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Wildlife in the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage is an unspoiled oasis across the High Arctic. Its animal life of musk oxen, caribou, seals and polar bears migrate to more comfortable climes or adapt to the icy landscape.

4 mins read

Extended relatives

The Arctic is home to six seal species: harp, hooded, ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon. These remarkable marine mammals are insulated with thick layers of blubber and fur, which allows them to search for food at depths of more than 6,500 feet in icy water and holding their breath for up to two hours.

Weighing up to 2 tonnes, walruses are the largest of the pinniped order which seals are also members of. These leathery carnivores lack the fur that seals have, relying instead on blubber and their ability to slow their heartbeat to survive the frigid water. Walruses are incredibly social animals that lie together on the ice, barking at each other.

Toothy tools

The scientific name for a walrus is Odobenus rosmarus, which is Latin for “tooth-walking seahorse”. This is appropriate as their iconic tusks are actually canine teeth, and have been known to grow up to 37 inches! Males have bigger tusks than females, and the tusks never stop growing throughout their lives. They can be used as tools to help a walrus haul itself onto ice floes, or as weapons to help males defend their territory.

Polar predators

The natural predators of ringed and bearded seals, polar bears are endemic to the North Pole. With brilliant white fur and a standing height of up to ten feet, these solitary bears are a sight to behold. Look closely at the snowy landscape to see if you can spot one! Polar bears are born in dens dug into deep snow drifts on the land, but then spend most of their life on the sea ice, depending on the ocean for food. Because of this, they are the only bear species to be considered marine mammals. You might catch a glimpse of one of these rare creatures along the shoreline.

A warm invisibility cloak

Beneath their distinctive white coat, the skin of polar bears is actually jet black, helping it retain sunlight it absorbs through its hair. Their fur doesn’t even contain any white pigment but is instead made up of hollow hairs that scatter visible light, keeping them camouflaged against the sea ice. A dense layer of underfur and a further layer of blubber insulates the body, keeping the polar bear warm.

Summer neighbours

You might think a place so often covered in snow is no place for a herbivore. However, large herds of musk oxen and caribou graze side by side in the summer months, feeding off tundra grasses and plants. As the temperature drops and snowfall increases in winter, they part ways. The caribou migrate south to a more sheltered climate, while the musk oxen stay put.

If you see a herd of caribou, you might notice that even their noses and hooves are covered in hair. The fur under their hooves gives them a good grip when walking on ice, while the hair covering their noses warms frigid air before it reaches their lungs. You may notice a musk ox’s shaggy coat, but it’s the strong odour that the males emit during mating season which has inspired the ox’s name.

Regenerative antlers

What sets caribou apart from others in the deer family is that both males and females grow antlers. In the early stages of development, they’re covered in a layer of soft fuzz, called velvet, which provides nutrients to the antlers and promotes growth. Once they have finished growing, the caribou sheds the velvet, exposing sharp, red stained antlers. Shortly after this, the antlers themselves fall off, and regrow over the next year

Masters of disguise

The two-feet tall Arctic hare has been gifted with an incredible adaptation: a colour-changing coat. In the winter, a sleeping hare could be easily mistaken for a large snowball, and in the summer, its fur appears a blue-grey colour matching the rocks and vegetation of the area. This, along with their ability to reach speeds of 40 mph, proves invaluable when trying to evade their main predator, the Arctic fox.

Summer is so short in the areas of the Northwest Passage where we sail that the Arctic hares that live there don’t get much of a chance to change their coat colour, instead remaining white for the year.

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Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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