Exploring amid the icebergs, glaciers and fjords of the Arctic, you find an abundance of wildlife. And although it’s thought too cold for plant life to flourish, there are a few species of flora to see on a yacht-style expedition to the region.
On an expedition to the Arctic, keep your eyes open for the King of the Arctic. Roughly the size of large brown bears, the male polar bear reaches up to 1,700 pounds in weight and up to 10 feet in length. Their renowned white coat is water repellant and reflects sunlight to help them camouflage into the environment.
Look out for polar bears in the Svalbard region, where they tend to stay year-round. You may also have a polar bear sighting in Greenland.
Among the most famous polar animals is the reindeer, also known as caribou. While many believe only males have antlers, both males and females of the species have antlers, with the herd’s bull often donning the largest. Peoples of the Arctic domesticate reindeer, as their meat and pelts are important to their way of life.
Reindeer reside in the Arctic tundra, so you can often see them in the Svalbard archipelago.
The musk ox is rare worldwide, so to spot one in Greenland is truly a special event. While these creatures may look lumbering and gentle with their thick coat and stocky build, they can run up to 37 mph.
These charming creatures hold a special place in the hearts of the Icelandic people, as it is the only native mammal to the country. It’s believed they crossed into Iceland during the last Ice Age from Greenland. At full maturity, they weigh up to 10 pounds and are up to 43 inches long. While they’re most often depicted in their white fur – their natural coloring in winter – they can also be seen in brown fur in the summer.
Hunting and making its home amid the tundra environment, the Arctic fox can be found in Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard.
WALRUS & SEALS
The pinnipeds of the Arctic are abundant and thriving throughout the Arctic regions and fjords of Norway and Greenland.
ATLANTIC WALRUS – Recognized for their long, curved tusks that can grow up to a meter long, the walrus can often be found lying atop the ice in regions of Greenland and Svalbard. They’re most often seen as brown but can appear white after diving in the water or even pink when they become warm from their blood flow.
Walruses are known to be intelligent and sociable creatures. While they may appear clumsy on land as they wobble on feather-like flippers, they become graceful swimmers once they hit the water.
RINGED SEAL – These are the most abundant species of seal in the Arctic region. As the polar bear’s preferred prey, they are shy and wary of close approach. But you can still see them in Spitsbergen along the polar ice edge. Ringed seals are the smallest Arctic seals, weighing up to 220 pounds.
Look for ringed seals in Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and Greenland.
HARP SEAL – These Arctic seals live in high populations in Svalbard, numbering in the millions. Harped seals can weigh up to 330 pounds and are recognized by their black spots or lines on their back that resemble two linked harps.
Discover the harped seal floating on a piece of drifting sea ice in Greenland and Jan Mayen.
BEARDED SEAL – Looking like the wisest animal in the Arctic, the bearded seal is notable for its long whiskers that curl when dry, giving them the appearance of a distinguished mustache. These seals weigh up to 770 pounds and are often found alone in fjords and shallow bays.
You can find bearded seals mostly in Svalbard – most likely swimming amid the ice and floating on ice floes – but occasionally they are seen in Greenland’s fjords.
WHALES & PORPOISES
Keep your eyes on the water as you search for incredible aquatic wildlife throughout your Arctic expedition.
HUMPBACK – The humpback whale is one of the most active of its species as it often breaches the ocean surface. They’re also well-known for lobtailing, spy hopping and fin-waving. They migrate to Svalbard in the summer to feed on the plethora of fish and plankton.
BOWHEAD – At up to 200,000 pounds and 62 feet, the bowhead whale is indeed a mighty creature. They can break through sea ice that is up to eight inches thick with their skulls. You can recognize a bowhead whale by its lack of dorsal fin and dark bodies with a distinctively white chin.
Catch sight of one of these whales from easter Greenland to Spitsbergen.
BELUGA – With a length up to 16 feet and weight up to 3,150 pounds, beluga whales are among the smaller of the species, making them prey for orcas and polar bears. But you can often see these sociable mammals living in small groups and easily spot them by their bright white appearance.
Belugas are most often found in shallow coastal waters during the summer and can be seen in Greenland.
