Marine Mammal Viewing
Alaska’s marine mammals range from ocean-dwelling creatures, like whales, to those dependent on the oceans for food, like polar bears. To learn more about these animals and where to see them, click on the links below. Be sure to check back as we continue to build the website and add more animals to the list.
To reduce the potential for harm to marine mammals, familiarize yourself with the guidelines and regulations concerning marine mammal viewing.
- Beluga Whales
- Harbor Seals
- Humpback Whales
- Killer Whales
- Polar Bears
- Porpoises and Dolphins
- Sea Otters
A powerful and patient predator on land, sea, and ice, the polar bear is the world’s largest carnivore and a unique symbol of the Arctic. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Ursus maritimus, or the sea bear, evolved from its brown bear (Ursus arctos) ancestors to occupy an ecological niche in the frozen far north. Its white coat, made of water repellant hair on top of a dense undercoat, serves as camouflage and acts to reflect sunlight to the bears black skin. Its large paddle-like feet, with their fur covered pads, are well suited for swimming and for dispersing the weight of the bear when hunting on ice for ringed seal and other prey.
Nineteen polar bear sub-populations can be found throughout the Arctic. While the status of some sub-populations of polar bears is well documented, that of several others is unknown; the world-wide population estimate of the total number of polar bears is thought to range between 20,000 and 25,000 bears. Two polar bear sub-populations exist within the United States including the Southern Beaufort Sea sub-population (900 bears, Bromaghin et al. 2015) and the Chukchi/Bering Sea sub-population (population estimate unavailable). The IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group currently lists the Southern Beaufort Sea sub-population as declining; the trend for the Chukchi/Bering seas sub-population is unknown (see http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/status/status-table.html). Climate change, contamination of the Arctic environment, potential over-harvest, and increasing human development in polar bear habitat pose conservation challenges for polar bears. The polar bear is listed as threatened throughout its range under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to projected losses of sea ice in the next 50 years.
Two communities in Alaska offer limited opportunities for polar bear viewing: Kaktovik and Barrow.
Though polar bears spend most of their life out on the sea ice, many aggregate along the coast near Barter Island, where the village of Kaktovik is located, during the ice-free period between August and October. The bears are generally resting but also come near the village at night to feed on hunter-harvested bowhead whale remains. Most people who come to view bears do so in September.
Barter Island is within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) and a small polar bear viewing industry has grown up there. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which manages the Refuge, and the local community of Kaktovik are taking steps to ensure that such activities are not disruptive to the bears so that opportunities can continue for the public to enjoy, observe, and photograph these bears in the wild. Whether viewing polar bears independently or with a guide, it is each individual’s responsibility to ensure that their activities around polar bears are safe and lawful.
Kaktovik is a small Inupiat village with a very limited number of hotel rooms, vehicle rentals, and few other visitor amenities. Arctic Refuge offers some information about the area and polar bear viewing. The Refuge regulates commercial uses on its lands and waters, including guided polar bear viewing on Refuge lands and waters immediately surrounding Kaktovik. Guides permitted to conduct polar bear viewing on the Refuge have shown proof that they meet all applicable federal and state regulations. Guides operating on non-Refuge lands may have additional requirements set by municipal governments. If you are hiring a guide, make sure your guide is operating legally and has a safety plan you can review.
Arctic Refuge website includes polar bear viewing guidelines (PDF 2,381 kB) outlining legal requirements and stewardship obligations while viewing polar bears. Polar bears and human - safety guidelines (PDF 160 kB) are designed to help visitors minimize polar bear-human interactions and maximize the safety of both humans and bears.
Farther west on the northernmost tip of Alaska, the village of Barrow also offers the possibility of viewing polar bears, though your chances of seeing a bear are not assured. Check with local hotels for information about guided tours.
The North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management has posted information on polar bear safety, research, and subsistence hunting on the North Slope Borough website.
If you are visiting Barrow and plan on leaving the city to view wildlife, whether polar bears, caribou, or birds, be advised that most of the surrounding lands are owned by the local Alaska Native Corporation, Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corporation. Check with UIC before you leave to see if you will need to obtain a land use permit. Contact: UIC Land chief Delbert Rexford at (907)852-7462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Polar bears are hunted for subsistence in Kaktovik, Barrow, and throughout coastal Alaska by local Native hunters. Harvest levels are managed through international agreements with cooperation by the local communities, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, and the USFWS. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the ESA provide for the legal harvest of this as well as other marine mammal species by Alaska Natives. Please be respectful and do not disturb any subsistence hunters encountered during your viewing activities.