The Arctic covers vast tracts of wilderness and is full of interesting wildlife. Here we share our favourite ‘big five’ animals of the Arctic. Sue Grimwood, our Arctic expert has put together the biggest and the best but there are so many to choose from you could make up your own list.
The mighty King of the north has to be the most iconic of all Arctic animals and the one thing most people want to see. My excitement of seeing a polar bear has never diminished despite encountering over 100 during my travels in the north. They all seem to have their own character, many are very curious and with their terrific sense of smell are always aware of your presence well before you are of theirs. Occasionally they will be white dots disappearing into the distance or a pale smudge on a snow bank but many are curious and will walk towards ships out in the sea ice or zodiacs in a bay. I have been lucky enough to encounter them while on an Arctic cruise and from zodiacs while in Spitsbergen; north of Churchill I had my first encounter while on foot, the thought of which still makes my spine tingle. I saw plenty of polar bears during my week around Wrangel Island but a recent voyage saw 230 that were feasting on a bowhead whale carcass, a scene likened more to a Welsh hillside of sheep.
Number one has to be the elusive Narwhal – my personal Holy Grail, I am yet to encounter one but I have had clients who have seen them in the Northwest Passage region and also in Eastern Greenland. Their huge tusk is actually a tooth, one of only two, and in the males, they grow through the lip up to nine meters in length. Occasionally females will grow a tusk but it is far more common in males. The tusk continues to grow throughout their lives, some have two tusks and they can grow over three meters in length. Narwhal do not leave the Arctic waters making just a short migration from the deeper waters in winter to the shallower coastal regions during the summer months. This is one of the least studied species of the Arctic region and as the ‘unicorn of the Arctic’ is one of the most iconic of its wildlife.
Walrus – my favourite, with their huge tusks that both male and females have, their Latin name translates as tooth walking seahorse a pretty good description. On land, they are awkward and skittish, they need to be approached downwind; unfortunately, as they tend to smell pretty bad; and very cautiously as they can easily be spooked which causes them to dash for the water. Once in the water they are much more comfortable. Youngsters are curious and will often come close in small herds, appearing to goad each other on to get closer before suddenly losing their bravery and dispersing with a great snort and splash. If you sit quietly in a zodiac they will normally return and the whole sequence will play out again. Adults can also be curious and the head of a big adult male with tusks nearly a meter long is mighty impressive when it is just a meter or so away from you. There are two species of Walrus the Atlantic and the Pacific and they can be found throughout the Arctic waters.
Musk Ox – these small bovids have been roaming the tundra since the ice age and would have walked the planet with mammoths. With their long coats and curved horns that meet in the center to create a solid boss they look a little like Bison and have a similar protective strategy to defend their youngsters from predators, creating a circle of horns with the calves in the center. During the mating season the males will vie from a mate and this can result in them running at each other clashing the horns together in an impact that can be heard a mile away. The under hair is so fine it is prized by the locals for its warmth, Kiviut is said to be the world’s warmest wool. Musk Oxen can be found in small herds of around 10 – 20 individuals. If you want to see Musk Ox then head to the Canadian Arctic around Arctic Watch, Kangerlussuaq in Greenland or Wrangel Island in Russia’s far east.
Beluga – the white whale is a little of a misnomer as when they are born Belugas are actually quite a dark grey and it takes around eight years for them to reach maturity and turn completely white. They are known as the canaries of the sea for their noisy chattering. If you want to attract a beluga while snorkelling the best thing to do is to sing, their curiosity will often result in very close encounters. During the summer months, they can be seen in very large numbers as they come together in the bays around Churchill and in the Northwest passage region, play, molt, nurse their young, and mate. Like other Arctic adapted whale species, they have no dorsal fin and they are unique in having an unfused neck vertebrae which allows them to turn their heads up, down and side-to-side.
Have you had an encounter with any Arctic animals? We have merely scraped the surface with our list above and would love to hear about your experiences too.