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A Guide to Arctic Wildlife Watching - Top Places and Animals to See

A Guide to Arctic Wildlife Watching – Top Places and Animals to See

Becky Lima-Matthews image

A visit to the Arctic provides the opportunity to see some of the most incredible wildlife on Earth. It is home to endemic species such as polar bears, walruses, narwhals and Arctic foxes as well as many species of birds. Despite the harsh conditions, the Arctic is abundant in terms of biodiversity, and is habitates over 21,000 known species of mammals, birds, invertebrates, plants and fungi. From spotting polar bears in their natural habitat to watching whales up close – here is the Secret Atlas Guide to Arctic Wildlife Observation.

What is the Best Way to See Arctic Wildlife?

The best way to safely and responsibly explore the polar wilderness and observe Arctic wildlife is by joining an Expedition Micro Cruise. With only 12 guests onboard, these small ship cruises can access more remote regions that larger ships cannot reach. Smaller group sizes offer an authentic and intimate experience for guests, while also minimizing wildlife disturbances. Everyone participating in an Expedition should follow the Leave No Trace Principles. Operators can fulfill their responsibility by being members of the AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators), which provides strict guidelines for sustainable Arctic cruises and tourism.

When is the Best Time to See Wildlife?

The Arctic has two main seasons: A long, dark, icy winter lasting nine months and a short, cold summer that spans three months. The cruising season for Arctic Expeditions runs from late April to the end of September. June, July, and August are the best months for wildlife sightings due to the 24-hour daylight of the midnight sun. If you’re interested in birdwatching, visiting earlier in the season is recommended as some migratory birds begin returning to the mainland as early as August.

What Wildlife is Most Common?

Although there are thousands of species living in the Arctic, the wildlife you’re likely to encounter on an Expedition includes polar bears, walrus, reindeer/caribou, musk oxen, Arctic foxes, Arctic hares, as well as various species of whales, seals, and birds. The likelihood of spotting a specific animal always depends on the region and time of your visit.

Where is the Best Place to Spot Wildlife?

The two prime destinations for Arctic wildlife watching are Svalbard and the Russian Arctic. Another notable region is the Canadian High Arctic, offering good chances to see polar bears, belugas, and especially the rare narwhals, which are most often spotted here. Greenland is worth visiting for its stunning and diverse landscapes, but it is not the primary location for wildlife sightings. In particular, polar bear sighting opportunities are rarer than in other parts of the Arctic.

Arctic Wildlife in Svalbard

One of the best places for Arctic wildlife watching is Svalbard, an archipelago located between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The polar wilderness of its islands is a haven for wildlife, particularly during the summer months. Once the long, icy winter comes to an end, the sea ice surrounding Svalbard breaks up, allowing safe navigation of the fjords and access to remote places that are home to an abundance of wildlife. Wildlife you might encounter here includes:

Polar Bear

Approximately 3000 polar bears inhabit Svalbard and the Barents Sea, making it one of the best places on Earth to see these creatures in their natural habitat. Since they’re classified as marine mammals, they spend a lot of time hunting on the sea ice and along the shores of Svalbard’s fjords.

Polar bear on ice in Svalbard by Florian Ledoux

Atlantic Walrus

Walruses are presently a protected species in the region. Once hunted to near-extinction in Svalbard, their population has recovered significantly, making them a species very likely to be spotted here. Walruses often congregate in large groups known as haulouts, which can be found all over Svalbard, with the largest ones located in the eastern parts of the archipelago.

Walrus haulout in Svalbard

Svalbard Reindeer

As the name suggests, this is the subspecies native to Svalbard, where it has lived in isolation since the archipelago was last connected to mainland Norway by ice 5000 years ago. Its small head, short neck, and winter coat set it apart from other reindeer. They can be found all over the archipelago, including in and around settlements, so there’s a good chance of encountering them even before embarking on an Expedition in Longyearbyen.

Juvenile Svalbard reindeer Sarsfjellet by Julien Cornet

Bearded Seal

Bearded seals are the largest species of true seals found in Svalbard. Surprisingly, females grow larger than males, reaching weights of up to 450 kg. They can be spotted in the fjords, especially near floating icebergs from glaciers, and along the coast on drifting pack ice all year around.

Bearded seal on ice in Svalbard

Ringed Seal

Named after its distinctive fur pattern of dark spots and light grey rings, the ringed seal is the smallest but most commonly spotted seal in Svalbard. Ringed seals tend to be solitary and are often seen by themselves in the fjords.

Guillemot

There are two species of Guillemot on Svalbard: The common guillemot and brünnich’s guillemot. Both have dark plumage on the head, back, and wings, white underparts, and long, slim beaks. They can be observed nesting on or near Svalbard’s sheer cliff faces but otherwise spend much of their lives at sea. The largest colony of Brünnich’s Guillemots is located at Alkefjellet on northeast Spitsbergen.

Brünnich's guillemots in Svalbard

Arctic Tern

Also known as the ‘sea swallow,’ Arctic Terns are extremely territorial and will attack anything or anyone that gets too close. They can be found along the coast of Svalbard, especially on Spitsbergen, and among the pack ice further north.

