The Polar Bear
The polar bear is the world’s largest land predator and an animal of immense strength. The chances of seeing a polar bear are greatest on boat trips.
A SYMBOL OF THE ARCTIC
The polar bear is the world’s largest land-based predator and is thus larger than other species of bear. Its compelling power has made it a popular symbol of strength in the Arctic world, and the Government of Greenland uses the polar bear in the official national coat of arms.
POLAR BEARS AROUND GREENLAND
In Greenland the polar bear lives and breeds in the northernmost parts of West Greenland and in Northeast Greenland, but is also occasionally seen elsewhere in the country, as it moves with the drifting ice.
However, it is extremely rare for either local inhabitants or tourists to see a living polar bear. The chances of seeing a polar bear are greatest when sailing by ship along the coast.
They are relatively easy to spot due to their off-white fur, which is clearly distinguishable against the pack ice or the landscape.
GREAT UTILITY VALUE
The Greenlandic polar bear may only be hunted in quite special circumstances, but when an animal is killed, there is – as with all other animals hunted in Greenland – a tradition to utilise the whole animal.
For example, the meat is eaten, the skull is used as a trophy, the claws as jewellery and the hide for trousers or kamik.
IS THREATENING THE BEAR
The polar bear is not threatened by hunting, but rather by environmental pollution. So-called POPs (persistent organic pollutants) have been discovered in very high concentrations in polar bears from East Greenland and Svalbard. This has led to concern about the polar bear’s ability to reproduce.
At the same time the effects of global warming mean that the Arctic ice is melting, thereby further reducing the polar bear’s natural habitat.
With its body weighing up to one tonne and its 50 cm tusk, the walrus commands great respect – both from other predators and hunters.
The walrus, with its large body and highly distinctive tusks, is easily recognizable. Its tusks can grow up to 50 centimetres (20 inches) in length and are used by the walrus as a useful tool, for example when hauling itself up onto an ice floe.
The tusks are also used in self-defence when killer whales or polar bears attack the walrus, which can be up to 3 metres (10 feet) in length and weigh 1000 kg (2,200 lbs).
WHERE TO FIND WALRUSES
Walruses are seen on land and along the coast throughout East Greenland, in particular between 63° and 81° N. In North Greenland, the Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and the Thule district are the best places to see walruses.
In West Greenland – where the walrus does not venture onto land – they can be seen between Sisimiut and the Thule district in the north.
Considering that Greenland’s coastline is more than 44,000 km (27,500 miles) in length, walruses are relatively few in number.
FORAGE FOR FOOD
Walruses generally stay close to the edge of the sea ice or on drifting ice floes where the depth of the sea is less than 100 metres (330 feet). Here they can dive to pick up mussels and molluscs, which make up their chief sources of nutrition, and it is thought that they use their tusks to scrape the seabed looking for food.
HUNTING FOR WALRUSES
For the Inuits, the walrus has always been an important animal to hunt, and one which was also particularly dangerous to meet in a kayak. Its beautiful tusks have afforded it respect in Greenlandic myths and legends, but also almost cost it its existence due to intensive hunting by foreign companies which began as early as the 17th century.
In 1952 the walrus became a fully protected species, and since that time populations have gradually recovered.
Today quota-based hunting of the walrus takes place in Greenland’s hunting districts, and the export of souvenir products from the walrus requires a CITES certificate, which can be obtained from tourist offices or in souvenir shops.
The seas around Greenland are teeming with whales. Greenlandic waters have 15 different species of whale, including the humpback and the Greenland whale.
In the spring, around the Disko Bay area in late May, the Greenland whale can be met close to the land.
Around 15 species of whale are regular visitors to Greenlandic waters, but only three of these – the beluga whale, the narwhal and the bowhead whale – remain in Greenland during the winter. Whale species such as the blue whale and killer whale are only rarely seen.
During brief stays in Greenland in the summer season it is, however, usually completely different species that can be seen: the humpback whale, minke whale and fin whale.
In spite of being 18 metres (59 feet) long and weighing some 30 tonnes (66,000 lbs), the humpback whale is the acrobat amongst the large whales.
Whales of all ages jump out of the water and flick their tails and flippers. This whale is easily recognisable on account of its humped dorsal fin and white flippers, and it usually lifts its tail when diving.
Nuuk, Aasiaat and Qeqertarsuaq – as well as Sisimiut, Maniitsoq and Paamiut – are all particularly good places to see the humpback whale from April to November in its hunt for fish, squid and krill.
Otherwise, it can be seen in most of Greenland.
The minke whale, which is also called the lesser rorqual, is a relatively small whale that grows to a size of just 10 metres (33 feet) and weighs no more than 10 tonnes (22,000 lbs).
Minke whales have been seen jumping out of the water, but in Greenlandic waters it is most common to see just the dorsal fin and spout.
The whale is seen in fjords and along the coasts in South- and West Greenland up to Disko Bay – typically from May to October. Minke whales are, however, known for appearing at unusual places at odd times of the year.
There are no whale safaris that are designed to look for minke whales in particular, but you can often see them on sailing trips.
The fin whale can be 27 metres (89 feet) long and is thus the world’s second largest species, surpassed only by the blue whale which is 33 metres.
It can weigh up to 100 tonnes (220,000 lbs) and is occasionally seen on boat trips around Uummannaq in particular, but also around Qaqortoq and in Disko Bay, as well as very occasionally in Greenland’s fjords.
Fish, squid and small crustaceans make up its primary food source. The fin whale rarely lifts its tail when diving, but does occasionally jump out of the water and splash with its flippers in the water.
In Greenland you normally only see three species of whale during the winter and part of the spring season, but on the other hand the whales that you do see during this period are quite unusual whales that are not seen in many other parts of the world – namely the bowhead whale, narwhal and beluga whale.
The bowhead whale is an Arctic species that typically frequents the seas around Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island in spring before setting course in the middle of May for the northern part of Baffin Bay, the sea between Canada and Greenland.
The bowhead whale can live to an age of 200, and in the 17th and 18th centuries was the whalers’ preferred catch.
This whale can weigh up to 90 tonnes (198,000 lbs) and have a maximum length of 20 metres (66 feet). Compared to all other whale species, the bowhead whale has the thickest layer of blubber (25-45 cm / 10-18 inches) and the longest whalebone (3.5 m /11.5 feet).
The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that typically weighs between 800-1600 kg (1750-3500 lbs).
It is most well-known for its distinctive spiralling tusk which in some males can reach a length of up to 3 metres (10 feet) – in addition to a body length of 4-5 metres (13-16.5 feet).
The tusks are used in mating combat, where the struggle can be so intense that the tusks sometimes shatter. In the Middle Ages narwhal tusks were traded like unicorn horns and were an extremely valuable commodity for trade between Inuits and the Norse settlers.
In Greenland narwhals are most frequently seen in Melville Bay, in the area around Qaanaaq and in Northeast Greenland in the summer season.
The beluga whale is, like the narwhal, a medium-sized toothed whale. It has a length ranging from 3 to 5 metres (10-16.5 feet) and typically weighs between 400-1500 kg (900-3300 lbs).
The beluga whale is often seen in small groups of 5 to 10 animals, but has also been seen in groups of several thousand.
The beluga whale can dive to depths of 600 metres (2000 feet) for periods of up to 15 minutes. Diving is typically performed with 5-6 flat dives followed by deeper and deeper dives looking for fish, squid and crustaceans.
In Greenland beluga whales are seen between Maniitsoq and Disko Bay as well as at Qaanaaq and Upernavik.