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Bearded Seal

Bearded Seal

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 & Videos

Humpback Whale
Bearded Seal

Spots where the Bearded Seal can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
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.

Our trips to spot the Bearded Seal

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