Arctic tern in front of glacier in Svalbard

Puffin

Svalbard is the northernmost location where Atlantic Puffins can be found. They are often referred to as ‘sea parrots’ due to their distinctive bright orange beaks and legs. The exact population number on Svalbard is unknown, but it is estimated to be around 10,000 pairs distributed among 15 colonies on the west and north coast of Spitsbergen.

Atlantic puffin near Rossøya in Svalbard by Julien Cornet

Ivory Gull

The ivory gull is a small, dove-like bird that inhabits the high Arctic and is known for its bright white plumage. It can also be recognized by its fox-like-sounding call, which it uses to warn against predators or during mating. It breeds in scattered colonies across Svalbard but is rarely spotted.

Ivory gull in Svalbard by Jonas Beyer

Rock Ptarmigan

The rock ptarmigan is the only ground-dwelling bird that lives in Svalbard throughout the entire year. They are highly territorial, and you might even get to hear the burping sound that males make to protect their nesting sites.

Rock ptarmigan in winter

Minke Whale

Also simply called ‘Minkie’, this species is the smallest of the baleen whales, typically measuring around 8-10 meters as adults. They can be spotted in various locations around Svalbard, including fjords, open waters, and near the edge of the pack ice.

Minke whale in Greenland

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales spend their winters in tropical areas to breed but migrate back to the cold Arctic Ocean in the summer when there’s plenty of fish and plankton for them to feast on. They are easily recognized by the hump on their head and jaw, as well as the white-colored underside of their fluke.

Humpback whale jumping out of water

Beluga Whale

Belugas are medium-sized toothed whales, easily recognizable by their white skin. While mature males can reach lengths of up to 4.5 meters and weigh around 1.5 tons, females are considerably smaller. The exact population of belugas around Svalbard is not known, but they are frequently seen in groups along the coast or between the pack ice. During the summer months, they sometimes get up close to glaciers, attracted by the good food supply along the ice.

Beluga whale underwater

Fin Whale

The fin whale is the second-largest animal in the world, reaching a length of up to 24 meters and a weight of around 75 tonnes. While closely related to the blue whale, they are slimmer and faster than their larger relatives. They are generally found alone or in pairs, often with their calf, around the west coast of Spitsbergen during the summer.

Blue Whale

The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have existed, reaching a length of 30 meters and an enormous weight of 150 tons. Sightings in the North Atlantic are less common than in other oceans, although they do occasionally venture as far north as Svalbard and can be spotted around the island of Spitsbergen.

This is just a small selection of the wildlife you might encounter on a trip to the archipelago. For an extensive list of Svalbard wildlife, please see to our Svalbard Animals Overview or Guide to Svalbard Birds.

Arctic Wildlife in Greenland

Many people visit Greenland to witness its breathtaking landscapes and to immerse themselves in the Inuit culture. And although it isn’t the primary place for observing Arctic wildlife, Greenland is still home to a diverse and fascinating range of terrestrial animals, marine life, and bird species, including:

Musk Ox

Greenland has a large population of musk oxen, with an estimated to number between 15,000 to 27,000 individuals. Despite its name, large size, and appearance, surprisingly, the musk ox is not related to bovine, but to sheep and goats. They are distributed throughout several regions in Greenland but are most commonly found in the area around Kangerlussuaq.

Musk Ox in Greenland

Greenlandic Reindeer/Caribou

Similar to the Svalbard Reindeer, this one is a subspecies found only in Greenland, particularly along the west coast. Both females and males grow antlers, although the males’ tend to be larger and more elaborate. Populations have fortunately recovered to around 100,000 after declining due to changing climate and extensive hunting. Unfortunately, on the east coast, the Greenlandic Reindeer went extinct in 1899.

Greenlandic Reindeer/Caribou

Arctic Hare

Greenland is one of only two places in the world where the Arctic hare can be found, the other being northern Canada. To blend into the landscape, they grow white fur during the snowy winter and switch to a brownish color in the summer. They primarily inhabit northern Greenland and live in groups of up to 100 individuals.

Arctic Hare in Greenland

White-Tailed Eagle

With a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters, the white-tailed eagle, or ‘Nattoralik’ in the Greenlandic language, is the largest bird in the country and has been a protected species since the 1970s. Unlike many other animals, females are larger than males. They are primarily found in South Greenland, especially in the area around the settlement of Paamiut.

White-tailed eagle in Greenland

Common Eider

The common eider is a non-migratory sea duck and Greenland’s most widely-distributed breeding bird. They tend to nest on small islands to avoid predation by Arctic foxes.

Common eider in the Arctic

Greenland Seal / Harp Seal

One of the most commonly spotted marine mammals here is the Greenland Seal, also known as the Harp Seal. Adult individuals can be recognized by their dark-colored heads and the black, harp-shaped markings across their silver-grey coat.

Narwhal

Narwhals are rare and only occasionally spotted in Greenland. Males can be easily identified by a 2-3-meter-long twisted tusk protruding from their heads, giving them the nickname ‘unicorns of the sea’. Females do not have a tusk. Chances to see them in Greenland are limited to the northwest and east coasts.