NARWHAL – Dubbed the Unicorns of the Sea for their fantastical appearance, narwhals are porpoises with a large horn that makes them unforgettable if you spot one. Feeding on shrimp, fish, squid and other aquatic life, they are mostly carnivorous.
Large populations of narwhals can be found in Greenland, especially in spring and summer. Their groups can range anywhere from 15 to several thousand.
Keep your eyes on the sky for the majestic birds of the Arctic.
ARCTIC TERN – These are the champions of long-distance migration, as Arctic terns are known to travel from the high Arctic all the way to the Antarctic. Find them flying over open ocean or nesting along rocky coasts and on islands.
The Arctic tern takes its first flight between 21 and 28 days old. When they start courtship, it mostly takes place in the air with high-flying performances.
BRÜNNICH’S GUILLEMOT – Listen for a sound like a growl and you may be hearing the call of Brünnich’s guillemot, also known as the thick-billed murre. Found along the cliffs of Alkefjellet, Svalbard, these birds often congregate in large colonies.
This bird stands out with a blacker plumage on top and clean, white feathers on its sides and throat. It can sometimes be found among flocks of razorbills.
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE – Nesting among the cliffs of the Arctic and found foraging in open ocean, you can identify this kittiwake by its pale gray back plumage, white belly, black wing tips and legs and yellow bill. Occasionally they are found nesting on buildings and shipwrecks.
GYRFALCON – These are among the largest falcons in the world, larger than a crow and smaller than a goose, and are often found hunting high in the sky, flying over open country. They’re most often depicted in their classic white with black spotting, but their feathers can range among shades of brown, white and gray.
PUFFINS – Often thought to be penguins, puffins are actually part of the auk bird family and unlike penguins, they can fly. In fact, they’re among the more capable fliers of their family, cruising at altitudes of up to 30 feet. They are also expert divers and swimmers, diving up to 200 feet in search of food.
Puffins are highly sociable and live in large colonies along the sea cliffs of Iceland, Greenland and Norway.
FLORA OF THE ARCTIC
Although the frozen land of the Arctic seems an unlikely place for plant life to thrive, there are still a few types of organisms that will pique the interest of the scientific mind. Mosses, lichen, herbs and grasses make up the approximately 1,700 species of plants living in the Arctic tundra and desert. Because of a thin layer of soil and cold, harsh climate, only small plants with shallow root systems grow in the region.
YELLOW AND PURPLE MARSH SAXIFRAGE – Breaking through the bright white of glaciers and ice-covered fjords and brown landscapes of tundra are the vibrant yellow and purple marsh saxifrage. With red stems and reaching up to 30 centimeters in height, these perennial herbs are commonly found in Arctic bogs.
BEARBERRY – Another unexpected splash of color amid the dry Arctic scenes, the bearberry is a low-growing evergreen named for the animals that like to eat its red berries. Its leather leaves are covered with silky hairs that protect them from the cold climate.
Some organisms of the Arctic have adapted to “keep warm” by growing closely together in specific patterns, like a rosette, to trap the warmer air between plants.
MOSS CAMPION – This alpine tundra plant is a common find throughout the northern Arctic and as such, has adapted to survive such harsh weather conditions. It’s typically a cushion shape that protects fragile parts from high winds and frost, helping to retain moisture and heat.
MOUNTAIN SORREL – Growing up to 12 inches tall with a base of green leaves and a fern-like appearance in bright red, the mountain sorrel stands out amid the Arctic landscape. It’s an important plant to the ecosystem, as Arctic hares and voles eat its roots for nourishment while musk oxen and caribou eat its leaves.
MOUNTAIN AVENS – Amid the greener scenes of the Norwegian Fjords you may come across the white-petal flowers of mountain avens. The fossils of this type of plant play a pivotal role in science as paleo-ecologists study them to decipher past shifts of climate change.
WOOLY LOUSEWORT – Also known as the bumblebee flower, the wooly lousewort is identifiable by its pink to purple flowers, red-brown to green leaves and thick, bright yellow taproot. Within the Arctic, wooly lousewort is most often found in Greenland, but can be found in parts of Svalbard.