Animals in the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage is known for its largely untouched landscape. This is one of the reasons why there is such a wide array of wildlife here. There are many amazing animals both on land and below the surface of the water.

5 min read

Kvitoya-Svalbard-HGR-123210 1920- Photo Stefan Dall
Polar bear at Kapp Lee. Svalbar. Photo_Stefan_Dall.

Polar bear at Kapp Lee. Svalbar. Photo_Stefan_Dall.

Polar Bears (Nanuq)

The polar bears are extremely capable hunters, and experts at catching seals and sometimes whales. They are very patient and highly intelligent. They are also excellent swimmers and can swim in open oceans for hundreds of kilometres. 

Polar bears are found throughout the Northwest Passage region and the best time to see them is usually in the fall, when they gather on the shorelines waiting for sea ice to form. It is the world’s largest carnivore species found on land with males weighing up to 700kgs (1,500 lbs) and over 3m (10 feet) in length.

Narwhal (Tuugaalik)

There are few animals as unique and mysterious as narwhals. These whales have “unicorn” tusks that measure up to 3m (10 feet) in length, and it is still not fully known what they are for. In winter, they feed mostly on squid and flatfish at depths of up to 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) under dense pack ice. In summer, they move closer to shore, which is better for viewing them. They usually travel in groups from four to 20 animals.

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

A beautiful, white whale in the sea of Gjøa Haven, Canada. Photo:  David Merron, Getty Images.

A beautiful, white whale in the sea of Gjøa Haven, Canada. Photo: David Merron, Getty Images.

Beluga (Qilalugaq)

These curious and playful creatures are sometimes called “Sea Canaries” due to their high-pitched squeaks, squeals, clucks and whistles. It is white, and the only marine mammal of this colour. Beluga draw many larger predators, and in places where you see them, you will most likely also find polar bears and orcas that are drawn to their pods.

Muskox (Umingmak)

These are historic animals of the far north, descended from the Pleistocene Era, and uniquely suited to thrive grazing across the tundra regions of the high Arctic. Their ancestors migrated to the region about 150,000 years ago, alongside the now-extinct mammoth. These large shaggy animals have distinctive curved horns and exude a quiet strength and determination. 

Muskox, Gjoa Haven, Canada. Photo: Getty Images.

Muskox, Gjoa Haven, Canada. Photo: Getty Images.

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Caribou (Tuktu)

People have depended on caribou for food, clothing, and shelter since the Stone Age. As summer approaches, caribou herds head north in one of the world's great large-animal migrations. They may travel more than 950 km (600 miles) along well-trod annual routes. At the end of their journey, they spend the summer feeding on the abundant grasses and plants of the tundra.

Walrus (Aiviq)

These enormous marine mammals are famous for their lumbering and sometimes irritable nature, and they are distinct because of their enormous tusks. Walrus spend their time on the sea ice, where they can hunt for their favourite food, bivalve molluscs. In the ocean they are graceful and powerful swimmers, but on the ice or on land they can appear quite clumsy and disorganized.

Walruses at Kvitoya, Svalbard. Photo: Stefan Dall.

Walruses at Kvitoya, Svalbard. Photo: Stefan Dall.

Seal at Krossfjord, Svalbard. Photo: Camille Seaman.

Seal at Krossfjord, Svalbard. Photo: Camille Seaman.

Seals (Nattiq)

Seals is an important symbol of cultural heritage of the people living in the Northwest Passage region. The territory boasts a population of over 2 million ringed seals, and they are a deeply important part of Inuit life – especially the traditional diet and clothing.

Seals have been a primary source of food and sealskin was a critical part of clothing and boots as well as the primary source of income for many families.

Bowhead Whales (Arviq)

This Arctic whale is a massive, dark-coloured baleen whale that can grow to 20 metres (65 feet) in length and weigh up to 136 tonnes — second only to the blue whale in body mass. It is also one of the longest-living mammals in the world (150-200 years).

Bowhead Whale in Qeqertarsuaq. Photo: Mark McDermott.

Bowhead Whale in Qeqertarsuaq. Photo: Mark McDermott.

Snow Buntings in Greenland. Photo: Fabrizio Moglia, Getty Images.

Snow Buntings in Greenland. Photo: Fabrizio Moglia, Getty Images.

Birds (Snow Buntings)

The region has over 100 species of birds, nearly all of which are migratory species — with only the raven, the snowy owl and the ptarmigan spending the winter in permanent residence. Other species include Tundra swan, Peregrine falcon, Bald eagle, auks, buntings, cranes, ducks, finches, geese, gulls, jaegers, larks, loons, pipits, plovers, sandpipers, terns and many other arctic species.

Travel guide: The Northwest Passage

Get to know one of the most inaccessible and remote destinations on the planet in our travel guide.