Exploring the Arctic: 7 Wildlife Encounters



Earlier this year I enjoyed one of the most exhilarating travel experiences of my life in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica.  Six months later I stepped aboard Quark Expedition’s Sea Spirit, looking forward to continuing my Tale of Two Poles.  I was a little nervous I might feel underwhelmed by the Arctic region – after all, there really is no other place in the world like Antarctica.  But I soon realised that despite their similarities – wildlife living in an unspoiled environment, landscapes of blue and white hues and icebergs floating along the water like extras in a movie – each region was unique in it’s own right.

Wildlife viewing in the polar regions is always a lottery – there are no zoos, there are no instructions to ‘release the whale for the tourists’ and animal and bird behaviour can be unpredictable.  But if you are able to make a landing in Antarctica where a penguin colony exists, there is a 100% change you will see a penguin.

The Arctic is different.

The potential presence of the dangerous polar bear often threatens landing opportunities.  The arctic fox is elusive.  The walrus spotted in one area the year before may be hauled somewhere else this season.  Retreating ice reduces the chance of seeing those creatures who crave it.

The search for wildlife in the Arctic is different, it’s tougher, it’s unpredictable – which makes it so much more rewarding when it happens!

Here are just some of the wildlife encounters that helped make my experience so memorable.


1. Polar Bear


The prized wildlife sighting in the Arctic is that of the polar bear.  The King of the Arctic evokes feelings of both fear and respect and the opportunity to get up close and personal with one is simply exhilarating.  Some of our sightings were small dots in the distance – sightings that felt like a ‘tick’ rather than an experience and one that often prevented planned landings.  More memorable sightings were the two that we had from the zodiacs, watching a mother and cub go about their business with an indifference to our presence.  But by far the highlight was the bear that was spotted swimming towards our ship, through the glass-like water near the ice cliffs of Nordaustlandet.  His curiosity led him within metres of the ship, swimming laps as he seemed to make eye contact with each and every one of us.  Magical!

2. Walrus


Sighted on both land and in the sea, the walrus was one of my favourite animals to observe.  They are endearingly ugly and intimidatingly large.  A zodiac cruise in North East Svalbard created one of the highlights of the trip as we shared the water with a large number of these animals.  At first they swam alongside us, seemingly indifferent to our presence.  But before long their curiosity led them within metres of our zodiacs and gave us an incredible opportunity to observe their physique and behaviour up close.

3. Bearded Seal


This was one of the few seal sightings of the expedition and occurred within a picturesque glacier setting during a zodiac cruise.  This bearded seal was more than comfortable with our presence, posing on the ice with some unattractive drooling action!


4. Reindeer


Whether it’s shed antlers on the ground or the reindeer themselves, their presence is symbolic of the polar north.  As we sailed further south in Svalbard, our landings almost guaranteed reindeer sightings.  My favourite was this baby reindeer who was running towards its mother.


5. Arctic Fox


One of the most elusive animals in the Arctic is the fox.  Ironically I saw one as I walked to my guesthouse in Longyearbyen before the expedition started, but was keen to meet one living away from a human settlement.  After seeing one from a distance near a bird colony in north Svalbard we approached the end of our trip accepting it may be the only sighting we would have.  But our last landing had a treat waiting for us – two adorable fox cubs.  One spent most of the time sleeping, but the other was more active, eating a bird, cuddling up to its sibling and calling out to its mother.


6. Humpback Whale


The group of humpback whales we saw was slightly underwhelming, because I’d been treated to so many incredible, close up views in Antarctica.  Nonetheless, it’s always an incredible sight to see the blow and subsequent fluke of these amazing creatures.  And learning that this was the first decent sighting of a whale for the season reminded me how fortunate I was to see it.

7. Birds

Monacobreen in Liefdefjord

I have a growing appreciate for birds.  This is partly due to my interest in photography, but also the opportunities I’ve had to watch their behaviour with ornithologists who are passionate about them.  “Birds” in the Arctic deserve a post on their own, we enjoyed such a vast array of species and behaviour.  My favourite photography subject though was the kittiwake who created a spectacular contrast against the snow and ice.



_Kellie_Netherwood-5Do you want to receive my latest posts and photographs straight to your email inbox? Sign up here and receive a FREE Wildlife Photography (Antarctica) eBook

You can also view more of my photography at Kellie Netherwood Photography and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, 500px, Instagram & Pinterest

The following two tabs change content below.
Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com


  1. Love it Kellie!!
    Have really enjoyed seeing your icy adventure!!
    what’s next?

    • Just on my way back to London for 24 hours and then heading to South Africa where I’ll be volunteering as a photographer on a game reserve for a month. After that…no idea at this stage, quite possibly will need to involve getting a job and finding a way to pay for my next adventure!!

  2. We love the images, and look forward to more from Spitsbergen! Makes us nostalgic for sure! (And I’m jealous of your Arctic Fox image, because we didn’t manage to get any closer than a couple hundred meters from a pair, and they still looked small through a 400mm lens! But at least we got to see them!)

    Laughed about the walrus being curious and approaching the Zodiacs. We had the same experience, although we didn’t get as cute a shot as you have here. Funny thing was that I had my 100-400mm zoom lens attached, focusing on some about 100 feet away and one surfaced right next to the Zodiac! He (she) was closer than my minimum focusing distance! Got to love those moments!

Speak Your Mind


Longyearbyen, Svalbard: First Impressions & 10 Random Facts
Polar Travel in Pictures: #Arctic Ice