Researchers tracked 52 sows in the southern Beaufort Sea off Alaska with GPS system collars; no boars were involved in the study due to males' necks being too thick for the GPS-equipped collars. Fifty long-distance swims were recorded; the longest at 354 kilometres (220 mi), with an average of 155 kilometres (96 mi). The length of these swims ranged from most of a day to ten days. Ten of the sows had a cub swim with them and after a year six cubs survived. The study did not determine if the others lost their cubs before, during, or some time after their long swims. Researchers do not know whether or not this is a new behavior; before polar ice shrinkage, they opined that there was probably neither the need nor opportunity to swim such long distances.
Its preferred habitat is the annual sea ice covering the waters over the continental shelf and the Arctic inter-island archipelagos. These areas, known as the "Arctic ring of life", have high biological productivity in comparison to the deep waters of the high Arctic. Polar bears are found primarily along the perimeter of the polar ice pack, rather than in the Polar Basin close to the North Pole where the density of seals is low.
Mature bears tend to eat only the calorie-rich skin and blubber of the seal, which are highly digestible, whereas younger bears consume the protein-rich red meat. Studies have also photographed polar bears scaling near-vertical cliffs, to eat birds' chicks and eggs. For subadult bears which are independent of their mother but have not yet gained enough experience and body size to successfully hunt seals, scavenging the carcasses from other bears' kills is an important source of nutrition. Subadults may also be forced to accept a half-eaten carcass if they kill a seal but cannot defend it from larger polar bears. After feeding, polar bears wash themselves with water or snow.