This largest of the Arctic 'true' seals that sports an elegant mustache!
What you need to know about the Bearded Seal
Our Expert Says… "Despite their size, bearded seals are quite a laid back species! We can often get quite close to them in the Zodiacs without disturbing them, and young bearded seal pups are curious and playful. The adults' sheer size makes you realize how powerful Polar Bears must be to take these as prey."
The bearded seal’s most prominent feature is the large number of long bushy whiskers they grow, although we think this makes them look more like they have a large mustache than a beard!
Bearded seals are one of the largest of the arctic seal species, with the biggest females weighing up to 230kg (500lb) and growing up to almost 2.7m (9ft) long. Male bearded seals are smaller, but both sexes share the same coloration - generally a brownish-gray, becoming slightly darker on the back. Bearded seals also have uniquely-shaped front flippers, which gives them their other name, the square flipper seal.
Polar bears hunt bearded seals, and along with ringed seals, they constitute a major part of the bears’ diet. These seals were also hunted by Inuit populations who used the bearded seal’s tough skin for making sled harnesses, shoes, and other items where strength was required.
Bearded seals can be found across the whole arctic and sub-arctic region, with occasional sightings of animals much further south into European or Japanese waters. Their total numbers are unknown, but the population is thought to be stable, and their wide range means they are under the least threat of extinction.
The whiskers of the bearded seal are not merely to make them look dapper! They prefer feeding in water that isn’t deeper than about 1,000ft, and they probe the ocean floor using the sensitive hairs on their noses to find clams, squid, and flatfish that hide in the soft sediment. They will also catch fish above the seafloor, including arctic cod, and have been known to eat sea anemones and marine worms.
Pupping occurs in April and May among most populations, and the pups are born on small ice floes usually above shallow water. The pups are able to enter the water and swim just a few hours after birth and develop their swimming skills very quickly. They are weaned from their mothers after only 20 days or so.
As well as polar bears, orcas will also hunt bearded seals. Sometimes orcas will tip the floes to get the seals into the water or raise large bow waves to wash them off in order to catch them.
Bearded Seal: Interesting facts
Bearded Seal: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Bearded Seal can be observed
The bird cliff here is so impressive it features in the opening credits of The Frozen Planet.
Situated in Hinlopenstretet on the NE side of Spitsbergen, the cliffs are home to around 60,000 pairs of Brünnich’s guillemots, numerous kittiwakes, and Glaucous Gulls and kittiwakes. It is not only the site and sound of the birds, but the cliffs themselves, the geology is stunning with a series of sheer ramparts, some set back (a great place for Arctic Foxes), others going straight down into the sea. It is an outstanding Zodiac cruise, and since ships can get quite close, there is often an additional ships cruise past the cliffs with different angle from the higher vantage point.
On Admiralty Inlet on the very northwest side of Baffin Island.
Named after the whaling ship, the Arctic, in 1872, it is the site of quite a large community (mainly Inuktitut) called Ikpiarjuk, and a popular location to visit for expedition cruise ships. There is a museum and Ikpiarjuk a good place to learn about the culture. The area is great to ship cruise and explore for wildlife.
Austfonna and Bråsvellbreen
The ice cliff here is so impressive it features in the opening credits of The Frozen Planet. It is where the massive ice cap of Austfonna, covering 58% of Nordaustlandet, meets the sea, and the third largest ice cap in the World.
The ice cliff is about 180km long, apart from few rocky out¬crops, and roughly 24m high, with a series of waterfalls along the length when it is warmer. The ice cliff is routinely referred to as Bråsvellbreen, but it is the huge glacier streaming out of Austfonna. It often surges forward and is known as the Sudden Swell Glacier. The section at the southern end of Hinlopenstretet is the most accessible, often as a combined ship cruise and a Zodiac cruise, and it is simply breath taking, a bit like the ice wall in the Game of Thrones!
There is also the chance to check out wildlife on the ice floes and the bergy bits.
In northwest Greenland in Melville Bay, the ice sheet comes right down to the coast, separating the very northwest part of Greenland from the rest of western Greenland.
Cape York is one of the first locations on this northwest coast that has tundra and lakes to explore. The mountains and icebergs match this remote location that, in many ways, has far more of a link with the Canadian Arctic, rather than Greenland.
It is one of the most important locations in NW Greenland for breeding seabirds and it can be good for marine mammals. Including traditional hunting ground, whalers and explorers have also visited the area, and the family of Admiral Robert Peary's family placed a monument in honour of his explorations on the cape.
Nice area to explore the tundra and enjoy the magnificent views.
Between Ellesmere Island and Devon Island at the entrance to Jones Sound.
It is part of the Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area and Cambridge Point, with spectacular cliffs that are an important location for breeding seabirds including black guillemot, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, northern fulmar, and thick-billed murre. Offshore waters are also good for marine mammals.
At the very northern end of Baffin Bay and the very northwest of Greenland, Etah looks across the Nares Strait to Ellesmere Island, the area usually frozen from October to July.
The area was the crossing point to Greenland for cultures 4,400 and 2,700 years ago, the Thule culture migrants less than a thousand years ago, and the point of the last migration of the Inuit from Baffin Island reached the coast of Greenland in 1865 Etah was also a starting point for various expeditions attempting to get to the North Pole.
