar bear populations, it prohibits unregulated sport hunting of polar bears as well as hunting from aircraft and large motorized vessels.

The Paris Agreement is another significant piece of international legislation. This treaty aims to combat climate change and has implications for polar bear habitats by aiming to limit global temperature rise and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Arctic Council, operating within the Arctic Circle, also plays a crucial role in polar bear conservation through the monitoring of populations and the implementation of standard assessment measures.

Role of Tourism Industry

The tourism industry in Iceland plays a significant role in polar bear conservation. By promoting sustainable tourism practices, educating tourists, and advocating for responsible tourism, the industry contributes to the preservation of polar bears.

Significant donations made by both passengers and operators to environmental and conservation organizations play a crucial role in funding the maintenance, protection, and monitoring of the polar bear habitat. Examples of responsible wildlife encounter programs include:

  • Responsible whale watching tours
  • Volunteer programs for land-based observations of whales and other marine animals
  • Tour operators that prioritize responsible tourism

These programs help ensure that wildlife encounters are conducted in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Other Wildlife in Iceland

Although polar bear visits are sparingly, a myriad of wildlife species call Iceland home, including the occasional sightings of Iceland polar bears. From puffins and gyrfalcons to Arctic foxes and whales, the country is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts.

Iceland boasts the world’s largest Atlantic puffin colony, with an estimated 8 to 10 million puffins. Representing over 60% of the global population, puffins are a significant part of the Icelandic ecosystem. However, they face threats from:

  • Climate change
  • Human hunting
  • Pollution
  • Competition for food

The Arctic fox is another notable species in Iceland. As the sole indigenous land mammal in the country, the Arctic fox population ranges between 8,000 to 10,000 individuals. They can be observed in their natural habitats, such as:

  • the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
  • rocky shores
  • coastlines
  • isolated peninsulas

Puffins in Iceland

Atlantic Puffins bird in Iceland

In Iceland, puffins are a common spectacle, particularly through the breeding season running from late April to August. They can be frequently observed at several locations, including:

  • The Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords
  • Akurey and Lundey
  • Westman Islands
  • Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve
  • Papey Island
  • Borgarfjörður Eystri

However, the impact of tourism on puffins is significant. The puffin population has decreased by 70% in the past thirty years. Factors contributing to this decline include increasing ocean temperatures, overfishing, and unfavorable responses from tourists upon finding puffins on menus.

Arctic Foxes in Iceland

Fox animals in north coast of Iceland

Arctic foxes, the sole mammal indigenous to Iceland, are frequently spotted in the country. These animals have adapted to the climate with a short muzzle, ears, and legs to conserve heat, along with relying on smell and sound to hunt prey during winter storms.

Arctic foxes play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the food chain by regulating the population of their prey, including seabirds and small mammals. They also contribute to seed dispersal and nutrient cycling in their habitats. However, they face threats such as tourism and potential disturbance to their habitats.


In conclusion, while polar bears are not native to Iceland, changes in climate and environmental conditions have led to increased sightings. These majestic creatures often arrive in Iceland due to drifting ice floes or swimming long distances from Greenland. However, the harsh environment and lack of suitable habitat make it difficult for a permanent polar bear population to establish in Iceland.

Despite the challenges, there are ongoing efforts to protect these magnificent creatures. From international cooperative agreements to responsible tourism practices, various initiatives are in place to conserve polar bears and their habitats. As individuals, we can contribute by staying informed, respecting wildlife, and supporting conservation efforts. After all, the future of polar bears is in our hands.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is there any polar bears in Iceland?

No, polar bears are not native to Iceland, although they do occasionally appear on its shores. Records indicate that just over 600 polar bears have been sighted in Iceland since human settlement.

When was the last polar bear seen in Iceland?

The last polar bear seen in Iceland was observed at Hvalsnes in 2016.

What predators live in Iceland?

Orcas are the main predators in Iceland, and they usually hunt in pods. They inhabit Snfellsnes in the west of the island, offering a great opportunity to spot these majestic “pandas of the sea”.

Does Iceland have snakes?

No, there are no snakes in Iceland - its climate is too cold for these cold-blooded creatures. Additionally, there are no mosquitoes or other poisonous bugs, and few dogs if you visit.

What should I do if I encounter a polar bear in Iceland?

If you encounter a polar bear, remain calm and do not approach it. Immediately report the sighting to local authorities.

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