Narwhal with tusk

Greenland Shark

With an estimated lifespan of 500 years, the Greenland shark is the oldest vertebrate in the world. It reaches a body length of 4-8 meters and can weigh up to 2.5 tons, even larger than a Great White shark. Compared to other sharks, the Greenland shark is slow-moving and tends to live in greater depths, making it a less frequently spotted species.

Greenland shark

Arctic Char

The Arctic char is a member of the trout family and can be found throughout the Arctic region. Like few other fish, it spends most of its life in the ocean and only returns to freshwater to spawn. That’s why they can also be spotted in rivers in Greenland between July and September.

Of course, Greenland is home to many more species such as hooded seals, rock ptarmigans, northern fulmars or black guillemots. For a more extensive list see our Guide to Animals in Greenland.

Arctic Wildlife in Canada

The Canadian High Arctic is one of the most remote regions on the planet. Baffin Island, for example, is an excellent place to explore seemingly endless, untouched nature and spot an abundance of wildlife, especially during the brighter and warmer summer months. Wildlife you might encounter here includes:

Polar Bear

The Canadian Arctic is a prime location to see polar bears in the wild, especially along the shores of the fjords on Baffin Island. Other polar bear hotspots include Churchill, Manitoba, and areas along the Northwest Passage.

Harp Seal

Also known as the Greenlandic Seal, these creatures will dive as deep as 500 meters to catch food. Although they’re commonly seen in the waters around Greenland, there’s a good chance to see them in the Canadian High Arctic as well.

Arctic Wolf

The Arctic wolf, also known as the white or polar wolf, is a subspecies of the common grey wolf and is native to the Canadian High Arctic. It can be spotted in places such as Churchill and the Nunavut Archipelago, including Baffin and Ellesmere Islands.

Arctic wolf close up in Canada

Arctic Fox

The Canadian High Arctic is home to the Arctic fox. As with many other animals in polar regions, they grow white fur for the snowy winter season and switch to a brown color once summer returns. The best places to spot Arctic foxes include Churchill and Manitoba.

Arctic fox in Greenland

Gyrfalcon

The Gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon family that breeds on the Arctic coasts and tundra. It can be found in locations such as Baffin and Ellesmere Islands.

Gyr Falcon

Arctic Wildlife in Russia

Another excellent place to explore polar wilderness and Arctic wildlife is the Russian Arctic. It features remote, untamed, and rarely visited places such as Franz Josef Land or Wrangel Island. During an expedition here, you have the chance to spot:

Bowhead Whale

The Russian Arctic is a prime location for whale watching. You may even be lucky enough to spot a rare bowhead whale swimming along the sea ice edge around Franz Josef Land.

Walrus

The uninhabited archipelago of Franz Josef Land and Wrangel Island are considered some of the best places to spot walruses. In fact, Wrangel Island is home to the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus.

Polar Bear

Located deep in the Arctic between Russia and Alaska, Wrangel Island offers a haven for wildlife and a gateway to the pack ice, making it a perfect place for polar bears to breed. Wrangel Island, in fact, is a polar bear denning site, enhancing the chances to spot not only large numbers of them but also cubs.

Polar bear mother with cubs

Where is the Best Place to Spot Polar Bears in the Arctic?

Svalbard is one of the best places in the world to spot polar bears. The vast majority of polar bear sightings on the archipelago occur away from human settlements like Longyearbyen or Barentsburg. They can be seen throughout all parts of Svalbard, but are more commonly spotted on the islands east of Spitsbergen. Of course, there is never a guarantee for an encounter with any animal. However, given that Svalbard is home to approximately 3000 polar bears, there’s a reasonably high chance to see one if you go on an Expedition here. To find out more about where polar bears are found, see our Polar Bear Viewing Guide.

Expedition Cruises to See Arctic Wildlife

As mentioned, the best way to visit the Arctic and spot an abundance of wildlife is by joining a Expedition Micro Cruise. With only 12 guests onboard, you have the opportunity to explore the polar wilderness in an intimate, authentic, and especially sustainable way. Secret Atlas offers such voyages during the summer season, ranging from 8 to 14 days. These are our Expedition Micro Cruises to Svalbard:

The Natural Wonders of Svalbard Micro Cruise

Explore Svalbard with 24 hours of daylight on an 8-11 day cruise where you’ll witness stunning scenery, calving glaciers, and an abundance of wildlife. For more info see here.

Svalbard Pioneer Micro Cruise

Join an epic adventure on an in-depth, 14-day circumnavigation cruise as the sea ice opens up in the summer season, with daily shore landings and plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities. For more info see here.

Natural Wonders of Svalbard Photo Tour

Join us as Svalbard emerges from the long winter and take photos with the help of our expert guide with 24-hour daylight on our side. Whether you’re an amateur nature photographer or just looking for your next adventure, this 9-day tour is the photo holiday of a lifetime. For more info see here.

To find out more about visiting Svalbard and its incredible wildlife, see here

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