A polar bear heads to the Arctic ice floe edge, in search of its next meal. Photo credit: Tina Fretwell
Reaching the North Pole is a travel achievement so epic, few will ever experience it in their lifetime. Actually setting foot on that point where all lines of latitude converge is definitely the pinnacle of a North Pole expedition, but there are great adventures to be had en route.
As you cruise (and later crush your way through thick, multi-year sea ice) from the Russian port town of Murmansk past Franz Josef Land towards the Pole, you’re in the best place on earth to catch a glimpse some of the fascinating Arctic animals that call this frigid region home.
Franz Josef Land in particular is a great place to spot wildlife in the Arctic. This archipelago of 191 islands is so remote and difficult to reach that it wasn’t even discovered until after the continent of Antarctica. Now an environmentally important nature reserve within the Russian Arctic National Park administration, this area offers rich birdlife and a natural habitat for Arctic animals.
There’s plenty to do en route to the North Pole, and you might even catch a glimpse of some of the Arctic region’s iconic animals: walrus, seals, whales, seabirds and polar bears.
1. Majestic, Iconic Polar Bears
You won’t want to see the Arctic’s most fearsome carnivore up close, but the spectacle of one lumbering across the sea ice is a sight you’ll never forget.
Nineteen distinct populations of polar bear roam the circumpolar region and if you’re lucky, you might just see one prowling the edge of an ice floe or gliding through cold, dark waters. The male of the species are, on average 600 to 1200 lbs, though the largest can tip the scales at as much as 1,540 lbs (700 kg). Females are about half the size and ranging from 400 to 700 lbs (181 to 318 kgs).
You’re safe on the deck of 50 Years of Victory, out of reach of even the most curious or tenacious of these massive predators. Standing on their hind legs, the largest polar bears are an intimidating 10 feet tall--this isn’t an animal you’d want to match wits with in the wild.
Your Expedition Leader and team are always on the lookout for wildlife. You might want to head out on deck, weather permitting, or up to the bridge and keep watch for polar bears if you pass by Cape Tegetthoff or through the Cambridge Strait on your North Pole expedition. Of course, no one can predict when one might decide to make an appearance, but these are popular hunting grounds for our massive, furry friends. Venturing south again through the Arctic Ocean on your return from the North Pole offers more opportunities to spot them.
A polar bear peers beneath the ice, hoping to catch a glimpse of a ringed seal caught unaware. Photo credit: Sam Crimmin
2. Ringed (and Occasionally Harp) Seals
They’re the most widespread marine mammal in the Arctic by far, which is really great news for their top predator, the polar bear. You’re most likely to spot ringed seals on your North Pole expedition, although harp seals have been seen on a few occasions in Franz Josef Land, as well.
You’ll recognize a ringed seal by its dark coat, with silver rings on the backs and sides. Its silver belly glistens in dark Arctic waters, and the ringed seal’s small head and short, cat-like snout give it an adorable and distinctive look. Claws on its fore flippers help the seal propel its plump body over the ice.
A ringed seal hauled out on the ice surveys the Arctic landscape for any sign of its nemesis and greatest threat: the polar bear. Photo credit: Nansen Weber
Ringed seals feed on a variety of small prey, including 72 species of fish and invertebrates. Weighing in at 110-150 lbs (50-70 kg) with an length of average 5 ft (1.5 m), it takes a good deal of small fish to satiate his appetite. Dining is an event almost Olympic in scale, as they dive to depths of 35 to 150 ft (11 to 46 m) and stay submerged for up to 45 minutes.
On your North Pole expedition, watch for ringed seal along the edges of sea ice, where they feed on Arctic cod.
3. Walrus, Sometimes in Colonies & Rookeries
A walrus spotted in the wild is an exciting find, even when he’s feeling lazy and doesn’t feel like performing for the camera. One of our onboard medical team, Dr. Sam Crimmin, captured a truly special moment when she caught sight of this female walrus and her calf hanging out on a chunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Walrus will calve only once every two to three years, making her find all that much more meaningful.
A female walrus keeps close watch over her calf, spotted here on a summer expedition in the Arctic. Photo credit: Sam Crimmin
Walrus typically feed on mussels, clams, fish and worms, but they’re not above attacking a seal. As for its predators, only two Arctic animals are equipped to tangle with a walrus, but even the killer whale and polar bear don’t often bother. Weighing in at 900 kg to 1400 kg (2000 to 3000 lbs) and up to 12 ft in length, the male walrus is a formidable opponent. His long, sharp tusks can be lethal weapons, if provoked. They have other practical applications, too; tusks come in handy when the walrus needs to jab breathing holes in the ice, or hoist itself out of the water.
As with all polar expeditions, we’re guided by sea, weather and ice conditions--that’s part of the excitement! But there are a number of places it may be possible to see walrus in Franz Josef Land. Walrus colonies at Cape Flora, Northbrook Island, and Cape Rubini on Hooker Island are an often noisy (and always smelly!) experience.
