The polar bear that was stranded on Karl-XII island in Svalbard

I spent a week in a ship around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard between 4 and 10 May 2018. This was a truly wonderful experience. We saw countless glaciers, thousands of birds, dozens of walruses, many seals and a handful of polar bears.  Those bears were almost all staying on the sea ice at the far end inside fjords. They were uninterested in us, and looked mostly like yellow dots against an icy background.

polar bear in front of a glacier in Raudfjorden
Sleeping polar bear in front of a glacier in Raudfjorden. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm – f/5.6 – 1/2500s – ISO 1250


We were just guests in their kingdom, and I felt already immensely privileged knowing that they are there, even so far away.

Only one bear was visible from a “photographic distance”. It looked like he was stranded on Karl-XII island, in the very north of Svalbard (Karl XII-øya in Norwegian). The sea ice had already retreated a few hundred kilometres further east and north.

Male polar bear stranded on Karl-XII Island
Male polar bear stranded on Karl-XII Island. Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm – f/4 – 1/4000s – ISO 200


Polar bears are good swimmers, but the distance to cover to find the ice was already too large even for the strongest bear (and this one was still young and definitely not the strongest).

So while waiting for the sea ice to come back in the following winter, this polar bear had to find his food on this tiny island. We could observe him wandering near the coast of the island before climbing on steep slopes towards where the birds were nesting.

Polar bear on Karl XII island in Svalbard
Polar bear on Karl-XII island – stitched vertical panorama of 1000mm shots.


Polar bear sniffing for food in Svalbard
The stranded polar bear sniffing up the hill for food. Canon 1DX MkII – 1000mm – f/8 – 1/4000s – ISO 800


So what happened to the sea ice?

You see, normally, at the time of year of our expedition (first half of May), Karl-XII island should be surrounded by sea ice. Below, I gathered all the sea ice charts from the Norwegian Ice Service on this day of 7 May since 2011 (click to enlarge):

When looking at all these images side by side, it becomes obvious that 2018 is an exceptionally bad year with respect to sea ice.

Data is available since 1998 on the website. There does not appear to be other years with as little sea ice as during our trip in May 2018. Of course 20 years of data is small from a statistical point of view. However, it would also be dishonest to refuse acknowledging that the situation is currently changing.

Is this polar bear stuck on the island because of climate change?

The short answer is: probably, yes. But let’s elaborate, shall we?

From a scientific and statistic point of view, it is impossible to link one single situation to a global trend such as climate change. Even National Geographic made this mistake in December 2017, by linking the footage of a starving polar bear without actually having proof of this. After much turmoil in the general news media, they issued a statement in June 2018 stating that it is impossible to know why the polar bear pictured was starving. An earlier version of the video went too far in suggesting that climate change was responsible”.

Polar bear on slope of Karl-XII island in Svalbard
Polar bear looking for a bird or egg to steal under the cliff of Karl-XII island in Svalbard. Canon 1DX MkII – 1000mm – f/8 – 1/4000s – ISO 800


I do not want to make the same mistake so obviously I don’t title this article “starving polar bear stuck on small island in Svalbard”. That would be a click bait and simply wrong.

Having said that, anyone can observe the trends without having to be a scientist. We also listen and trust our expedition leaders (Fredrik Granath, Jens Wikström) who have spent the past decade if not more in the area. With all this, we can speculate with a high level of confidence that this bear did get stuck there after being surprised by a premature retreat of the ice.

Following other expeditions on social media, reading articles by other guides, you will notice everywhere in summer an increasing number of bears stuck on land, instead of being further north in the pack ice.

Polar bear eating a kittiwake in Svalbard
Although not immediately evident on the photo, this bear was eating a kittiwake. Such a small bird is no meal for a polar bear! Canon 1DX MkII – 500mm – f/5.6 – 1/4000s – ISO 400


Polar bears eating birds and eggs is something that has been frequently documented. However, staying on a rocky island and having such a diet is certainly not the first choice of a polar bear. A polar bear needs to eat on average a seal every week. In order to catch those seals, the polar bear needs sea ice as a hunting platform. Obviously, birds and eggs don’t have the same nutritious value at all.

Stranded polar bear on Karl XII island in Svalbard
Polar bear looking at us from the steep slopes of Karl-XII island. Canon 1DX MkII – 1000mm – f/8 – 1/6400s – ISO 1600

What can we do?

All we can hope now is that this beautiful bear will manage to survive the many months of summer until the sea ice comes back. Hopefully he will still have enough energy by then to catch seals to go through another winter.

I feel overwhelmed with sadness ever time I look at this last picture above or think about this guy. This polar bear is watching us from his cliff and is imploring us to change our habits to help preserve his kingdom.

We can all do something to limit our impact on our planet.

Every little thing counts.

Start today if you haven’t already.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. 4TimesAYear

    Good grief. Polar bears often spend most of their time on land. It’s not stranded. It can swim. They frequently hunt walrus and seal from land. They are omnivores.

    1. Rayann Elzein

      The polar bear is a MARINE mammal (ursus MARITIMUS). How can you say that it spends most of its time on land? On what scientific sources do you base such an ill informed statement? The polar bear NEEDS ice to hunt and find its food. It can’t do that on land. Period.

  2. Erica Lane Harvey

    I too had missed your post initially, saw the sarcastic one. I feel your pain and try my best to educate my followers and my hometown social circle on the dire situation we all will soon find ourselves in. I saw a chart the other day, it showed 73% of US citizens believe in climate change, something like less that 5% believe it will effect them personally. I think for people to act they have to be personally effected, so if one never travels to see the world, they cannot see the signs for themselves. By the time climate change can be see affecting the lower 48 of the US and causing problems that can’t be ignored or written off as a fluke, I believe only then will people rise up and act, but by then it will most likely be too late :-(

    1. Rayann Elzein

      Thank you for your comment Erica. I totally agree with the fact that so long as people don’t experience one way or the other an event that is related to climate change, they don’t believe it either exists or can affect them. That’s what we (you, I, other people like us) have a responsibility to document those effects and hopefully convince our social circles that bad things are happening. I really hope that it won’t be too late when the majority really starts acting!

  3. Lorenzo Masci

    Such an interesting and important article! Great shots make me reflect about this issue, thanks a lot for your good work!! Keep it up!

    1. Rayann Elzein

      Thank you so much for your kind words Lorenzo! The situation is alarming, but I really want to believe that if more and more people know about it, we will all together manage to change it for the best!

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