Wildlife in Greenland

The wildlife of Greenland is inextricably linked with the landscapes and the culture of this vast island nation. The white fur of the polar bear and the Arctic fox camouflages them against the pristine snow, enabling them to hunt with greater proficiency, while the narwhal uses its fearsome tusk to pierce the ice so it can breathe. Seals, reindeer and musk oxen, meanwhile, as well as popular prey for polar bears and wolves, are also hunted by many Greenlandic Inuit communities, who use their pelts in a variety of ways as well as consuming their meat.

Much of Greenlandís wildlife is acutely vulnerable to the warming global climate, particularly the larger animals. As sea ice shrinks, polar bears and narwhals lose vital habitat, while warmer winters mean more rain, and consequently ice, which musk oxen find it hard to penetrate in search of grasses. Those who hunt for food are troubled too, with contentious quotas over the numbers of reindeer and narwhals that they can take affecting traditional subsistence culture. Our responsible partners help you track down the animals of Greenland, as well as understand their behaviours, the threats they face, and their relationships with indigenous communities.

Where to see wildlife in Greenland?

Among the best places to see wildlife in Greenland is the northeast, in areas such as Scoresbysund and King Oscar Fjord, where you may encounter everything from polar bears to Arctic foxes and hares, whales, seals and musk ox. There is not as much variety in western Greenland, though whales, birds and seals are commonly seen. As this is where most Greenlanders live, there are few polar bears, because they are wary of human hunters.

The best way to admire Greenlandís magnificent wildlife is unquestionably aboard a responsible small ship cruise. Not only can you see whales off the bow, or polar bears plodding along the ice a short distance away, but you have specialist guides aboard that know exactly where to look, what youíre looking at, and why the animals are behaving as they are.

Arctic foxes

If youíre lucky enough to see a polar bear in Greenland, you may well see an Arctic fox scurrying along in its wake. Scavenging from bear kills is an easy way for the foxes to get an easy meal, so as bear numbers fall, foxes will have to work harder for their food.

There are two subspecies of fox in Greenland. One inhabits the inner tundra and mountains, its fur turning white in winter to camouflage it against the snow, while the other stays mainly on the coast, its dark blue-grey fur matching the rocks among which it hunts.

Arctic birds

Binoculars are an essential when it comes to Greenland wildlife, especially when it comes to spotting birds. Many can be seen on the wing alongside cruise ships, making for some spectacular photographs. Bird species you can expect to see in Greenland include Arctic terns, kittiwakes, gulls, guillemots, snow buntings and fulmars. Snowy owls are found predominantly in the north and east of the country. And youíll see rock ptarmigans all around Greenland, including on menus Ė similar to grouse, itís a popular bird for roasting.

Musk oxen

Around 40 percent of the worldís population of musk ox lives in eastern Greenland, where groups of these shaggy, sheep-like horned beasts can be seen grazing across the tundra. Wolves and the occasional bear are their main predators, but musk oxen are increasingly vulnerable to the climate crisis. Ice caused by winter rain hard for them to find patches of grass, while more snow falling in northern Greenland makes it difficult for them to migrate south in search of food. In the summer, a warming climate means more parasites and danger of disease.

Narwhals

There are concerns that narwhal numbers are in steep decline in Greenland. Yet while the predominant threats to the ‘unicorns of the sea’ tend to be melting of the sea ice that they depend on for protection, and ships which distort their navigation and cause often fatal collisions, it is subsistence hunters who are being cracked down upon. Indigenous people in Greenland argue that scientific counting methods are flawed, and don’t take into account factors such as narwhals being scared away by killer whales, while sustainable hunting is a part of their traditional culture.

Your best hope of seeing these amazing creatures, that use their sharp tusks (actually an elongated tooth) to break up the ice, is during the summer months (June to August) along the coast.

Polar bears

The biggest predator in Greenland, the polar bear is the most iconic symbol of the climate crisis. Already classed as vulnerable to extinction, they could well disappear in the wild by the end of this century as declining sea ice drastically reduces access to their main form of prey – seals. Shrinking habitat also means that small populations become more distant from each other and inbred, again putting the bears’ long-term survival in jeopardy.

However, there is evidence that some polar bears in Greenland are managing to adapt and survive by using glacier ice in fjords to hunt, swimming back to shore as the ice floats out to sea. If that behaviour spreads, it could be a possible life raft for the species, at least for a while.

Reindeer

The hunting of reindeer by Greenlandic Inuit is a controversial issue. The animals are a valuable source of food as well as income, as permits can be sold, while sustainable hunting also helps to control population numbers in southwest Greenland, which is essential for good ecological health. There is a need for scientific quotas to ensure that reindeer numbers donít fall too far, but many Inuit communities fear that their traditional culture of subsistence hunting is under attack by those seeking to ultimately ban the practise altogether.
Travel Team
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Seals

There are several species of seals in Greenland, including the ludicrously cute harp seal. Along with their close relations, walruses, they are often seen around coastal areas and early cruisers may spot juveniles making their first forays into the water in early summer.

Seals are hunted not only by polar bears, but by communities such as the residents of Ittoqqortoormiit in Scoresby Sound. Subsistence hunting is legal for Greenlandic Inuit communities, and is done by shooting the animals from boats Ė no appalling clubbing here. Sailing past or on shore visits you may notice seal skins drying out on racks in the sunshine. In the past, they were used to cover traditional kayaks, but now they are predominantly used in clothing and rugs.

Whales

Greenlandís frigid, nutrient-rich waters play host to some 15 whale species during the summer, with several, such as beluga and bowhead whales resident year-round. Passengers on cruise ships hug the rails crossing the Denmark Strait in the hope of seeing blue whales, while itís whale fever in Disko Bay with humpbacks, fins and minkes all commonly seen, and notable for their acrobatic feats.

Wolves

Once persecuted, now protected, grey wolves number around 200 in Greenland, and are found mostly in the northeast of the country where they can sometimes be seen prowling the coastline. The packs prey mostly on musk ox as well as smaller animals such as Arctic hares and lemmings. Cunning and adaptable, and capable of ranging long distances in search of new territory, they may be among the animals in Greenland that are best placed to cope the environmental effects of a warming climate.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: NordForsk] [Intro: Hannes Grobe] [Arctic foxes: Algkalv] [Narwhals: Press service of PJSC "Gazprom Neft"] [Seals: Visit Greenland]