Wildlife in the Polar Regions
A quick guide the the animals of Antarctica and the Arctic
Our polar regions offer an intimate look at unique fauna and life that have adapted to the most extreme climate on Earth. Bitterly cold winds whip across the landscape. Winter temperatures can reach deep into the negatives, and the winter night can last for months. But these seemingly barren landscapes are home to a rich diversity of wildlife—both on land and under the sea—that has evolved to survive these harsh conditions.
Why Protecting Wildlife in the Polar Regions Matters
RICH IN WILDLIFE: Polar landscapes are home to a rich diversity of wildlife, both on land and within the seas. Polar animals have evolved to survive life in the deep cold.
MIGRATING ANIMALS: Some animals, such as birds and whales, migrate long distances each summer, drawn by the abundant food supply or ideal nesting grounds in the Arctic.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLE TIED TO THE LANDSCAPE: Millions of people live in the Arctic, including many Indigenous peoples whose ancestors first came to the area thousands of years ago and who still depend on the landscape and wildlife for their livelihoods.
Wildlife in Antarctica
Marked by harsh temperatures and savage terrain, Antarctica is home to a rich diversity of wildlife that inhabits the towering glaciers, mountains, bays, fjord, pebble beaches, and rugged coastlines. Here you can witness the majestic beauty of whales that migrate from afar—orca, humpback, sperm, mink, and fin whales, depending on the season—off the Ross Sea and near the shore waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. The ice-covered terrain and rugged coastlines of Antarctica offer up wild encounters with an array of seal species: Antarctica fur leopard, Ross, Southern Elephant, Crabeater, and Weddell seals. Birdwatching is a personal highlight for our guides, whether it's the adorable tuxedo-clad Adélie or the Macaroni penguin with its comically large bushy eyebrows. Look up to the sky and spot flocks of seabirds flying over the Southern Ocean from albatrosses and petrels. On Snow Hill Island, one of the world’s largest colonies of Emperor penguins resides, the only Antarctic animal to breed during the harsh winters.
Wildlife in the Arctic
When it comes to natural encounters, the Arctic has few peers. Voyage across the Arctic Ocean and spot migrating whales circling the krill-rich waters—narwhal, bowhead, and pods of orcas off Cumberland Sound and Baffin Island. Whale-watching takes on a new meaning when you’re so close to these beautiful giants as they come up to the surface for air, spraying the boat with clear droplets of water. Trek across icy landscapes for the chance to see wild reindeer, prehistoric musk oxen, and enchanting Arctic foxes. Birdwatchers will revel at the extensive opportunities to spot puffins off Bleik and the expansive bird colonies of Runde and Varanger. But no trip to the Arctic is complete without a visit to Svalbard, where walruses and polar bears roam. The polar regions offer the chance to see some of the world’s most unique creatures on their own turf of sea, ice, and shore. A visit to the Arctic gives you an unmatched opportunity to witness wildlife in their yearly rhythms, in a terrain without human concerns.
The Animals of the Polar Regions
Below is a list of 83 species that our polar experts have helped map. Click on each species to learn more about its habitat and where you might be able to see it on board one of our Polar Expedition Cruises.
Threats to Wildlife in the Polar Regions
CLIMATE CHANGE: Climate change is already altering habitats all around the world. The polar regions have warmed by nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and temperatures continue to increase two to three times faster than the average for the rest of the world. The summer ice cover is shrinking, permafrost is melting, and coastlines have been exposed to erosion, reducing the albedo effect and therefore reinforcing the warming. In the Arctic, animals such as polar bears and walruses are losing their habitats. Sea ice is also disappearing in Antarctica, threatening the penguin species that live there.
OVERFISHING: Around the world, humans are taking fish out of the water faster than fish can reproduce. With sea ice decreasing, fishing in the Arctic is becoming an issue of increasing concern. In the Barents Sea, a relatively undisturbed area north of Norway and Russia, overfishing has led to a decline of fish species and threatened the future of important fisheries such as cod.
POLLUTION: Pollutants from human activities tend to make their way to polar regions, transported via ocean currents, migratory birds, and other means. Marine debris, which can entangle wildlife, may stick around for long periods as the region’s extended, dark, and cold winters inhibit the breakdown of chemicals. In addition, toxic contaminants become concentrated as they move up the food chain—a process called biomagnification—and are highest in top predators, such as polar bears. At the very top of the food chain, humans are also exposed to high levels of these toxins in traditional Arctic foods.
OIL AND GAS DEVELOPMENT: The Arctic holds some of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves, but getting to those precious resources—whether on land or offshore—can have devastating environmental impacts. Infrastructure for these projects can destroy habitats, fragment migration routes, and drain freshwater resources. And when something goes wrong and an oil spill occurs, Arctic wildlife can be killed and habitats contaminated for years.