Polar bears are arctic animals that live in the northernmost parts of the world. They spend winter on the sea ice and eat a diet of seals, whales, walrus, and other water-based animals that can swim. But what about polar bears, can they swim?
Yes, polar bears can swim, this is vital for catching seals and other marine mammals that make up their diet. They are well adapted to swimming thanks to webbed paws and the ability to hold their breath underwater. Polar bears can swim long distances with the longest known record of 687km in one journey.
Keep reading to find out more statistics about how fast polar bears can swim, why they swim, and how climate change might impact their swimming.
How Do Polar Bears Swim?
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Polar bears are well adapted to swimming. They have slightly webbed paws compared to other bears which, along with their size, helps them swim more easily.
The outer layer of fur is made up of long hollow hairs, these provide extra buoyancy to help these huge creatures swim1 (source: Polar Bears, D.J. Tyler).
Although polar bears spend most of their time on land or sea ice, they swim for hunting or migratory purposes. They have evolved an excellent diving ability which helps them catch food more easily2 (source: BBC) and they can hold their breath underwater to sneak up on prey.
It’s a well-known polar bear fact that they have large paws like snowshoes on the snow. But these paws are also helpful in the water too. Polar bears swim by using their front paws to paddle, they keep their hind legs level to help control the direction of travel3 (source: WWF).
Typically, pregnant polar bears and those with young cubs will not attempt to swim due to the higher risk this entails. Polar bear cubs are not strong swimmers.
How Fast Can a Polar Bear Swim?
Polar bears can swim up to 6mph in water which is useful when hunting prey such as seals which have a similar swim speed4 (source: WWF).
However, similar to hunting on land, the polar bear will rely on stealth to capture its prey, even when in the water. They will hold their breath and approach their prey from underneath, giving it little chance to escape.
How Far Can a Polar Bear Swim?
Polar bears can swim for long distances, typically around 150km, although they have been recorded traveling up to 687km in a single swim.
This is according to a recent study that tracked adult female polar bears over 6 years. They tracked 52 bears, of which 20 completed long-distance swims with an average distance of 154km.
The longest swim by a polar bear lasted over 9 days and totaled 687km in distance. This swim took a toll on the bear as she lost 22% of her body mass and her cubs died during the journey5 (source: Canadian Journal of Zoology, A.M. Pagano, et al., Vol 90, No. 5, 2012).
How Do Polar Bears Survive in Ice Cold Water?
Although polar bears can swim well and over long distances, they only do this because they have to in order to survive.
Swimming in icy water takes its toll on the polar bear. They use lots of energy because they are not efficient swimmers6 (source: Canadian Journal of Zoology, A.M. Pagano, et al., Vol 90, No. 5, 2012) and their fur loses its insulative properties when wet so they risk freezing.
If walking seems like a viable alternative, they will choose this instead, often taking longer routes than necessary to avoid excessive swimming7 (source: Arctic Animals and Their Adaptations to Life on the Edge, A. S. Blix, 2005).
In the study mentioned earlier, the majority of long-distance sims by polar bears occurred during August and September, this is when the sea ice would be at its lowest and indicates that the bears were swimming to reach stable land.
But, when it comes down to it, polar bears are able to survive the cold waters thanks to lots of excess fat which can be converted into energy to keep them warm.
Can Polar Bears Drown?
Yes, drowning in the sea is a high risk for polar bears, this might be due to fatigue or rough seas8 (source: Canadian Journal of Zoology, A.M. Pagano, et al., Vol 90, No. 5, 2012).
This has been witnessed by researchers who have recorded instances of seeing polar bear carcasses floating 54km offshore. They estimate that up to 27 polar bears drowned during one storm9 (source: Polar Biology, C. Monnett & J. S. Gleason, Vol 29, 2006).
With sea ice continuing to melt earlier in the Arctic each year and scientists predicting climate change will result in ice-free summers before the end of the century10 (source: The Guardian), it’s likely that polar bears will be required to swim longer distances more frequently11 (source: Ecography, N. W. Pilfold, Vol 40, 2017).
This could result in drowning becoming a greater cause of natural death among them, although it will vary between populations depending upon their habitat.
Can Polar Bears Breath Underwater?
No, polar bears cannot breathe underwater because they are land mammals and have not adapted their respiratory systems.
However, they are very good at holding their breath underwater, a tactic they use when hunting prey.
The longest known record for a polar bear holding its breath underwater is 3 minutes and 10 seconds. This was recorded in 2014 near the Svalbard Archipelago, a group of islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole12 (source: BBC).
The bear held its breath to sneak up on its prey, three bearded seals, from below the water surface.
Can Polar Bears Dive?
Yes, polar bears have a great ability to dive which they use when catching their prey. Polar bears mostly eat marine mammals such as seals and whales which they catch in the water. It is common for them to dive more than 5m, although the deepest recorded dive by a polar bear is 13.9m13 (source: Scientific Reports, K. Lone, Vol 8, 2018).
Can Polar Bears Climb Trees?
No, unlike some other bears, polar bears cannot climb trees. This is because there are no trees in the arctic tundra so they have not developed this skill.
However, even if there were trees, it is unlikely that adult polar bears would be able to climb trees because of their size. Polar bears are bigger than grizzly bears which are also unable to climb trees due to their size.