Things to know
- While you can see wildlife in Greenland, other parts of the Arctic offer better opportunities
- Animals you most frequently sighted include seals, whales, musk oxen, reindeer and a variety of birds
- You would be very fortunate if you spotted: polar bear, arctic fox, mountain hares, walrus, lemmings and ermine
- Hunting is still very important to the locals - both culturally and as a means of subsistence – so wildlife is wary and hard to spot
Wildlife of Greenland
Although they resemble bison, these rather strange looking animals are actually very large goats and can weigh up to 900lbs. With impressive horns and enormous shaggy coats they are an iconic Arctic species that likes to feed on the rolling tundra in small family groups.
Their wool is ten times warmer than cashmere, but hard to process making it expensive to buy. The best place to spot herds of these creatures, which can easily be mistaken for large rocks, is Kangerlussuaq on Greenland’s west coast. However, they can be encountered on the tundra in a number of other locations.
The coastal waters around Greenland teem with whales, with up to 15 species being natives or regular visitors. The best time to spot them is once the winter ice has retreated, from early June to late September.
The most commonly sighted varieties are humpback, fin and minke whales. Occasionally blue whales and pods of killer whales (orca) can also be spotted. The only whales that are year round residents are bowhead, narwhal and beluga whales - all arctic species rarely sighted elsewhere. Whale hunting, for centuries an essential means of subsistence for Greenlanders, is still permitted, but strictly controlled by quotas.
The seas around Greenland are thronged with seals. Seal hunting has been an essential part of the local way of life for thousands of years, and continues to this day. Note: none of the five local species is threatened with extinction.
The harp seal is the most common species of seal in Greenland. It arrives on Greenland’s southern coast around May from its breeding grounds around Newfoundland. The hooded seal is the largest of the five species, while the ringed seal - polar bears favourite food - is the smallest. The other two species, the bearded seal and the common seal, are relatively rare.
This species of the deer family (also known as caribou in North America) has been living wild in Greenland for thousands of years and is the most widespread land mammal on the west coast. You are fairly likely to see reindeer on a hike on the tundra, particularly between Paamiut and Uummannaq.
Reindeer have always been an important prey for hunters and are shy as a result and quick to spook.
The world’s largest land predator is a creature of immense strength and beauty, an iconic symbol that has become emblematic of the Arctic and features in Greenland’s official coat of arms.
Significant numbers live in the northernmost parts of West Greenland and in Northeast Greenland - the most remote and uninhabited regions. It’s therefore extremely rare to see a living polar bear. However, they do occasionally appear in the south during the summer months, having drifted southwards down the east coast with the pack ice before coming ashore.
Your best chances of spotting a polar bear in Greenland is onboard an expedition ship in east Greenland.
Although only approx. 60 bird species are permanent residents to Greenland, their numbers are swelled to about 235 by the rich variety of summer migratory visitors. One of the most striking is Greenland’s largest breeding bird, the white-tailed eagle – fully protected, it tends to be seen around southern coasts.
While the auk is the most common breeding bird, fulmars are sighted more frequently. The eider is the most important breeding wild fowl in Greenland - particularly common in coastal regions all over the island it broods on small islands and rocks. The ptarmigan breeds all over Greenland, with white plumage in winter and grey in summer. The snow bunting is a summer visitor and you can see two species of falcon - peregrine and gyr - both of which are protected.
While other parts of the Arctic offer better wildlife opportunities, the waters of west Greenland are outstanding for whale watching and very photogenic set against icebergs.
Most popular Greenland wildlife trips
Beginning in Svalbard before arcing westwards across the Greenland Sea and then down East Greenland’s long coastline to finish in Iceland, this is an audacious Arctic journey of startling diversity and contrast. Spectacular landscapes, towering glaciers and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters…
When to go
For wildlife, the summer and early autumn are definitely the best times to visit. The onset of summer’s warmer temperatures triggers the annual arrival of vast numbers of migratory birds - visiting only to breed, as well as whales.
Tracking musk ox across East Greenland’s windswept, autumnal tinged tundra was thrilling. To see these extraordinary animals which look like they’ve just stepped out of The Ice Age.
Alex Mudd Polar Specialist
Plan your trip
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