For those willing to brave chilly temperatures and occasional harsh weather, traveling to the Arctic offers many rewards: tundra dotted with tiny wildflowers, craggy peaks shrouded year-round in snow, spectacular fjords carved by ice — and some of the hardiest wildlife on the planet.
Polar bears are probably the first animals you think of when you imagine the Arctic, but there are numerous other creatures to discover here, from reindeer and walruses to seabirds that leap off cliffs before they’re even big enough to fly.
I spotted many of these animals on a recent cruise with Quark Expeditions to Svalbard, Norway. Other prime spots for observing Arctic wildlife include Greenland, Iceland, and the northernmost reaches of Canada and Russia.
Why They’re Cool: These nimble predators sport a white coat in the winter to blend in with the snow, but they turn more of a gray-brown color in the summer. They’ll eat just about anything to survive, including rodents, birds, eggs and even the remains of seals killed by polar bears. Because they’re small and well camouflaged, they can be tricky to spot in the wild.
Why They’re Cool: These lovable seabirds with their distinctive beaks (which get even brighter during mating season) can be found in various parts of the North Atlantic. It’s fun to watch them fly, particularly the frantic flapping and splayed feet they use to break their momentum when they land. (Crash landings in the water aren’t uncommon.)
Where to See Them: Iceland, Norway (including Svalbard), Atlantic Canada, Greenland, Faroe Islands
Why They’re Cool: Weighing up to 900 pounds, musk oxen are some of the biggest mammals in the Arctic. Despite all that bulk they’re actually vegetarians, with a diet based on grasses, lichens and willows (during the colder months they have to dig under the snow to get to these goodies). Beneath their shaggy brown hair is a wool inner coat that helps them stay warm during long Arctic winters. They typically travel in herds.
Where to See Them: Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Why They’re Cool: They’re beautiful, they’re rare and — with climate change threatening the sea ice they rely on — they’re increasingly endangered. When trying to spot polar bears from a distance, keep in mind that their fur is an off-white color compared to the surrounding ice. (Fun fact: The animal itself is actually black under all that fur.)
Where to See Them: Svalbard, eastern Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Why They’re Cool: Reindeer are the only species of deer for which both males and females have antlers. These must be regrown each year — and they grow fast (up to two centimeters a day!). When they’re new, the antlers look velvety because they’re covered in soft fur; this eventually dries out and rubs off to show the underlying bone.
Where to See Them: Lapland, Svalbard, Greenland, eastern Iceland, Arctic Russia
Why They’re Cool: With their big eyes, roly-poly bodies and inquisitive personalities, seals may be the cutest critters in the Arctic. There are a variety of species, depending on where you’re traveling — the ringed seal is the most common in Svalbard, while harp seals are plentiful in Greenland — and many rely on sea ice for breeding and nurturing their young. Seals are the preferred source of food for polar bears.
Where to See Them: Arctic Canada and Russia, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard
Why They’re Cool: Walruses are best known for their magnificent tusks, which can grow up to three feet long. Walruses use their tusks to pull themselves out of the water, root for clams at the bottom of the ocean and defend themselves against polar bears. You may occasionally see walruses swimming, but they’re easiest to spot when hauled out on a beach — often in a big, noisy (and smelly!) group.
Where to See Them: Svalbard, Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Why They’re Cool: You can spot three different species of whale all year round in the Arctic: the bowhead, the beautiful white beluga and the elusive narwhal (with its unique tusk that can grow up to 10 feet long). You can also see humpbacks, orcas, minke whales and others over the summer, when they follow cool, nutrient-rich currents north from their winter homes. To find them, keep an eye out for spouts at the surface of the ocean.
Where to See Them: Open water throughout the Arctic
Why They’re Cool: Also known as thick-billed murres, Brunnich’s guillemots are a common seabird throughout the Arctic — and they have a hair-raising way of leaving their nests! The birds lay their eggs on narrow cliff ledges along the coast. At around three weeks old, before they’re fully capable of flying, the baby birds take a bold leap off the ledge toward the sea below. While some make it safely to the water, others fall just short and face a bumpy landing on the ground, where they are often scooped up by hungry Arctic foxes.
Where to See Them: Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland
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