The polar bear is the largest land-going predator, and they live all throughout the Arctic region. They are not native to Iceland, but because polar bears travel very far distances to hunt seals, their main source of food, they sometimes end up in Iceland after hitching a ride on drift ice. But your chances of coming across one of these creatures is extremely slim. Their appearance is rare, and it is becoming increasingly rare because of the effects of climate change. The ice that might normally bring the polar bears across the North Atlantic warriors is quickly disappearing because of higher sea temperatures.
Archaeological remains of polar bears in Iceland date back to around 13,000 years ago. This means that the hvítabjörn (white bear) or ísbjörn (ice bear) has been visiting our little island for quite some time! The earliest mention of a polar bear in Iceland appears in Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements). Although not written down until the 12th-13th century, this important text documents the settlement of Iceland by the Norse.
According to The Book of Settlements, Ingimundur the Old – a chieftain from Norway who came to Iceland in the 9th century – decided to explore the newly discovered Iceland. Around the year 890, Ingimundur travelled north from his home in Vatnsdalur to Húnavatn Lake, which lies along the coast of Húnafjörður. At the lake, Ingimundur discovered a polar bear with two cubs. He managed to capture the cubs and brought them on his next journey to Norway, presenting them to King Harald Finehair as a gift.
This seems to have been a popular gift for kings. Another tale describes a man named Auðun from the Westfjords sailing to Greenland where he purchases a polar bear, and, after many difficulties, delivers the animal to King Sweyn of Denmark. But in this story, the bear never comes to Iceland. Apart from these stories, mentions of polar bears in the Icelandic sagas are few, suggesting that it was probably just as uncommon in the Middle Ages as it is today to come across a polar bear in Iceland.
Since the settlement period, there have been about 600 recorded polar bear sightings in Iceland. Most occur along the north coast, which makes sense, as the bears would drift south from the Arctic on an ice floe. The Westfjords have hosted several bears over the centuries, but a considerable number have appeared in the North and the North East. The area surrounding the Melrakkaslétta peninsula in the North East has attracted the most, with approximately 54 polar bears coming ashore in the Norður-Þingeyjarsýsla region.
Accurate numbers are difficult to surmise, as not all sightings were reported, and it is certainly possible that one of these white-haired rascals sneaked into Iceland and left without being seen. The number of polar bears spotted spiked in the late nineteenth century, with an average of 2-3 polar bears seen every year. In 1881, around 73 bears visited Iceland! Since 1951, a polar bear is seen on average once every other year. However, the last observation occurred at Hvalsnes in 2016.
The response to these visitors has also changed in recent times. No longer do Icelanders see polar bears as gifts fit for kings but rather as vagrants and dangerous nuisances. The problem is complex. Polar bears are an endangered species. However, the lack of food in Iceland makes it almost certain that they could not survive for very long. The lack of drift ice around the island also makes moving on rather difficult for the animals. So, what happens when an endangered animal becomes trapped without its preferred food source?
Two polar bears visited Iceland in 2008. Attempts were made to capture one bear by anaesthetising it, capturing it, and sending it to the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark. The mission failed and the bear had to be killed. After this incident, the Minister of Environment put together a task force to tackle how to respond to the next visit. The committee decided that the best solution was to kill the animals. Their decision was based on three important details. The safety of humans and livestock was most important. The second reason was that any rescue attempt would be incredibly costly. And lastly, the bears that happen to appear in Iceland typically come from East Greenland – a bigger polar bear population that, according to the committee, could afford to lose 1-2 bears every few years.
Since then, Iceland has had only three polar bears emerge on its shores. A dreadfully starved polar bear was shot and killed in Þistilfjörður in North East Iceland. Another was shot and killed by police the following year. The last polar bear discovered in Iceland in 2016 was shot and killed by expert hunters in Hvalsnes.
Plenty of people, both in Iceland and abroad, have criticised Iceland’s policy regarding polar bears, arguing that it is cruel and inhumane. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has yet to object to the “stock” argument, which refers to the population of polar bears in East Greenland. Some critics have pointed to Canadian regions like Churchill, which has far more polar bear visits than Iceland but uses tranquilisers rather than shooting to kill. One of the most outspoken critics of the violent policy has been former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr, who supports live capture. But because of the polar bear’s status as a “vagrant” – that is, an invasive species that is not native – they do not qualify for the same protections as other endangered species.
Almost every year, reports of possible polar bear sightings filter into the Icelandic news and on social media. But it has always been someone mistaking a sheep or seal (I know, how could you confuse these – but the weather can get bad and the snowy shadows make people jumpy!). Your chances of encountering a polar bear while in Iceland are almost non-existent. Without a visit in seven years, climate change may have altered the bears’ path from the Arctic to Iceland. And even if they do come on shore, it is in remote parts of the north of Iceland, far from tourist attractions and away from route 1. And with the current policy, the chances of a bear surviving long enough to encounter anyone except the police and expert hunters is minimal.