Arctic wildlife are a fascinating lot, thanks, in part, to how they’ve successfully adapted to one of the most challenging environments on earth. Traveling to Polar Regions in the Far North gives us a unique opportunity to see these hardy creatures in their natural environment.
The ways in which they’ve adapted are interesting. Lemmings, for example, spend much of their time burrowing in the snow, protected by a layer of fur that traps the air and insulates them from the extreme cold. Muskoxen huddle together in herds, their hair hanging almost to the ground and creating a sort of tent, trapping body heat in a pocket of warm air underneath. The most iconic resident of the North, the polar bear has an insulating layer of fat beneath oily fur that prevents water from clinging to it.
A polar expedition is an exciting way to connect with these interesting creatures of the Arctic, even if only via a telephoto lens. Here are 3 of the greatest places to see arctic wildlife.
1. Baffin Island: Home to Polar Bear, Caribou & More
Baffin Island, in the Canadian High Arctic, has continuously been inhabited by the Inuit people for thousands of years. The abundant wildlife on and around the island is one of the reasons why the Inuit people have been able to survive the challenging climate.
During polar expeditions here in summer, lemmings and arctic hare are often spotted enjoying the tundra’s blooming ground foliage. Both animals are primary food sources for the wolf and the arctic fox, the latter being a scavenger who likes to tag along at a safe distance behind a polar bear, so it can scoop up leftovers.
If you’re going to see a polar bear, it’ll likely be in coastal areas, where their main source of food lives: polar bears enjoy dining on seal. Magnificent carnivores, polar bears mate annually, with the females giving birth to 1 to 3 cubs, who will remain with her for 2 to 3 years. While you’re spotting wildlife from your ship’s deck or the seat of your Zodiac, remember that these iconic Arctic residents are solitary creatures and are often seen on pack ice or along isolated shorelines.
On the tundra are small herds of barren ground caribou, though at last count there were only 5,000 remaining, marking a decline of 95 percent since the early 1990s.
In the waters around Baffin Island, ringed seals are the primary inhabitants, but harp seals and walrus are often spotted on rock beaches during the arctic summer. Whales frequent the waters around the island as well: belugas migrate along the coast, and both narwhals and bowhead whales are also attracted to the area.
Geese, gulls, and water birds, such as loons, mallards and many other duck species, breed on Baffin Island, a major nesting ground for migrating birds. The best-traveled visitor is the arctic tern, which migrates from Antarctica every spring!
2. East Greenland: Where You Can Spot Reindeer, Muskoxen & Whales
The reindeer is the only native deer in Greenland, and herds of this shy beast can be found in small pockets along the coastline. If you’re hoping for a picture, you’d better approach from downwind – reindeer are skittish, and just a whiff of you will send them running. With the right photographic gear, you may score a prize-winning wildlife shot, similar to the photo caught by Dr. Don Gutoski while on expedition last year.
You may also see muskoxen, caribou and lemmings, plus the arctic hare, fox or wolf. Polar bears are common in East Greenland, and there’s a chance you may spot one if you keep your eyes open, especially during the summer, when they go ashore to consume vegetation.
The ptarmigan is a common Greenlandic bird, but don’t count on viewing one – it is camouflaged for the season and wary of threats like the white-tailed eagle and Greenland falcon. Other species you may observe include buntings, puffins, auks, guillemots, ravens and owls.
In the water, several different breeds of seals, walrus and whales abound. Humpback and killer whales are the most common residents, but minke, beluga, sperm and fin whales are known to frequent the waters, too.
3. Iceland: Land of the Arctic Fox, Mink & Whales
Its relative isolation means that Iceland doesn’t have the variety of animal species many other countries have, but there are more now than there once were. When the Vikings arrived in the ninth century, the only native land mammal was the arctic fox. Today, the fox remains, sharing the island with mink and reindeer, which arrived with settlers but became wild after escaping the confines of local farms.
Many bird species inhabit the island, and there’s no better place to see them en masse that at one of Iceland’s several spectacular arctic bird cliffs; in fact, the world’s largest bird cliff is Látrabjarg, in Iceland’s Westfjords region. These communities of breeding birds, which number in the hundreds of thousands, include numerous species, such as gulls, skuas and kittiwakes.
Humpback and minke whales are common in the waters around Iceland, and occasionally you may see a porpoise or dolphin, as well as blue whales and orcas.
For a more comprehensive look at which polar wildlife you might encounter across the Arctic’s diverse regions, download our new brochure!
Ready to meet the locals? Check out our Arctic Itineraries, with departures as early as this summer:
- Introduction to Spitsbergen: Polar Bear Safari
- Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic
- East Greenland: Northern Lights
- Iceland, Greenland and Baffin Island: Arctic Circle Traverse
- Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge: Adventure and Wildlife at 74°N