Wildlife of the Arctic

arctic walrus

The Arctic is a treacherous and unforgiving place. With ever-shifting ice flows, impassable glaciers and freezing winds, surviving here is not exactly a walk in the park. But like anywhere on earth, Mother Nature always manages to find a way to make it work, ensuring that the Arctic is filled to the brim with fascinating wildlife…

Polar bear
The world’s largest land carnivore, the polar bear is the undisputed king of the Arctic. With their elegant white fur armour providing the ideal camouflage, these lumbering giants maintain an almost ghostlike presence against the icy terrain, occasionally plunging into the freezing water to hunt unsuspecting seals. There’s no denying it – the chance of seeing one of these mighty animals in the flesh is reason enough to travel to the Arctic.

Walrus
More than just a goofy face, the mighty walrus makes for quite the sight (and sound) when lazing on the shores of the Arctic. Weighing in at up to a whopping two tonnes, these bloated beasts are known for their distinctive ivory tusks that can grow to one metre long. Within each social group, tusks are an important status symbol, but they have a more practical use – acting as mini ice picks that allow the walrus to haul itself out of the water.

Whales
Think walrus are the only tusk-clad mammals cruising the seas of the Arctic? Think again. Introducing the one and only narwhal, or as we like to call them ‘the unicorn of the sea’. Due to an evolutionary quirk, narwhals possess a giant tusk that protrudes from their face, a bizarre feature that seems to baffle scientists the world over. Much of the argument centres on what it is actually used for. Is it a status symbol? A sensory organ? A sword? Anyway, it doesn’t matter because it looks damn cool. The narwhal is closely related to the beluga whale, another peculiar species that is characterised by its milky white skin. We can’t blame them for their lack of a tan though – after all, this is the Arctic.

Svalbard reindeer
It’s not quite the North Pole, but if Santa ever needs to outsource his workshop further south, then Svalbard certainly has a pretty healthy supply of Rudolphs, Vixens and Prancers for him to choose from. Unique to the area, the Svalbard reindeer have short, stumpy legs, and thick coats that make them look a little chubby during the winter months. Unfortunately for Santa, they’re not the hardest working animals, maintaining a mostly sedentary life in order to conserve the energy required to survive the bitterly cold Arctic winters.

arctic foxArctic fox

They might look cute, but the arctic fox is one tough little critter. Their deep, snow-white layer of fur allows them to live in conditions that would freeze almost any other species of mammal on the planet, and their fur-covered paws are specially designed for walking on ice. But for all these hardened features, the arctic fox is actually a softy at heart, forming monogamous pairs during breeding season and living as one big family in their complex underground homes. Awwwww.

Birdlife
Birds, birds, glorious birds. Whether you’re a casual twitcher, a full-blown ornithologist, or just a curious nature lover, the skies and shores of the Arctic are alive with some of the planet’s most unique feathered friends. It’s estimated that 20 million birds use Barents Sea as their summer residence, including the little auk and the black legged kittiwake. And if you think your commute is a drag, try telling that to the Arctic tern – a species that flies all the way from Antarctica to spend the summer annual migration here. There’s also the rock ptarmigan, who don’t mind toughing it out and being the only bird to stay home during the dark winters.

Interested in the wildlife of the polar regions? Think you might get a kick out of spotting some for yourself? Believe us, this is just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak). For more ideas, check out our polar trips and our exciting new Spitsbergen Explorer. Plus in 2014 we have a special Arctic with the Experts departure escorted by polar adventurer Tim Jarvis and photographer Steve Davey.

Photo: courtesy of Quark

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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