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Arctic Seals of Svalbard

True Seal Species Commonly Seen on an Arctic Cruise

Svalbard is home to a huge number of seals. With their thick layers of insulating blubber, true seals (otherwise known as earless seals) are better adapted to these icy waters than are sea lions or fur seals, which are not found in the High Arctic. Unlike their Antarctic relatives, Arctic seals are hunted relentlessly by a fearsome land-based predator—the polar bear. Because of this, you will rarely see Arctic seals hauled out on land. Arctic seals prefer to rest on sea ice or icebergs, though they are not safe from polar bears here either. Witnessing a polar bear stalk a seal on the ice is one of the world’s great wildlife experiences. In Svalbard, seals can be found in all waters from the innermost fjords to the polar ice edge. The best way to see a variety of Arctic seals is to join an expedition cruise. Here are some of the seal species you can see on an Arctic cruise to Svalbard and beyond.

Bearded Seal

The sagacious-looking bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) is commonly found in shallow bays and fjords. They can be seen, usually alone, hauled out on ice floes in areas where they hunt for benthic fish and invertebrates on the seabed. Weighing up to 770 pounds (350 kg), they are the heaviest of the true seals in Svalbard. Bearded seals are easily recognized by their uniformly brown or gray pelage and long vibrissae (whiskers) that curl when dry, giving them the appearance of having an elegant mustache. They are residents of Svalbard but are also found in East Greenland and Franz Josef Land. Close viewing of these calm seals can often be enjoyed from a kayak or Zodiac.

Harp Seal

The harp seal (Phoca groenlandicus) is more pelagic and can be found at the edge of the polar pack ice, sometimes in great concentrations. The population of harp seals around Svalbard is numbered in the millions. Weighing up to 330 pounds (150 kg), adults have characteristic black lines or spots on their backs resembling two linked harps. Pups of this species are infamously clubbed in Canada for their pure white coats, but they are protected in Svalbard. Harp seals can also be found in the icy waters of Franz Josef Land, East Greenland and Jan Mayen, where they can be encountered on drifting sea ice or porpoising through open waters.

Ringed Seal

The ringed seal (Phoca hispida) is an Arctic specialist and the most abundant of the Arctic seals. Being the polar bear’s favorite prey, they are naturally nervous and shy of close approach. The ringed seal is the smallest Arctic seal, weighing up to 220 pounds (100 kg). They have silver to brown pelage with a conspicuous pattern of small rings, for which they are named. Ringed seals can be found wherever there is ice, especially on land-fast ice and along the polar ice edge north of Spitsbergen. They use sharp claws to maintain breathing holes in ice up to 7 feet (2 m) thick. Ringed seals have a circumpolar distribution and are common in Svalbard, East Greenland and Franz Josef Land. They have even been seen at the North Pole.

Other seals that inhabit the waters of Svalbard include hooded seals (Cystophora cristata) and harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), also known as common seals. All of the species mentioned above are part of the family Phocidae—the earless or true seals. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), which also inhabit the High Arctic including Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and East Greenland, are in the related family Odobenidae.

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