This is the big one, the predator that intoxicates photographers and wildlife fans. Whilst it is always possible to see them ruffling around landfill sites in Manitoba, seeing them on ice miles from land is the hardest wildlife currency of all. With special departures concentrating on Ursus Maritimus, there is every chance to have some truly extraordinary encounters.
Polar bears have a thick oily fur coat and a layer of blubber under their skin. They spend most of their time on the pack ice or in the water, where they can hunt their favourite food - the Ringed or Bearded seal. The white fur helps the bear hunt seals that are laying on the ice. In the summer it is harder to catch seals, so before summer arrives, the bears eat as much as they can to fatten up, then live off the fat in their bodies. The females dig a den in the snow to hibernate during the worst part of the winter. The cubs are born in the den. some of the males rise in weight to almost 1000 pounds.They have even been seen close to the North Pole.
Whales are able to live in the cold waters of the Arctic. Although not as prevalent as in the Antarctic, virtually every expedition North sees whales. They have a thick layer of blubber under their skin.
Species seen include Minkes, Humpbacks, Fin, Sei, Belugas, Bowheads and even Blue.
Bowheads can reach 18 metres in length. They almost became extinct due to over hunting in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Whalers wanted the whales' oil and baleen. They are still considered endangered in some areas.
The white Beluga whales (much smaller than all the others) seem to be smiling all the time. They make noises that sound like chirps, trills, whistles and clicks. Beluga whales use their foreheads to smash the ice so they can get to the surface to breathe.
Harp, Ringed, Harbour and Bearded seals are the most common spotted. Many are nervous, wary of Polar bears but it is not unusual to still get some wonderful, intimate encounters. When the ice melts the Harp seals swim north following the schools of fish.
Walruses are very large marine mammals and have to eat thousands of krill and shellfish each day. With thick whiskers, the walrus feels around in the water for krill and on the ocean floor for shellfish. It is their whiskers they use to hunt and feed not their ivory. Layers of blubber protect the walruses when they swim in the freezing Arctic seas and when they lie out on the ice in the bitter cold wind. Walruses are very noisy animals. They are often seen crowded together on ice floes or on the shore. Some of these 'haul-outs' can number as many as 100. They're no longer hunted and it appears our days of atonement for such butchery are over and some remarkable encounters can be had with these inquisitive animals.
Members of the deer family, their thick fur coats have hollow hairs which helps to keep them warm. They move across the Arctic in large herds eating moss, lichens and green plants. For the winter they go to the forests of the south where trees give them protection from the wind and the snow. In the spring they leave the forests and go to the tundra where their calves are born. They are seen across the whole of the Arctic.
Musk Oxen are large animals with thick overcoats of shaggy long straight hair that hang down to the ground. Their undercoats are thick brown fleece. Some of the coat is shed in the summer. They huddle together in groups for protection and to keep warm. When wolves attack, they form a circle around the calves. The adults face outward and use their sharp horns for defence. They are seen only in the Canadian Arctic.
The Arctic fox is hard to see in the snow. It has a thick white coat of fur for the winter. In the summer the coat is brownish-grey. The Arctic fox eats a lot of lemmings; they also eat hares, birds' eggs and the chicks. There are various locations in the Arctic, especially Spitsbergen where passengers have fantastic sightings of these little predators which frequently punch way above their weight.
Lemmings look like plump furry hamsters. The Brown lemming and the Collared lemming live in the Arctic. The Brown lemming prefers wetter areas, while the Collared lemming is usually seen in rocky places. The Collared lemming turns white in winter. In the winter lemmings stay warm in snow tunnels. When summer comes the lemmings leave their dens to feed on new leaves, grasses, roots and berries. If there is plenty of food a female lemming has as many as six sets of babies. Many Arctic animals eat lemmings.
Arctic Hares live farther north than any other hare among the rocks on hillsides where they can hide from foxes, wolves, owls and other enemies. Hares eat grass, willows and other plants. Their favourite meal is the arctic willow. Hundreds of them gather together in herds, to stay warm, and for protection from their many enemies. When a noise is heard they hop away in all directions.
When the snow starts to melt hundreds of thousands of birds arrive to nest, raise their young and feed on Arctic plants and insects. There are seabirds, waterfowl, shore birds, song birds and many others. The birds nest on the rocky cliffs or along the shore. Others make their nests in the grass or on the ground.
The flocks of migrating birds arrive in May or early June and leave in the fall to spend winter in warmer places. Huge colonies of Little auks occupy rocky nesting sites all over Spitsbergen as do guillemots. Kittiwakes are constant companions at sea or against cobalt blue glaciers as they feed on small algae and Arctic cod. Terns are also a constant companion.
The ptarmigan, raven and Snowy owl stay in the Arctic all year round.