Whales of Svalbard

Arctic whale-watching on a cruise around Spitsbergen

Now enjoying protection after centuries of relentless hunting, whales are returning to the waters of Svalbard. Whales found feeding in the beautiful fjords and rich polar seas around Spitsbergen provide some of the best whale-watching to be had anywhere. Long polar days afford cruise passengers the chance to spot whales during excursions and from the deck of the ship anytime. Here are some whale species to look for during your Spitsbergen cruise.

Beluga Whale

The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), also known as the white whale, is perhaps the most recognizable of the Arctic whales. An adult beluga (3.0–5.0 meters, 500–1,500 kilograms) is entirely creamy-white with a distinctive “melon” (an echolocation organ) on its broad head. Calves are uniformly gray and become white after six years.

Belugas, often traveling in groups, are commonly found near land along the coast of Spitsbergen. The diet of these toothed whales consists of fish and marine invertebrates, which they hunt using echolocation. The beluga is one of the most vocal whales and is also known as the “canary of the seas” because of its bird-like singing.

Look for belugas near glacier fronts, where they can be distinguished from icebergs by their creamier color. Lucky kayakers may even have the time of their lives paddling among these gentle whales.

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate from their tropical breeding areas to Svalbard in the summer to take advantage of the abundance of fish and plankton. Humpbacks belong to the group of baleen whales known as rorquals, meaning they have expanding throats that help them gulp great quantities of water. Food is captured by baleen plates as the water is expelled through them.

Humpbacks make noises but, unlike toothed whales, they use these sounds for communication rather than locating prey. Adults (11–18 meters, 25–45 tonnes) are uniformly dark gray or black with variable white patches on the underside and individually patterned tail flukes. They have a small dorsal on a distinctive hump which appears prominently when the whale arches its back before making a deep dive.

Humpbacks exhibit a variety of remarkable behaviors, such as spy hopping, lob-tailing, fin-waving and breaching (jumping out of the water) which amaze and delight observers. In the waters around Svalbard, humpbacks have also been seen engaging in a collective hunting strategy in which a group of whales cooperate to herd a shoal of fish and then engulf them spectacularly at the surface.

Blue whale

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the largest whale and the largest animal ever to have lived. A fully-grown blue whale (22–31 meters, 60–140 tonnes) is a truly impressive creature and can be recognized by its almost impossibly long body and mottled bluish-gray coloration. The falcate dorsal fin is relatively small and positioned very far back on the body.

Younger blue whales can sometimes be confused with the smaller fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), which can also be spotted around Svalbard. Like the humpback whale, the blue whale is a rorqual and feeds on fish and plankton. Around Spitsbergen, blue whales are encountered in deep waters, often at the edge of the continental shelf where food is concentrated by upwelling of currents.

Bowhead Whale

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), originally known as the Greenland right whale, is a true Arctic specialist with a body designed for breaking through ice up to 60cm thick. The massive head, with its huge bow-shaped mouth, makes up 35-40% of the animal’s total length. Adults (15–18.5 meters, 60–100 tonnes) have extremely rotund black bodies with no dorsal fin. They have a white lower lip with a distinctive line of black spots. They are baleen whales who, unlike the rorquals, feed by sieving food from the water as they slowly swim through it with mouths agape.

Studies have indicated bowheads can live up to 200 years, making them among the longest-lived of all animals. Small groups of these serene and graceful giants, once hunted almost to extinction, are a great pleasure to behold in the Barents Sea between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. Look out for their characteristic V-shaped blows!

Other whales and dolphins that can be seen in waters around Svalbard are narwhal, minke whales, sperm whales, northern bottlenose whales, orcas (killer whales), pilot whales and white-beaked dolphins.

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