Today the channel, when frozen, continues to be a crossing point for wildlife from Canada to Greenland, even Wolverine get across. Etah used to be the most-northerly populated settlement in the world, but it was abandoned (Inuit moving south to Pituffik) due to the harsh conditions.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
The 14th of July bay and glacier, named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
It is one of the highlights in Krossfjorden, often combining a landing with a Zodiac cruise. Cruising along the impressive glacier front, there are regular calvings with bergs in the bay that attracts birds like kittiwakes. And nearby there are bird cliffs with a colony of Thick-billed Murres (Brünnich’s Guillemot) that also includes Atlantic Puffins. Options for landing (being careful of potential Tsunami waves from calvings) include one of the best spots in the whole of Svalbard for flowers, and even the chance to walk on the side of the glacier.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
The fjords in the inner part of Hornsund is superb to explore by ship with the spectacular rugged scenery, including the distinctive and towering peak known as Hornsundtind. The geology is impressive, and make sure to look out for birds, seals, and even Polar bears.
Deeper in the Fjord, there is the impressive and long glacial front of Hornbreen, and there are glacial fronts in Burgerbutka to the north, and Samarinvågen to the south. These locations are also excellent for Zodiac cruising to get close to the glacial fronts (at a safe distance) and look for wildlife.
Amongst the ice floes is a great place to look for Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals, and the Ivory Gull.
Karrat Fjord and Upernavik
Karrat Fjord, towards the north end of the Uummannaq Bay system, is a great fjord to explore with icebergs, rugged mountains, blue fjords, with the chance to walk on the tundra and look for wildlife. Various species can be seen but others can be elusive due to the proximity of Upernavik.
Upernavik, on the island of the same name, is a very pretty town on the slopes of the island, surrounded by magnificent scenery, at the entrance to the local fjord systems. As well as the colourful houses there is the most northerly 'open air' museum in the World. It also boasts to have the World's largest bird cliffs nearby.
There are a a few settlements further north before the ice sheet comes right down to the coast in Melville Bay between western Greenland and the very NW tip and Thule.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
The two split fjords that form the inner part of Krossfjorden are popular for ship cruising and Zodiac cruising to enjoy the scenery, the glacier fronts, and to look out for wildlife and the chance of a bear.
There are also several options for landings including Möllerhamna, with a hunter’s cabin painted orange that is known the ‘Lloyds Hotel’. Many cruise ships have visited the site for over 100 years, leaving behind mementoes like signs, graffiti (no longer allowed), and a bar. Sigenhamna is another location where there was a German weather station in World War II.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
Isolated fjord, is to the north of the Arctic Circle, and isolated between Scoresbysund further to the north, and the numerous fjords of the SE coast.
The ice sheet comes even closer to the coast here with the Christian IV Glacier at the head of the fjord. Often lots of ice in the fjord, and the isolated location, this has to be one of the best locations in Greenland to try and find a Polar Bear. Some visit this fjord after visiting NE Greenland and before heading to Iceland.
The cruises crossing the Denmark Strait can be great for seabirds and whale watching, including the Northern Bottle-nosed Whale in the seas associated with the continental slope.
The largest glacier on Spitsbergen that flows into the NW sector of Storfjorden with the longest front to any glacier in Svalbard where it reaches the sea.
With numerous carvings it is almost impossible for a ship to get close for a ship to get close, apart from the northern end, but it makes for a stunning Zodiac cruise with the ice cliffs, the icebergs, and the brash ice. As well as looking out for wildlife the area is known for its stunningly beautiful blue icebergs.
Stunning narrow and steep sided fjord that comes down from the north-west, deep in Scoresbysund, Fjord fed by several glaciers including the Daugaard-Jensen Glacier with massive icebergs floating down the fjord. Great ship cruising and excellent Zodiac cruising amongst the huge icebergs.
There is the chance of seeing seals, and, if you are very lucky, a seabird, but bear in mind they are quite shy. Although the location is a long way from Ittoqqortoormiit, hunters do get into the remoter regions of the fjord system, and it means wildlife can be be wary.
Just before reaching the mouth of the fjord there are some areas of tundra that can be good for Musk-Ox.
Prince Leopold Island
This island is in a key location in Lancaster Sound at the junction of Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow Strait, off the northwest coast of Somerset Island. It has some really impressive and steep seabird cliffs that is one of the most important sites in the Canadian Arctic and a bird sanctuary.
Also good area to look for marine mammals and other Arctic wildlife.
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
A series of hard granite islands that translates as seven islands, islands that are to the north of Nordaustlandet. Being the furthest north in the whole of Svalbard, the islands can remain in the pack ice for much of the year.
Walrus can be seen throughout the area, with at least one popular landing at a haul out. There are plenty of seabirds, and the chance of a bear resting somewhere on one of the islands, sometimes several bears, understandable with the location. With the myriad of islands it is very popular to explore by Zodiac and the area also has important ties to polar exploration. Many of the locations were named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827), including Neslonøya, after a certain young midshipman! Not that long ago the whole area could be trapped in ice throughout the year and just to the east was the area where Nobile’ airship, the Italia, crashed onto the ice, with a huge rescue effort.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
Town on small island of the same name with a prominent peak at the entrance of Uummannaq Fjord.
Photogenic location for the town, the largest north of Ilulissat, with a museum and the chance to experience a Greenland community. The fjords great for the scenery and icebergs and whale watching. In the region is Qilakitsaq, where there is a site with Innuit burial remains.
The most westerly of the group, and, like Kvitoya on Svalbard to the west, it is covered by an ice dome. Visited by expedition cruise ships sailing between the two archipelagos. There are two small ice free (almost gravel) areas to land on the wets and north sides – with a decaying weather station at the latter.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.