Highlights of Greenland Wildlife Safaris

Despite being the the world’s largest island, Greenland’s human settlements are confined to its ice-free coast, with the island’s barren interior making up one of the world’s last great remaining wildernesses. This makes Greenland a top destination for intrepid travellers seeking the true meaning of wild. Harsh conditions and rugged terrain have spurned attempts at major development; this and the sheer size of the country makes it a haven for polar wildlife. Land, sea and sky will provide wildlife sightings regardless of which part of Greenland’s habitable coast you find yourself on, with animals living everywhere from inland meadows to ice-choked fjords.

Marine Wildlife

A variety of marine mammals can be seen along the coasts, fjords and ice floes of Greenland, with whales and seals being the most common.

Sailing between the fjord systems along the open coastline is the best way to catch a glimpse of its most famous tusked residents. Walruses can be seen along the north eastern coast of Greenland, but they rarely venture into the fjords that are frequented by ships in the summer months. If you’re planning to sail the seas of western Greenland, hauled-out walruses can be seen resting on ice floes in Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait. Narwhals – the unicorns of the sea – are one of just three whale species that live in Greenland’s waters year-round, along with the beluga and bowhead whale. The fjords and inlets of western Greenland are the best place to spot narwhals and their magnificent tusks - which are actually elongated canine teeth that can grow up to 10 ft in length - although they can also be found in the northeast during the summer months.

The snow-white beluga can be seen along the west coast of Greenland, particularly from Maniitsoq below the Arctic Circle to Disko Bay and all the way up to Qaanaaq in the High Arctic. These charismatic whales swim among the icebergs and ice floes here and move further north during the summer as they follow the breakup of the ice. The other whale that winters here, the bowhead, has the thickest layer of blubber of any animal (17-20”) to protect it from the freezing waters it swims through. These huge yet graceful whales, which also lack a dorsal fin – unusual for cetaceans – are typically found in the seas around Disko Bay during the spring, before setting course for the northern section of Baffin Bay as the summer begins.

Most of the whale species which can be spotted in Greenlandic waters are summer visitors. These include fin, humpback and minke whales, which frequent Greenland’s southwest coast, from Qaqortoq up to Disko Bay. They may also occasionally be found in the country’s fjords, making for truly spectacular sightings when your boat is sharing the enclosed bodies of water with some of the largest creatures on the planet. About a dozen humpbacks make Nuuk Fjord their temporary home year after year, their acrobatic breaching and signature tail flukes signalling the beginning of summer for the capital’s population. More rarely, you may be able to spot blue, killer, pilot and sperm whales in the seas surrounding Greenland or on the crossing as you sail from Iceland to Greenland’s East Coast.

There are five species of seal which call Greenland home. Harp seals are the most common, with most of the population found among the fjords and archipelagos in the south and southwest. They migrate to their breeding grounds on the pack ice off Greenland’s east coast sometime between February and April. Hooded seals maintain a similar distribution, although this species can also be found in the Davis Strait off western Greenland. Adult male hooded seals can be distinguished by the bulge on the top of their head, which contains an inflatable nasal sac and membrane used for both acoustic signalling and to attract a mate. Ringed seals live mostly in the ice-filled regions of north and east Greenland, and birth their pups in either March or April in a small cave dug into a snowdrift.

Less common in Greenland than these three species are the harbour and bearded seals. Harbour seals – also known as common seals – haul out onto land more often than any of the other four species, particularly when moulting. They also give birth on land, with most births occurring in June. The harbour seal prefers to stay in Greenland’s warmer waters, below the Arctic Circle. Bearded seals, although a fairly rare sight, can be found throughout Greenland. Identified by their conspicuous whiskers, these pinnipeds give birth to their pups between April and May, on areas of ice with access to open water. Males “sing” underwater during the mating season, curious warbling sounds which may be produced to attract a mate or to proclaim their territory, which they return to each year.

Terrestrial Wildlife

Despite over 80% of its landmass being covered by an inhospitable icecap, Greenland’s coastal areas are home to a number of hardy land mammals.

