Grizzly bear mother and cub.
Alaska grizzly mother and cub.
Steve Morello, Natural Habitat Adventures
Understanding Bears, Bear Watching Vacations and Tour Operators.
Understanding Bears, Bear Watching Vacations and Tour Operators by Alison Gardner
Understanding Bears, Bear Watching Vacations and Tour Operators.

Click here to go straight to descriptions of bear watching tour operators.

In the real world, the bear's lifestyle and future are often far less comfortable and predictable. A number of ecotourism operators have laid a solid foundation over the past decade for controlled, respectful access to remote regions where bear watching is at its most exciting and natural. Such itineraries have allowed humans to safely share space with these magnificent creatures and learn more about their behavior as well as their struggle to hold ground into the 21st Century.

Through this page and two associated bear watching articles of this triple feature, you are invited to catch the front line excitement of these vacations, most of which have the added bonus of inviting the participant into wilderness backdrops not easily experienced in any other way. Below you will find some interesting bear facts, and descriptive hotlinks to bear-focused tour operators who tread the trails and sail the coastline in an environmentally sensitive and educational manner.

Kermode or Spirit Bear.

In April 2001, the British Columbia government created a 600,000 hectare sanctuary for a rare snow white subspecies of black bear known as the Kermode or, in native tradition, the Spirit Bear. Its well recognized habitat on the remote islands of the province's central coast opposite the Queen Charlotte Islands is an area of temperate rainforest, known for its ancient cedar and spruce trees, some of which are 1,000 years old.

Though the Kermode subspecies is black, with population estimates ranging from 800 to 1,200 in number, about 400 of these creatures feature a genetic glitch that makes them an eye-catching white against the cool green of the coastal rainforest. This surely flies in the face of Nature's basic handbook on the benefits of camouflage, but scientists emphasize that they are not albino.

Kermode or Spirit bear on rock.
Kermode or Spirit Bear spotted
on a Duen eco-cruise.

Duen Sailing Adventures

Several nature-based vacations focus on this spectacular creature and its unique habitat, with small-scale eco-cruise and eco-lodge itineraries being among the few ways to venture into a largely inaccessible coastal region. However, do not expect the Kermode to lumber into view on cue - the fact that it remains a coveted privilege to capture one on film only adds to its fascination and unique place in the bear watching vacation menu. For further information about the Kermode bear check the Internet.

The Grizzly and Friends

The grizzly bear is one of eight species of the bear family worldwide. Its range once included parts of Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, but most of the world's grizzly bears now occur in western North America and the U.S.S.R. Three of the bear species are found in North America: the grizzly or brown bear, the black bear and the polar bear.

Brown bears are the same species as grizzly bears. They are called brown bears when they live near the coast where the rich salmon diet tends to give their coats a more golden tone. There are about 40,000 brown/grizzly bears in Alaska, and less than 1,000 in the lower part of the U.S. that straddles the northern zone of the Rocky Mountain region.

In July 2001, a newly elected British Columbia government overturned an existing three year moratorium on grizzly hunting in the province, and replaced it with modified hunting policies which are causing lively debate. Current BC government estimates of grizzlies in the province run at about 10,000; a number of independent scientists place the figures at between 4,000 and 6,000 bears; and hunting outfitters quote the number at 16,000+.

Understanding Bears, Bear Watching Vacations and Tour Operators.
Grizzlies have a friendly face-off.
Jeff Foott, Natural Habitat Adventures

Regardless of the outcome of this debate, the best motivation for protection of both habitat and species is the measurable economic benefit of small-scale, low impact ecotourism that promotes both education and appreciation of bears in the wild.

Grizzly orphan cubs overlook Vancouver! Ideally, all grizzlies should have the opportunity to grow up in the wild under the watchful eye and life coaching of their mothers. Unfortunately, each year some cubs in British Columbia are orphaned [mostly due to vehicle impact on highways or illegal poaching] with human rescue becoming a matter of necessity for the cubs' survival. Even with the finest captive rearing, re-introduction into the wild has so far proved to be unsuccessful.

However, a new program in a designated refuge for endangered wildlife atop Vancouver's Grouse Mountain is improving the odds of these increasingly endangered creatures being able to return to their wilderness habitat as young adults. Vancouver visitors taking the chairlift to the top of Grouse Mountain's year-round recreation mecca should include time to learn about this admirable experiment and witness these young orphans in training for a life beyond the zoo -- sadly, the only previously practical option.

Tour Operators that Bear Watching

Natural Habitat Adventures,, is a Colorado-based nature travel company whose stated mission since its founding in 1985 has been to view animals in their natural environment. In NHA's diverse global travel menu of adventures, there are several educational grizzly bear tours in British Columbia and Alaska (June to September), many polar bear itineraries in Canada's sub-Arctic (October and November) and Spitsbergen, Norway, and a Kermode bear tour to Princess Royal Island.

Some trips are ship-based and others use comfortable wilderness lodges. About 60% of clients are over 50.
Tel: 1-800-543-8917; email:

Polar bear on Natural Habitat Adventures holiday.
Polar bear checks out alternative transport
near Churchill, Manitoba.

Steve Morello, Natural Habitat Adventures

Duen Sailing Adventures,, offers a number of bear watching vacations from the intriguing home-base of its heritage sailing vessel, Duen, a 72-foot gaff-rigged ketch. Over a decade and a half, Captain Mike Hobbis, and his wife, Manon, have lovingly restored this 1939 Norwegian sailing vessel which sleeps eight guests in four double cabins and sets a high standard for fine dining no matter how remote the wilderness backdrop.

Trips include the Queen Charlotte Islands, south coast of Alaska, and the Great Bear Rainforest, home of the Kermode bear. About 75% of Duen passengers are older adults. Tel: 1-888-922-8822, email:

Duen sailing ship near waterfall
Duen at home in British Columbia's coastal wilderness.  Chris Cheadle

ElderTreks,, features a 14-day "High Arctic Explorer" sailing adventure covering Canada's eastern Arctic and northwest Greenland. Among the wildlife to be enjoyed expect walrus, musk ox, and polar bears.

Another ElderTreks 7-day cruise covers "Alaska's Magestic Fjords" with five departures between May and August 2010. Bear and whale spotting are definitely on the itinerary. Offering more than 80 global destinations, ElderTreks clientele is 100% older travelers, over 50 years young. Tel: 1-800-741-7956, email:

Understanding Bears, Bear Watching Vacations and Tour Operators.
Bear watching in Alaska . ElderTreks

Tours of Exploration,, has operated enriching wildlife and bear study tours in the Canadian Arctic and British Columbia since 1990. From May to October along B.C.'s Pacific coast, grizzly, black and Kermode bears are the focus of several ship-based eco sailing itineraries in the Great Bear Rainforest and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Lodge-based tours are operated out of Knight Inlet.

Central Arctic tours from July to November focus on polar bears, natural history and indigenous culture. About 60% of clients are over 50, with a significant intergenerational family mix on some departures. Tel: 1-800-690-7887; email:

Understanding Bears, Bear Watching Vacations and Tour Operators.
Polar bear wears signs of spring thaw.
Tours of Exploration

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.

Click on photo to experience a grizzly bear tour on a floating wilderness lodge.

Click on photo to experience a polar bear tour around Canada's Arctic.

Grizzly bear wilderness lodge, bear watching vacations. Polar bear watching tours in Canada's Arctic.

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