Whale watching in the Arctic
Now, everyone knows that the Arctic’s most famous resident is the polar bear, but of course this is also one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Belugas, bowhead whales and narwhals – the unicorns of the sea – are all resident in the Arctic throughout the year, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At least 14 other species are found here at various times of year, including humpbacks, minkes and even predatory orcas, arriving to feed when the ice melts in the summer.
On an Arctic cruise, you’ll spend a large part of each day on your ship’s observation decks. The sight of a tail fluke in the distance, a pod of ghostly white belugas, a humpback breaching off to the side – these are all fairly common occurrences. Binoculars are, if not mandatory, very strongly recommended.
The Arctic Circle obviously covers a vast expanse, and cruises go to several different areas. The likelihood of seeing a particular type of whale can increase depending on where you sail. Importantly, many Arctic cruises are accompanied by specialists in marine biology, there to interact with passengers on the observation decks throughout the tour, and able to help you identify species and interpret their behaviours for you.
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Where to see whales in the Arctic
Svalbard Archipelago and SpitsbergenSpitsbergen is the largest island in the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago, and the only one with a permanent population. It is among the most sought after destinations for Arctic cruise vacations, not only for its substantial population of polar bears, but also for its incredible marine life. The summer currents here swirl with nutrients, attracting cetaceans from around the world including blue whales, the largest animal on Earth. It’s hardly surprising then that in the 17th and 18th centuries this was a center of the whaling industry, and you may see former whaling huts and blubber ovens at the settlement of Smeerenburg (Blubber Town) on Amsterdam Island.
GreenlandAround 15 species of whale are known to frequent the seas off Greenland, making it an exceptional cruise destination for those with a passion for marine life. Belugas and narwhals are there all year-round, as are the huge bowhead whales, which can live up to 200 years and smash through the sea ice with the crown of their heads like a cetacean Zinedine Zidane. In the summer you’re also frequently going to see minkes, fins and humpbacks, the last of which are known for spectacular aerial acrobatics.
While most Arctic cruises focus on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, there is also a few that travel into the Canadian Arctic. Whales can often be seen around Baffin Island during summer, with bowheads off Isabella Bay and narwhals off Pond Inlet. Belugas, one of the smallest whale species and easily recognisable with their prominent foreheads and sociable, chattery nature, frequent Hudson Bay in summer, feeding and calving.
Franz Josef LandOnly the hardiest of Arctic expedition cruises make it to the remote Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. This region is almost entirely undeveloped bar a military air base and as a result the archipelago is incredibly biodiverse: belugas, minkes and humpbacks are seen here frequently and if you don’t see at least one polar bear then you must have your eyes closed.
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Responsible whale watching
Naturally, whale sightings can never be guaranteed, but it’s rare that an Arctic cruise vacation doesn’t result in seeing at least a few whales. When they do occur, responsible operators will never pursue the whales, and if they do follow them, only at a safe distance, so as not to cause the animals undue stress.
Sadly, some countries continue to hunt whales for food, which we oppose. If your cruise either starts or finishes in Iceland then you may encounter whale on the menu in some restaurants – we recommend people avoid it, and hopefully we will eventually see an end to the practise.
More about Arctic cruising
The best time to go on an Arctic cruise is during the summer months, when the sea ice melts enough to let ships pass, and the midnight sun bathes these northern lands - find out more with our month by month guide.
Our Arctic cruises travel guide reveals why the best way to explore is a small ship expedition cruise, and compares the different Arctic areas - with Northern Lights, Inuit art, dog sledding,and - of course - polar bears.
There are several Arctic cruise itineraries available, focusing on different regions and activities - wildlife features on any Arctic cruise, but use our interactive map to find out which species you are likely to see and where.
An Arctic cruise is not all about onboard entertainment - the most exciting things to do on an Arctic cruise all involve disembarking and getting up close to the action on zodiacs, on foot, by kayak or even on snowshoes.
On a typical Arctic cruise the amenities are quite basic as the aim is to spend a lot of time on land - optional activities in the Arctic range from nature hikes to kayaking and even the chilling ‘Polar Plunge’!
Arctic wildlife cruises, with superb biologists and wildlife guides accompanying them, will help you spot polar bears, enormous walrus, fluffy Arctic foxes and several species of whales, plus birds, seals and orca.
The big ticket attraction on Arctic cruises is the chance to see polar bears and while sightings can never be guaranteed certain locations are more likely than others - read on to find out where to see polar bears on an Arctic cruise.
With comfortable but compact cabins, and various practicalities that you’ll need to prepare for, knowing what to pack for an Arctic cruise is essential to make the most of the space in your suitcase and ensure you bring all you need.
An Arctic cruise is likely to be one of the most memorable vacations of your life, so it’s important to get it right - here's our advice on choosing a ship for an Arctic cruise so you have all you need to know before making a decision.
What will the sleeping and eating arrangements be, how many fellow passengers can you expect, but most importantly, what will you be doing each day - read on to find out what life onboard ship on a typical Arctic cruise vacation involves.
Deciding whether you ought to save or splurge on an Arctic cruise vacation is likely to be one of the biggest issues you face during the planning process - here are some of the ways you can either cut costs or supersize your trip.
Read on for the best Arctic cruises travel advice offered up by our vacation experts who have spent years working in the far north, with tips on which regions to visit, recommendations for twitchers and health and safety advice.
Responsible tourism in the Arctic is a thorny issue but taking a responsible Arctic cruise can help strengthen this region, its communities and wildlife against exploitation, climate change and land grabs - find out more below.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rob Oo] [Top box: Greenland Travel] [Canada: Pascal Walschots] [Responsible whale watching: Peter Prokosch]Back to the top