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.
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.
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!
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.
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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