Though the austere Arctic landscape is often imagined to be a cold white wasteland, the brief months of summer see the flora blossoming and the fauna emerging from their long winter dormancy. Travelers on an Arctic cruise will have a chance to see an abundance of wildlife, from caribou and moose to humpback whales and ringed seals, and up to 200 species of birds, including fulmars, puffins, guillemots, and eagles.
So when to go? July is the high season in many Arctic destinations, but though the weather is at its warmest, the mosquitoes and gnats are out in full force, which can put a bit of a damper on your travels. Cruises in late May or early June come before the high mosquito season, and these spring months can also be a good time to see the elusive polar bears, grizzlies emerging from their winter dens, and caribou migrating to their summer habitat. Another good time to cruise the Arctic—while avoiding the insect life!—is late August and September. For other wildlife, late summer is prime viewing time. Humpback whales can be sighted off the coasts of Alaska and Greenland in the late summer and autumn months, while caribou can be seen en masse throughout the autumn as they migrate to their winter feeding grounds. Also be on the lookout for the shaggy muskoxen, Arctic foxes, walruses, and several types of seals. Another perk to visiting in August is that this time marks the first of four months of stunning displays of the aurora borealis, which can be a highlight of the dusk and nighttime hours on an Arctic cruise.
Where & when to go to see certain types of wildlife:
Grizzly bears: summer: Alaska & NW Canada; occasionally sighted in Arctic Russia & Scandinavia
Polar bears: spring & summer: during their prime feeding months: rarely seen, but may be viewed in Svalbard/Spitsbergen, Alaska, Wrangel Island in Russia, and Grise Fjord in Canada
Moose: year-round: Alaska & NW Canada
Muskoxen: year-round: Alaska, NW Canada, & Greenland
Wolves: rare, but may be seen in the islands & mainland of northern Canada and Alaska
Caribou: spring & autumn: throughout the Arctic. Domesticated caribou (reindeer) are common in northern Russia, Scandinavia, and Svalbard
Walrus: coasts of northeast Canada, western Greenland, eastern Greenland, Svalbard, northern Scandinavia & western Russia, and the Laptev, Chukchi, & Bering Seas
Humpback whales: late August & September: coasts of Alaska, southern Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, northern Scandinavia, Bering Sea
Orcas: coasts of Alaska, Pacific NW, NE Canada & west Greenland, northern Scandinavia, Svalbard, & eastern Russia; Bering Sea, Baffin Bay, Norwegian Sea, & Barents Sea
Belugas: coasts of Alaska (Bristol Bay & Cook Inlet), NE Canada & west Greenland, Svalbard, northern Russia, & the Bering Sea
Narwhals: northern Hudson Bay, shores of NE Canada, eastern Greenland & Svalbard, and the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Russia
Bowhead whale: western Arctic (Bering, Chukchi & Beaufort Seas), Canadian Arctic (Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, & Hudson Bay), the Okhotsk Sea southeast of Russia, and the far north Atlantic Ocean between Svalbard & Greenland