Wildlife in the Polar Regions

Why don’t polar bears eat penguins? Because they don’t like the taste.

And also because they live at two opposing ends of the earth. If you want to see both polar bears and penguins in the wild, your only option is to book two separate polar cruises, as the bears are up in the Arctic, the penguins down in the Antarctic. Which is probably for the best, if you ask a penguin. Our guide to polar wildlife has more details of which animals you can see where.

Polar Bears

The world’s largest land predator inspires awe amongst all Arctic travelers – not least because when you’re out looking for polar bears, you’re never quite sure if there’s one out there looking for you.

Known as nanuk by the Canadian Inuit, this cuddly-looking creature is anything but. Weighing up to 550kg, they feed mainly on the blubber of seals which they catch when the seal pops up through a breathing hole in the ice. The bears must follow the ice; the seals live at sea, and catching a swimming seal is near impossible. Beached whales provide a rare but welcome feast – if a carcass is spotted, your ship will likely make a diversion to see if any polar bears are feeding on it.

The polar bear’s Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means sea bear, and these creatures actually spend most of their time at sea. 350km is the furthest a polar bear has ever been recorded swimming – so you’ll need to keep an eye on the sea as well as the ice floes to spot the bear!

Where to see polar bears in the Arctic?

Arctic cruises vary in itinerary, but you’ll often see polar bears in locations such as Wrangel Island or Franz Josef Land in Russia, Churchill in Canada, and Svalbard in Norway. Crew will give you the option in the evenings of being woken up at night if bears have been spotted on shore.
Something about the penguin's upright waddle makes them strangely human. You'll burn through memory cards on your first wild penguin sighting.


These diminutive, flightless birds are one of Antarctica’s biggest draws. Rookeries are surprisingly noisy – and smelly! – but they’re not afraid of humans, so while you are not allowed to approach them, there’s nothing to stop them approaching you. Six species can be found in Antarctica, with Adélie and gentoo being the most common.

Where to see penguins in the Antarctic?

South Georgia and the Falklands are the best places to see penguins in Antarctica, where rookeries can comprise thousands of pairs. As you might expect, it gets pretty noisy.

Seals & walrus

Your image of cuddly seals is sure to change in the Polar Regions. There are tooth-raked bull elephant seals, ferocious, shark-mouthed leopard seals and the blubbery walrus with its fearsome, metre-long tusks.

Elephant seals are found in Patagonia and the South Atlantic archipelagos. True to their name, males are up to 6m long with trunk-like noses. Leopard seals live around the Antarctic Peninsula, where they hunt penguins and other seals, as well as fish and seabirds. Diving trips reveal these master predators in action. Atlantic fur seals are cuter – especially the tiny pups, which can be seen in December and January. Over a million of them breed on the island of South Georgia alone.

Up in the Arctic, the walrus – with its whiskery moustache and old-man skin – has been anthropomorphised in contemporary and traditional culture. Their tusks help them haul their bodies – up to 3.5m long – out of the water and onto slippery ice. They are also used as dangerous weapons by territorial males. Walrus can be seen in Canada, Greenland, Russia and Alaska– often drifting on ice floes.
Travel Team
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All whales have an air of mystery, but those inhabiting the Arctic waters are more mysterious than most, from the ghostly beluga to the narwhal - the 'sea unicorn'.


Playful humpbacks are commonly seen breaching and slapping their enormous flippers. Stunning orcas inhabit both regions, a particularly dramatic sight from a kayak. The world’s largest animal – the blue whale – is less common, but stretching as long as three double-decker buses, a sighting is unforgettable. The ghostly white beluga and the narwhal – the ‘sea unicorn’ – are only found in the Arctic, along with the 60-ton bowhead whale – which has the most enormous mouth of any creature.

Where to see whales in the Arctic?

You can find an incredible 15 species of whales off the coast of Greenland, including belugas, narwhales and bowheads, that are resident year-round. Blue whales frequent the waters off Spitsbergen and the Svalbard archipelago in summer, whilst whales are also commonly spotted in the Canadian Arctic, and the remote Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land.

Where to see whales in Antarctica?

Antarctica cruises are near-guaranteed to encounter whales, so numerous are they in these waters. There are no fewer than six baleen whale species to be seen including humpbacks, fins and of course the mighty blue whale. Hotspots include Wilhelmina Bay and the Drake Passage.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bryan Goff] [Polar Bears: NOAA] [Penguins: Paul Carroll] [Seals & walrus: Pacific Walrus Bull] [Whales: Derek Oyen]