Can a polar bear swim from Greenland to Iceland?

A polar bear showed up in a town in the area of North Iceland while we were traveling there last summer. Luckily, we were nowhere near, and the adolescent bear landed in a sparsely settled area. Though he did come dangerously close to humans: within 500 meters of an inhabited farm before being shot. Iceland has come under fire for their policy of shooting the bears immediately and as soon as as they make it on land. The bears can’t be shot while in the ocean or on an ice floe, but as soon as they make it out of the water, it doesn’t end well for them.

These bears are obviously hungry since they must have made a long sea voyage to get to Iceland, and will be looking for a meal which likely will come in the form of livestock, sheep, horses, or worse – humans. 

Polar bears don’t often make it to Iceland, and this situation doesn’t happen that often: the last time a polar bear has come was back in 2010, and before that 2008. Polar bears are not native to Iceland, nor have they ever really colonized the country. So where do these bears come from?  

Strong swimmers

These polar bears have been known to drift across on the ice from Greenland. These bears are not native to Iceland for a few reasons. 

These bears likely come from Greenland, the closest land mass and where there is a population of polar bears. The distance between Greenland and Iceland, and it’s narrowest point, is 300 km (187 miles).  While there is no confirmed account of a swim of that length between the two countries, it is conceivable that a bear can physically do it.  

The main attributes of the stealthy and strong polar bear are undoubtedly stamina and resistance.  They are the bears best adapted to water, and known for their long swims.  These bears can even swim 10 km per hour, and there are reports of a bear swimming 100 km (62 miles) in 11 hours.  Another confirmed record shows the longest recorded swim of a polar bear to be 320 kilometers. Streamlined for swimming in cold water, the bears are protected with a thick layer of fat which can be as thick as 11 cm (4.3 inches)! 

Icebergs float past iceland heading south, where they slowly melt.

Icebergs float past iceland heading south, where they slowly melt.

Drifting on the ice

However, most of the bears that end up in Iceland hitch a ride on an iceberg or ice floe that drifts south along the east coast of Greenland. Once the bear is on one of these south-bound icebergs, there is little sense of them staying on it, since the berg is floating south and will eventually melt.

Once the bear gets close to Iceland, they are definitely going to get off there.  The reason that polar bears haven’t colonized Iceland is because the icebergs that bears are on are slowly flowing south. Iceland also doesn’t offer bears any of their natural food source: seals.  Polar bears have a very specialized way of hunting seals, through the ice or on the ice edge. These bears are very dependent on ice for survival.   

Read more about polar bears in Iceland:  on and The Weather Network. 

Polar bears are endangered.

Polar bears are endangered. Their life centers around hunting on the ice.

Love wildlife? Check out our other articles and videos including a brave snowshoe hare and a wildlife time lapse, plus an amazing encounter with a brown bear in Alaska. 

If you live in Canada – or are planning to visit this year, did you know that our national parks are offering free access in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday? Find out more here. 

Read more about Iceland here.




Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts