Arctic Animals – Meet the Wildlife of the North

UPDATED JANUARY 2020

In the dramatic and imposing frozen frontier of the Arctic, wildlife happily thrives. Come and meet the Arctic animals: a group of hardy creatures who call the Far North home.

The sensory overload of an Arctic expedition begins even before you get anywhere near the region. The further north you travel, the more dramatic the landscapes become. By the time your plane has touched down at your destination, be it Greenland, Spitzbergen, northern Russia or Canada, you’ll probably be left wondering what kind of wildlife could possibly survive this far north.  Even at the height of summer, when flora blossoms and colours abound, the Arctic doesn’t fool around. This is a land of extremes, where cold and winds don’t come in half measures. So you know whatever wildlife lives here permanently, or visits temporarily, would have to comprise some incredibly unique and hardy creatures.

Arctic Animals - wild reindeer

Wild reindeer within the beautiful scenery of the Arctic. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic region comprises land masses from several countries, enabling wildlife to migrate in and out of the region at will without the need to fly or swim for thousands of kilometres. For this reason, the wildlife of the Arctic is both varied and extensive, and includes animals that live in the region permanently and those who migrate seasonally, to feed and birth their young.

For thousands of years, the wildlife of the Arctic has evolved to cope with the harsh conditions and now constitute one of the most unique and awe-inspiring group of animals on the planet. A very sophisticated web of food has created a complex ecosystem, one that attracts birds and large mammals en masse during the summer months. There’s an indescribable respect and awe one feels towards any creature that lives in the Arctic, making a wildlife-watching expedition here an absolutely magnificent experience.

Arctic Animals - Polar bear, Arctic Svalbard

A polar bear in the Arctic Svalbard. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Spitzbergen (Svalbard) is the renowned wildlife headquarters of the Arctic but that is not to say it is the only place where you’ll come face to face with wildlife. On the contrary, close (but not too close) encounters with polar bears, whales, walruses, narwhals, seals, caribou, wolves, muskox and an impressive number of migratory birds can be enjoyed all over the Arctic, although some destinations are better for spotting certain species.

Here are just some of the wildlife you’re likely to encounter when you visit the Arctic and where you’re more likely to see them.

 

Polar bear

The most famous, majestic, loved and feared Arctic animal of all, the polar bear boasts black skin to better absorb heat and transparent fur that sparkles white with the reflection of the sun. Like all ‘furry’ Arctic animals, the polar bear’s fur is made up of hollow strands of hair, which trap air and help insulation. The Arctic’s most beloved animal resident has become the unwitting poster child for climate change in recent years even though, given the intense interest the oil and gas industry has shown in the region, this is set to be only one of its many future threats.

Polar bear with 2 cubs in the snow

A polar bear with her 2 cubs in the Canadian Arctic. Photo: Shutterstock

This incredible snow beast is the largest land carnivore on our planet, an apex predator that is fearsome and awe-inspiring. Although it would prefer to only feast on bearded and ringed seals (because we all have favourites), it will also nibble on whale carcasses and birds if pickings are a little meagre. Head to the Arctic on a cruise at the beginning of the season (May/June) and you’ll have high chances of seeing hungry polar bears on ice floes. After surviving the winter on very little food, filling up in Spring is a major priority. So they head north on ice floes in search of seals, who themselves chase packed ice. As the season progresses, you’ll need to head further north still to see them. The most rewarding and popular destination is Svalbard (the northern Norwegian archipelago reputably home to more polar bears than humans) followed closely by the Canadian Arctic and the coastlines of Greenland.

 

Arctic fox

Living above the tree line all year long, the Arctic or polar fox is one of the most ingenious creatures this far north. It has the ability to change its fur’s colour in accordance with the season, boasting stark white fur when the landscape is pristine and, when the tundra turns to a light brown, its hair will follow suit. This truly amazing adaptation allows the clever canine to live in the Arctic all year long, making it the only fully-terrestrial animal which can survive at these latitudes.

Cheeky and seasonally monogamous, the male Arctic fox is known for being solitary in adulthood although females can be very social, creating ‘family dens’ that include females and plenty of cubs. Some of the dens in the Arctic have lasted through countless generations and have been running, non-stop, for hundreds of years. On average, the Arctic fox weighs in at 3-8kg and its compact size helps their exceptionally cunning scavenging skills. They can steal bird eggs and polish off what remains of a polar bear’s meal at the first chance they get. One of the most exceptional Arctic spectacles is that of fox hunting for lemmings (tiny Arctic rodents), which they do by detecting sounds underneath thick layers of snow. The fox will jump and dive head-first into the snow, usually coming up with a full mouth of food, making for an absolutely amazing vision.

 

Pacific Walrus

Although walruses may look like fierce predators given their enormous teeth, they’re actually among the gentlest of Arctic giants, unless they’re fighting for their seasonal harems, that is. Much like whales and seals, they boast a healthy layer of blubber which greatly helps them deal with the extremely cold. Walruses feed primarily off shellfish and can gobble up thousands of clams and mussels in a single meal. Those enormous teeth are their own in-built ice picks, the animal primarily using them to break ice and climb ice-shelves, as well as for defensive purposes should a polar bear or killer whale, the only real predators it has, choose to attack.

Walruses in the ocean

Pacific walruses. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Extensively spotted off the various Arctic coastlines, the walrus is an amazing sight to behold, particularly as they love to cruise the open seas in large groups and, when on land, allowing visitors a closer look and showing no aggression at all towards humans. Their gentile nature makes them immensely endearing – which is quite lovely, given they can weigh up to 1,5 tons!

 

Caribou / Reindeer

Caribou to North Americans and reindeer to Europeans, these wonderful migratory animals have been a source of food and clothing to the indigenous Arctic communities since time immemorial. Although they are the same species, North American caribou, unlike their European counterparts, have never been domesticated and they have evolved into much larger and wilder animals. Interestingly, both female and male caribou grow antlers and, although the male will shed his in the Autumn (around November), the female will carry hers through until Spring, when she’ll no longer need them to defend her offspring, and will finally shed them at the beginning of Summer. As deer populations have increased so have their run-ins with automobiles. It goes without saying that deer rarely survive a confrontation with a car, at least not for long. Human fatalities are less common but they do occur, along with injuries and, of course, damage to the vehicle. Researchers from both the transportation and wildlife management professions continue to evaluate technologies and techniques to reduce or eliminate this road hazard, including road design, wildlife crossing structures, highway fencing and lighting, reflectors and warning signs, get a deer whistle, driver education, road salt alternatives, mowing and vegetation protocols, and animal avoidance systems.

Yes, that is correct. Santa’s reindeers must be all females!

Arctic Animals - Caribou

A Caribou. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Arctic wolf

A subspecies of the grey wolf, the Arctic wolf roams in packs of half a dozen members and can be spotted in the northern regions of Greenland and Canada. One of the most distinctive evolutionary characteristics of the Arctic wolf is that it has much smaller ears and shorter nose and legs when compared to other wolf species. These, together with a second layering of fur which actually becomes waterproof with age, are all adaptation to the harsh conditions of the Arctic region. Moreover, this species of canine has evolved to feast and fast for longer periods than any other wolf, and their wider paws allows them to have a good grip on ice.

An Arctic wolf close up

Arctic wolf. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The natural habitat of the Arctic wolf is along the coastlines of Greenland, as well as the Arctic regions of Canada, although their numbers are greatest in the wilds of Alaska, simply because humans have never been able to settle there. Habitat loss is the single biggest threat to this awe-inspiring snow-doggo.

15/10 would not pet but would definitely admire in awe.

 

Whales

The frigid cold waters of the Arctic attract no-less than 17 species of whales, among them a host of endangered species like the beautiful Beluga, narwhals and bowheads, which are the only species that live here all year long. Any whale spotted by Arctic cruise guests is an absolute delight, although special celebrations are given to the spotting of the three primary Arctic species as well as the ever-amusing humpbacks, who love to entertain with their amazing agility skills. These are, by far, the most popular sea-clowns on Arctic expeditions.

A whale tail emerges out of Arctic waters

View of a whale tail in the waters of the Arctic. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Minke, orca and pilot whales are also often spotted in the Arctic during the northern Summer, all the sea-beasts congregating here, in great numbers in August, to feast and birth their young. Feeding off tiny krill in the nutrient-rich Arctic waters, whales can be spotted all over the Arctic region although some calm coves and inlets are particularly renowned as favoured whale hangouts. These include Disko Bay (West Greenland), the waters around Baffin Island (Canadian Arctic) and the Northwest Passage (also in Canada) a particularly rewarding cruising destination where 75% of the world’s narwhals live.

 

Musk Oxen

The Schwarzenegger of the Canadian Arctic tundra, the musk oxen is not an animal anyone would want to mess with. They can grow up to 2m in height and weigh an astonishing 280kg, their immense frame covered in thick, impenetrable wool. During mating season, the males emit a very distinct smell, which is where the animal gets its name. The herbivore feeds off moss and lichens and, in Spring time, on the wildflowers in which the tundra is drenched. Although the musk ox is usually underrated on all wildlife guides to the Arctic, a sighting of one is a jaw-dropping experience. These astonishing snow-cows are an absolute sight to behold and simply knowing they’ve been at home here for thousands of years, makes them a highlight, bar none. Also great is the fact that they love to feed on grass near water, which means many Arctic cruise passengers heading to Canada can keep their eyes peeled to the shore in the hope of spotting this mammoth grazer.

Arctic Animals - Musk Oxen

Musk Oxen. Photo: Shutterstock

Ermine

The cute-as-a-button ermine, with its big round eyes, button nose and fluffy white fur, is actually a ferocious hunter. This meat-eating beast kills its prey by crushing the base of its skull, so don’t let the cuteness fool you! This still-adorable Arctic weasel has endeared itself with many indigenous communities, since it has a knack for hunting and devouring unwanted pests with abandon. Unfortunately, being so small means the ermine falls prey to an abundance of much larger predators, including foxes, falcons and owls. They are quite good at hiding in their burrows though, which means you’d have to be pretty lucky to even spot one.

Arctic Animals - Ermine

Cute little Ermine in the snow. Photo credit: Pinterest

Seals

Arctic seals are perhaps the one endemic wildlife whose entire lifecycle is most inextricably linked to sea ice. Half a dozen species inhabit the waters and ice floes of the Arctic, namely the ringed, hooded, bearded, spotted, ribbon and harp, the last renowned for being particularly drop-dead-gorgeous, with their big black round eyes, button nose and blinding white fur making it the pin-up of the Arctic ice. Many of the Arctic seals spend almost their entire lives on ice, birthing, nursing and living on floating ice sheets. In winter, they will never steer too far, using the ice as the ultimate ‘protector’ against attacks from polar bears and whales, punching holes through the ice in order to get in and out of the water as need dictates. This is why it pays to cruise as far north as possible on arctic expedition, especially as Summer sets in. Arctic seals migrate north as ice recedes, and follow the pack ice in order to find protection. This, in turn, is what attracts polar bears.

Arctic Animals - Seals

A seal on the ice. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Birdlife

Over 200 different species of birds migrate to the Arctic to feed on blooming flora and fish during the Spring and Summer months, setting up mind-boggling colonies on the edge of high coastal cliffs. The most beloved Arctic bird is the puffin, probably because it is so darn cute and also quite distinctive. Other exceptional species to spot are guillemots, almost a million of which are found on Svalbard alone.

Puffins may get all the Arctic birdlife glory yet there are countless species which avid ornithologists will absolutely love to see in the wild. Among these are bald eagles, cormorants, Arctic terns, King eider (the largest ducks in the north) and the regal white-tailed eagle.

But OMG the puffin!

Puffins

Group of puffins on a rock. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Best Time to See Wildlife in the Arctic

Cruising the arctic at the beginning of spring (from May each year) grants rare glimpses of polar bears emerging from their dens, as well as migrating caribou in search of an optimal summer resting location.

At the height of the summer season (July) you’ll encounter the warmest temperatures of the year, whist August and September are best for whale-watching trips and also for the priceless chance to spot the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis.

Ready to come and meet the wildlife of the Arctic face to face? Then check out our extensive range of Arctic cruise itineraries and start planning your ultimate adventure in the northernmost, and most astonishing, region of the world. With a range of cruise duration, costs and array of destinations, the Arctic region is now more accessible than ever. Contact us for more info.

Author: Laura Pattara

“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”

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