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.

Where to see whales in the Arctic

Svalbard Archipelago and Spitsbergen

Spitsbergen 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 holidays, 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 centre of the whaling industry, and you may see former whaling huts and blubber ovens at the settlement of Smeerenburg (Blubber Town) on Amsterdam Island.


Around 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. In the summer you’re also frequently going to see minkes, fins and humpbacks, the last of which are known for spectacular aerial acrobatics.

Canadian Arctic

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 Land

Only 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.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Arctic cruising or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Responsible whale watching

Naturally, whale sightings can never be guaranteed, but it’s rare that an Arctic cruise holiday 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.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rob Oo] [Top box: Greenland Travel] [Canada: Pascal Walschots] [Responsible whale watching: Peter Prokosch]