Whales of the Arctic
The Arctic is home to 17 different species of whales. Belugas, bowheads, and narwhals are the only whales to inhabit Arctic waters all year round. Others, such as the gray whale and humpback whale, migrate to cool Arctic waters during the summer in search of food sources and to give birth.
The Arctic is home to various different species of whales, including dolphins and porpoises. Collectively, these mammals are known as cetaceans. Belugas, bowheads, and narwhals are the only whales to inhabit Arctic waters all year round. Others migrate to cool Arctic waters during the summer in search of food sources and to give birth. Depending on your chosen destination and the time of year during which you travel, you are very likely to encounter many of these whales on an Expedition Cruise to the Arctic. If this interests you, you may like to read more information about the High Arctic and you may also like to check out our Arctic cruise deals and offers if you're planning your next big adventure.
Two Different Whale Classifications
Whales are classified into two basic suborders—baleen whales and toothed whales. Baleen whales include blue, bowhead, fin, grey, humpback, minke, and sei whales. Toothed whales include beluga, narwhal, pilot, orca (‘killer whales”), and sperm whales. Dolphins and porpoises are also classified as baleen whales.
Baleen whales have baleen plates instead of teeth, which hang down from the roof of the mouth and are used to filter food. After taking a mouthful of water containing tiny plankton prey, they close their mouths to trap the food, then they use their tongues to push the water out through these several hundred flexible fringed plates. Baleen whales have two blowholes through which they breathe.
Toothed whales, as the name suggests, have teeth instead of baleens and they only have one blowhole for breathing. These whales are hunters, so they source and capture larger prey (like fish, squid, starfish, and crabs) with their teeth, usually swallowing their food whole.
Belugas — often called white whales — live year-round in the Arctic. They are one of the smallest species of whale, ranging between 13 and 20 feet. Due to their unusual colour and prominent rounded foreheads, they are easily identifiable. They can also turn their necks in all directions, unlike other whale species.
Beluga whales are incredibly sociable mammals: they hunt, migrate, and live together in pods. They are also very vocal, using a diverse series of clicks, chirps, whistles, and clangs to communicate — for this reason, the beluga is often called “the canary of the sea.” We think this name really suits them because they are such delicate-looking whales compared to their much larger counterparts!
Bowhead whales are second only in size to blue whales. They also have the longest baleen of any whale—the plates reach 5m in length! Living year-round in the Arctic, bowhead whales are predominantly black with the exception of grey/white patches on the front of the lower jaw, and sometimes on the narrow base of the tail.
As well as lacking a dorsal fin, bowhead whales have a distinctive double-humped surface profile, an enormous arched upper jaw, and a strongly bowed mouth-line (hence the name).
Bowhead whales are associated with ice floes, which means their movement patterns are influenced by the melting and freezing of ice. Their blubber is half a metre thick, which is the thickest found on any mammal.
Based on findings from the recovery of stone harpoon heads and the analysis of eye tissue, scientists believe that the bowhead whale may be the longest-living animal in the world—it is possible they can live for more than 100 years — perhaps even up to 200 years.
Gray whales are a dark slate grey colour with rough mottled patches over their bodies. Instead of a dorsal fin, they have small dorsal humps on the lower end of the back down to the tail fluke. When fully grown, gray whales weigh between 30-40 tons and can grow up to 50 feet in length.
Travelling in pods, gray whales swim over 12,000 miles each year. This round trip from Alaskan waters in the summer to warmer waters off the coast of Mexico during the winter is the longest known annual migration of any mammal.
One of the most unique characteristics of blue whales is their feeding habits. Unlike other baleen whales, grays are predominantly bottom feeders, which means they forage along the ocean floor.
Narwhals—affectionately known as the “unicorns of the sea”—are very distinctive with their long spiral tusks protruding from their faces. In actual fact, the ivory tusk is the upper left canine of the narwhal, which they use to hit and stun prey. They are beautiful, but you certainly wouldn’t want to get too close to those tusks!
It is predominately the males who have tusks—sometimes two, but sometimes none. Only about 15% of female narwhals have them. The tusks can grow as long as 10 feet and they have significant sensory capabilities, with as many as 10 million nerve endings inside.
They spend their entire lives in the Arctic waters of Russia, Svalbard (browse our Svalbard Arctic cruises), Greenland, and Canada, usually spending up to five months of the year under sea ice around Baffin Bay-Davis Strait. They predominately feed on shrimp, squid, Arctic and polar cod, and Greenland halibut.
Humpbacks are perhaps the most recognisable and well-known of all the large whales. They have long “pectoral” fins and vary in colour, ranging from black to grey to white to mottled, often with distinctive white patches on the underside of their tails. Each humpback’s markings are totally unique, much like fingerprints. Their skin is also frequently scarred, often with large patches covered in barnacles.
Humpback whales congregate in pods along coasts to feed and breed. Known for their magical whale songs, they are slow swimmers and can often be seen breaching the water, doing acrobatic jumps and joyfully splashing their long flippers and huge tails. They draw lots of attention to themselves as a result of this fascinating behaviour, making them one of the most wonderfully mesmerising whales to encounter and photograph on an Arctic Expedition Cruise!
Whale Watching on an Arctic Expedition Cruise
Most of our Arctic Expedition Cruises will provide you with plenty of opportunities to observe number of whales in their natural habitat — as well as polar bears, seals, walruses, and an array of beautiful Arctic birds. We hope this blog post has inspired a few whale lovers to start planning their own Arctic trip of a lifetime! If you have any questions for us, please don't hesitate to get in touch. And, if you want to continue to read about the Arctic's incredible wildlife, the Expeditions Online Blog is packed full of interesting guides and resources. So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your dream expedition to the Arctic today!
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