Ellesmere Island Wildlife & Travel Tips

April 7, 2022

Where is Ellesmere Island?

Ellesmere Island is located in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, in the Canadian High Arctic. It’s off the northwest coast of Greenland at 79°50′N 78°00′W. To appreciate its extreme remoteness and distance from the densely populated regions of North America, Ellesmere Island is 4,450 kilometers north of New York, and 4,131 kilometers from Toronto—which is in the very same country of Canada. Nunavut is Canada’s youngest and northernmost territory, as well as the largest, comprising a major portion of Northern Canada and most of the Arctic Archipelago.

Because of its remoteness and terrain, Ellesmere Island is best accessed by polar expedition vessel.

Because of its remoteness and terrain, Ellesmere Island is best accessed by polar expedition vessel. Photo:  Sam Edmonds

Why should you visit Ellesmere Island?

Just seeing the extensive glaciers, wildlife, and other ice formations are among the reasons why you should visit Ellesmere Island. Ice-covered highlights include Manson Icefield (6,200 square kilometers), Sydkap Glacier (3,700 square kilometers), Prince of Wales Icefield (20,700 square kilometers), and Agassiz Ice Cap (21,500 square kilometers).

Ellesmere Island has no large towns or cities, so why should you visit Ellesmere Island if there are no urban centers with lots of infrastructures? Therein lies your answer—to experience firsthand the small remote Northern settlements which reflect how the people of Nunavut live. The majority of people living in Nunavut are, of course, Inuit. These smaller settlements, sometimes inhabited by researchers and government workers as well as the Inuit, include Eureka, Grise Fiord (Aujuittuq), and Alert, which has at various times functioned as a remote weather station and also as a military outpost.

The small settlement you hear about most often is Grise Fjord, which is included on the itinerary of Quark Expeditions’ Northwest Passage: Epic High Arctic voyage. This Inuit hamlet is located on the south end of Ellesmere Island and, despite the fact that its population numbers fewer than 130 people, is still the most populated community on Ellesmere Island.

Quark Expeditions guests on a glacier landing during a voyage to Ellesmere Island.

Quark Expeditions guests on a glacier landing during a voyage to Ellesmere Island. Photo: Sam Edmonds

Another reason why you should visit Ellesmere Island is the history of the region. It was once the domain of the Thule people who lived there for about 5,000 years. They were the ancestors of the Inuit. Artifacts of the Thule culture have been found in various parts of Ellesmere Island.

The chance to see the ancient mummified forests—only discovered in 2010—is another reason why you should visit Ellesmere Island. Located in Quttinirpaaq National Park, the mummified forests are thought to be preserved trees that lived millions of years ago. You have the chance to witness this natural wonder on Quark Expeditions’ Canada’s Remote Arctic: Northwest Passage to Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands voyage.

The chance to see muskoxen and caribou roam the tundra in the land of the Midnight Sun is another reason you should visit Ellesmere Island, particularly Quttinirpaaq National Park, one-third of which is covered in glaciers. Ellesmere Island is also known for its seemingly endless fjords, which are plentiful in Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island. The 30-mile long Tanquary Fiord, found on the north coast of Ellesmere Island, is one of the better-known fjords on Ellesmere Island.

Depending on the polar operator you choose for your adventure, you can experience all kinds of exciting and immersive off-ship adventures, such as the helicopter-supported excursions available on Quark Expeditions’ newest ship, Ultramarine. Guests who join itineraries such as Northwest Passage: Epic High Arctic can enjoy flightseeing over the incredible Arctic terrain, enjoying a perspective of the Canadian High Arctic hardly anyone else gets to experience. 

Ellesmere Island Fun Facts

Did you know: 

• Ellesmere Island is a polar desert. Much of the island only receives 70 mm of precipitation annually, which results in sparse vegetation.
 
• The diverse flora of Ellesmere Island includes 151 moss species
 
• Researchers have confirmed thirteen species of spiders on Ellesmere Island. 

• Despite the extreme cold throughout much of the year on Ellesmere Island, climatologists have confirmed what they call “a peculiar thermal oasis” at Lake Hazen that results in surprisingly warm summer days. Some researchers argue that Lake Hazen is the most northern lake in Canada but others have insisted there are lakes north of Lake Hazen though they are much smaller.
 
You can read more about how to plan a Ellesmere Island tour here. 

Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian High Arctic, is considered a polar desert because of its limited precipitation.

Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian High Arctic, is considered a polar desert because of its limited precipitation. Photo: Sam Edmonds

Discover Ellesmere Island Wildlife

Wildlife sightings vary depending on where you are on Ellesmere Island and the season you’re traveling. Wildlife species include polar bears, Arctic hare, muskox, caribou murres, wolves, seals, walrus, Arctic hare, jaegers (Arctic skua), and Arctic terns. You won’t see as many walruses, for instance, as you would in Arctic regions like Spitsbergen or Greenland.

    Arctic hares thrive in the challenging environment of Ellesmere Island.

                          Arctic hares thrive in the challenging environment of Ellesmere Island. Photo: Courtesy Quark Expeditions

Ellesmere Island wildlife species include the sturdy and resilient Arctic wolf.

Ellesmere Island wildlife species include the sturdy and resilient Arctic wolf. Photo: Quark Expeditions

In Quttinirpaaq National Park, there is reportedly a small population of Peary caribou, as well as ringed seals and bearded seals, which entice the polar bears. Sightings of walruses and elusive narwhal have been made here though the coastal ice can make it challenging for some marine life. In the summer months, ornithologists and amateur bird-watchers will quite likely see plovers, red knots, gyrfalcons, and long-tailed jaegers (skuas) in Quttinirpaaq National Park.
Apart from polar bears, the largest of the Ellesmere Island wildlife species is muskoxen. They can weigh between 180 kilograms and 410 kilograms (approximately 400 pounds to 900 pounds). 
If you wish to learn more about Ellesmere Island wildlife, you’ll enjoy expedition guide Daven Hafey’s descriptive “An Unscripted Arctic Safari: Candid Encounters with Iconic Wildlife.”

 

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