“Visiting the North Pole and Franz Joseph Land was an extraordinary experience made perfect by the amazing crew and staff, who work very hard to assure a quality experience on every level.” - Fran Ulmer, The Nature Conservancy
Keep an eye out for Atlantic walrus at Cape Tegetthoff and at Cape Forbe, Grant Land, where a Norwegian hut used for walrus hunting in the 1930s still stands. Tiny Apollonov Island offers us a ridge that can serve as a great vantage point for viewing a walrus rookery and even if we don’t make it to shore, Zodiac cruising is also a possibility here.
4. Minke, Humpback & Bowhead Whales
Cruising the open waters of the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea before you really get into the ice nearer the North Pole offers plenty of whale watching opportunities. Head to the Victory Bar or up to the bridge to keep an eye over the water. If a fluke or tell-tale spout of water is spotted, be sure to tell your Expedition Team, which will let other passengers know.
Guide and biologist Fabrice Genevois recommends that we watch for minke and humpback whales as we traverse the Barents Sea. This is also a region beautiful white beaked dolphin are known to frequent but, despite its name, its nose might actually be grey or black. You’ll have plenty of face-time with Expedition Team members to help you identify any Arctic animals you see, and to understand their behavior.
This satellite view of Franz Josef Land through the clouds was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Terra satellite on August 17, 2011. Photo credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
If you’re going to see bowhead whales, it’ll most likely be in Franz Josef Land, although Fabrice notes that they’re sometimes seen as far north as 86°N. The waters around Hooker Island are a good place to head out on deck, weather permitting, and watch for this 14 to 18 meter baleen whale.
Narwhals and belugas have been spotted in the waters around Rudolf Island, but only rarely. If you have your heart set on seeing beluga whales, Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge is where you want to be.
5. So Many Arctic Seabirds!
The variety and volume of seabirds you can see on a polar expedition is surprising to many. Often, seabirds glide along overhead as we traverse open water, catching a ride in our draft.
Seabirds are an important indicator of the overall health of Arctic ecosystems. In fact, a special team of researchers from Seabird Watch traveled with us in summer 2017 to deploy monitoring cameras in another area of the Arctic.
Seabirds swoop and dive against a murky Arctic sky at a bird cliff in Franz Josef Land. Photo credit: Николай Гернет
As he prepared for his expedition, Dr. Mark Jessopp from the MaREI Centre, University College Cork, explained in this post the important biological interaction between seabirds and the sea ice. Phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms) aggregate under the surface of the sea ice, particularly around its edges. This forms the basis of the Arctic food chain. Zooplankton graze on the phytoplankton, and small fish graze on the zooplankton. In turn, seabirds feed on the small fish and zooplankton. Dr. Jessopp and his Seabird Watch colleague, Dr. Tom Hart, aim to monitor how seabirds are reacting to climate change in order to influence policy that could help ensure not only the survival of our feathered seabird friends, but of the Arctic ecosystem as a whole.
Your journey to the North Pole is an excellent opportunity to learn more about seabirds in their natural environment. Weather permitting, you may visit a number of different areas of Franz Josef Land where seabirds gather to breed and nest. The massive bird cliffs at Cape Flora on Northbrook Island are a popular stop when it’s on the itinerary, and Cape Rubini on Hooker Island is considered by many to be home to the most impressive birds cliffs anywhere in Franz Josef Land.
An adult and juvenile kittiwake together on sea ice in Franz Josef Land. Photo credit: Peter Prokosch
The Bukta Tikaya sea cliff, a near-vertical basalt rock wall, houses a large seabird colony of mostly kittiwakes and dovekies. At Victoria Island, where the icecap is nearly 100 meters thick in places, ivory gulls breed in great numbers.
“One of the locations we may visit is Rubini Rock. Unlike many basalt areas where the pillars are vertical, this has become contorted and many of the layers are horizontal. This gives ideal nesting places for thousands and thousands of birds. This is one of the biggest bird colonies not only in Franz Josef Land, but in the world.” - Laurie Dexter, historian and Expedition Leader
The westernmost island in Franz Josef Land, this is also an ideal habitat for polar bear and walrus. Elsewhere in Franz Josef Land you might see fulmar, common eider, glaucous gull, kittiwake, arctic tern, Brünnich's guillemot, black guillemot, or little auk.
Ready… Set… Pack Your Camera!
We travel and explore at the whims of Mother Nature, just like those brave and heroic polar explorers who went before us. Wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, but one thing is for sure: you won’t see these fascinating Arctic animals at all if you’re not here!
Between expert talks and lectures, organized parties and events, sports, games, and kicking back to relax around the ship, there are plenty of options to keep you busy en route to the North Pole. Just don’t forget to grab your camera and head to the deck whenever you can. You’re an exclusive houseguest in a vast wilderness where human interactions are so rare, the wildlife have no reason to fear us.
Check out these helpful photography tips from Nansen Weber, Arctic Watch guide and polar wildlife photographer, to help you prepare for your trip.
Ready to plan your own North Pole expedition? Download your North Pole Destination Guide to get started.
About the Author
Paul has been helping Quark Expeditions passengers choose the polar expedition to best suit their needs since 2009. An adventure travel expert and avid traveler, he’s visited over 40 countries and explored the Antarctic Peninsula, Canadian High Arctic, Spitsbergen and the North Pole on expedition.More Content by Paul Schuster