Norway is known for its sweeping landscapes, glittering fjords and breathtaking glaciers but beneath the surface there is much to see too – the Arctic Ocean is home to some of the most magnificent animals on the planet. Plus, the Northern Atlantic boasts many species of plankton, and where there’s plankton, there’s whales.
In summer and spring, Hurtigruten run Explorer Voyages up to Svalbard and as well as disembarking to explore the fascinating landscapes, you can spot local interesting marine life from the outer decks and comfort of the onboard panorama lounges.
The Norwegian walrus is a unique animal that is the largest seal species in the Arctic and second largest in the world – only the Elephant seal is bigger. With distinctive tusks that can reach up to one metre long, male bulls can weigh 1,500kg – a newly born walrus pup alone weighs 60–85kg!
In late Spring, leading into the Summer, walruses can occasionally be seen at the shorelines of the fjords around the capital of Svalbard, Longyearbyen. Walruses are very social animals and it is highly unusual to see one by itself. They are normally seen in groups of up to 20.
Most of the walrus population in Svalbard is female with their cubs, while male walruses are found closer to Spitsbergen. This is largely due to the walrus hunting by Europeans around Spitsbergen that almost led to their extinction in the 1950s – nowadays though, there has been evidence of walrus cows returning to Spitsbergen.
Another great way to see these unique animals is on a Shore Excursion up to the colony on the Southern tip of Moffen, in Svalbard.
The Ringed Seal
Ringed Seals are a lot smaller than walruses and can also be spotted up in the Svalbard archipelago. They are named after the ring-like markings all along their coats, which is a silver-grey to brown colour.
They grow between 110cm and 160cm and will weigh from 50 to 100kg. These lithe creatures are the prey of polar bears, killer whales and sometimes walruses. They are the only northern seal that can create and maintain breathing holes in the thick sea ice and they breed on land-fast ice in the fjords of Svalbard.
To make a quick getaway, the pups are able to hold their breath under water for over 10 minutes and can dive down to about 90m. They can be seen from aboard the Hurtigruten voyage up to Svalbard or on one of the smaller boat safari excursions.
The Harbour Seal
All along the coast of Norway one can see the harbour seal. From onboard a Hurtigruten Coastal Cruise voyage, these seals can be seen in groups of 10 to 20 seals on beaches, intertidal areas and rocky outcrops.
They feed on a variety of fish and are generally quite playful in the water as they hunt. The pups can swim as soon as they are born and they are about 150cm in length and weigh around 100kg.
The Beluga Whale
Beluga whales, or white whales, are found in the Northern reaches of Norway up near Svalbard. They can grow up to 5m long and weigh around 1,500kg. Usually they can be seen from the ship in pods ranging from 2 to 20 whales, although astounding numbers of up to 100 have been recorded.
The actual number of white whales in Svalbard is not known but they are the most commonly observed whale in the area. The best time to see these whales is outside of winter months, as although little is known about their migratory behaviour, pods have been documented moving further into the Arctic circle leading into winter months, where 90% of the land is ice floes.
In other Beluga populations, the whales are very vocal – so much so, that they have earned the moniker canaries of the sea. The whales around Svalbard however, are remarkably quiet, a mystery to locals. The crew onboard the Hurtigruten ships have a wealth of knowledge about the marine life in the Arctic waters, so maybe they will have some theories to share with you as to why!
The Killer Whale
The famous killer whale, the King of the Ocean, grows up to 9.9m in length, weighing in at up to 5.5 tonnes! They often work together to catch prey, herding fish into tight balls and then pouncing. They also feed on seals and other larger marine animals.
There are thought to be 3,000 killer whales living around Svalbard but you’ll be lucky to see one from on deck!
The Sperm Whale
Sperm whales are a common sighting on the Classic Coastal Route during the Summer. Sperm whales feed mostly on squid, of both the colossal and giant kind, but will eat various other fish too.
A sperm whale’s huge blunt head takes up a third of it’s body – that can be over 5m (they grow up to 16m)! They also have the largest brain on earth and can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes at very deep levels.
Female whales are highly social and usually live together – it’s not unusual to see 10 or 12 out at sea in a pod. Sperm whales were historically highly prized for hunting and thousands were killed every year. Nowadays, they are protected in Svalbard and can be seen in pods during the Spring and Summer months.
It is unknown how long the whales can live for, but there are some who are believed to be up to 70 years old!