The polar bear is represented on Greenland’s official coat of arms, indicating its significance to the country and particularly its indigenous Inuit peoples. In Greenland, the world’s largest land-based predator lives and breeds mostly in the northeast and far northwest of the country, although your best chance of seeing them is by taking to the water, where the bears hitch rides on drifting pieces of ice. They are active year-round, although pregnant females do make dens in which they birth their cubs. Sightings of the bears have been more common in recent years, as warming temperatures and reduced sea ice cover has forced them into increased interaction with humans – in 2016, 20 bears were encountered in the eastern town of Ittoqqortoormiit in just three months. There are a few parts of the coast line where bears can be seen from small expedition ships, and while the sightings might not be as close as Svalbard, polar bears here are more elusive, and the reward of seeing one is much greater!

Tens of thousands of reindeer, also known as caribou, live along Greenland’s western coast. Most of the animals are found in the southwest, with an additional population living high above the Arctic Circle near the settlement of Qaanaaq, while the southernmost population have been semi-domesticated by indigenous herders. Greenland’s wild reindeer have been living here for thousands of years, and their ability to survive harsh polar winters has made them the most widespread land mammal in the country. Summer hikes inland are the best way of seeing these antlered animals, as they graze the hills and fells that become carpeted with grass and wildflowers after the winter snows.

The Inuktitut name for muskoxen, umingmak, translates as “the bearded one”, and it is the bovine’s long, shaggy coat which is one of its two defining features. The other is indicated by the animal’s English name – during the seasonal rut, males emit a strong musk in order to attract females, an odour which has been described as “light, sweetish and ethereal”. The muskox in fact has two coats of hair to protect them against the harsh Arctic winters, and during the summer, they lose most of their undercoat as temperatures rise. This undercoat - known as qiviut - is often collected by local Inuit and is said to be eight times warmer than lambswool! The large mammals are native to the far north and northeast of Greenland, but there are introduced populations living up and down the west coast. Kangerlussuaq is perhaps the best place to see muskoxen in the wild, as a herd of almost 10,000 live in this area alone. On the east coast, trips to shore in small groups are the best way to encounter these amazing creatures where you can find them out on the tundra eating roots, mosses and lichens, as well as summer staples like grass and Arctic flowers. Muskox are sometimes skittish and prefer to stay away from the company of humans, but for keen photographers, a good sighting of these pre-historic looking beasts is worth the patience needed to track them down – their imposing forms make for perfect photographs of this otherworldly place.

Although polar bears are rarely sighted in Greenland, the country's most elusive land mammal is the Arctic wolf. Their range is restricted to the strips of ice-free land on the northern and northeastern shores of Greenland, located almost entirely within Northeast Greenland National Park. At 375,000 square miles, this is the largest area of protected land in the world. Although the wolves only occupy a small portion of the park, their tiny population size - estimated at around 50 in 2007 - makes sightings incredibly rare, usually reserved only for the researchers who work here for extended periods of time in this incredibly remote part of the High Arctic. Although Arctic wolves are found on Ellesmere Island and a number of other islands in the Canadian Arctic, Greenland is their only outpost outside of Canada. Some even contend that the population is a separate species: the Greenland wolf. We can't promise you'll ever be able to catch a glimpse of these ghostly predators on Greenland's shores, but if you do, it will undoubtedly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A selection of smaller land-based critters can also be spotted on your Greenland safari, including the stoat and Arctic fox, two predators whose fur changes colour throughout the year. Stoats have a sandy-brown coat with a white underbelly during the summer, but their winter coat is denser, silkier and completely white. Arctic foxes exhibit four different types of coat: most individuals have white in the winter and mottled grey-brown in the summer, while a small number of "blue" foxes change from a dark grey-brown in the summer to a grey-black in the winter, with a bluish tinge. Foxes with these coats live along the coasts, as their fur blends in with the exposed rocks and cliffs. Collared lemmings (in the north and northeast) and Arctic hares (in the north, west and northeast) make up part of the diet for both stoats and Arctic foxes, which are found throughout Greenland.

Birdlife

Despite there being just one natural forest in Greenland, many birds flock to the island's shores throughout the year.

A total of 235 species of bird have been sighted in Greenland, but the majority leave its shores during the winter; around 60 species live here year-round. This biodiversity ensures that birdsong can be heard everywhere you go, apart from the inhospitable inland icecap. Notable species include the white-tailed eagle, the largest of all Greenland’s breeding birds, and the eider, a species of wildfowl that sometimes falls prey to the eagle. Fulmars and black guillemots are among the most common sights seen gliding across Greenland’s waters, while ptarmigans can be spotted all over the island. Atlantic puffins, snowy owls, ravens, cormorants and gyrfalcons – the largest falcon in the world – are also visitors to these shores.

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