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Whales in Greenland

Get close to the giants of the sea. Greenland is home for many species of whales and you will have plenty of opportunity to experience these majestic animals.

The size of whales is impressive, and these amazing animals have a very special place in Greenlandic society, both in culture and in the old myths and legends.

You can see whales in many spots along the Greenland coast. The most common whales you will see are the very large and powerful humpback whales, the slightly smaller and curious minke whales, and Greenland whales.

We can guarantee you that you will never forget the sight of these beautiful and incredibly large animals. Experience them as they dive into the depths of the sea with their tails up in the air!

If you are very lucky, you might see the amazing blue whale, which is the world’s largest mammal. It sometimes swims through Greenlandic waters.

 

The impressive whales in Greenland

Their size alone has made whales mythical creatures, and Greenland is home to numerous whales – especially in the months of summer. Silver Bay, Moby Dick and Disney’s Willie the Whale.

We have been fascinated by the giants of the sea for centuries. We can guarantee you that you will never forget witnessing the stunning animals dive tail-up, or – if you are fortunate enough – seeing them gambol at the surface.

Approximately 15 species of whales frequently appear in Greenlandic waters. Only three of them remain there all year: The beluga, the narwhal and the bowhead whale. Certain species like the blue whale and the killer whale only rarely are seen. However, the other species are represented in large numbers!

If you visit Greenland during summer, you have really good chances of spotting whales. The more time you spend at sea, the better are your odds.

By the way, did you know that hippopotamuses are the closest living relatives of whales?

 

 

The best time to see whales in Greenland

From the middle of summer to late fall you are almost guaranteed to meet whales near Paamiut in Southern Greenland, near Nuuk in Central Greenland as well as north of the Arctic Circle near Aasiaat, in the Disco Bay and near Uummannaq. We say ‘almost guaranteed’ because whales are independent animals, and they obviously do not appear just to please us.

Already in April and May, your chances of seeing bowhead whales near Qeqertarsuaq are good. A great tip is to remain close to the skipper or other on-board staff as they are trained whale spotters.

Regardless of whether this is your first, second or tenth whale safari, you cannot help but be excited every time the large animals come close. Just like with the rest of Greenland’s nature, you will quickly feel very small in this world.

 

 

The best places to spot whales in Greenland

Both the sea and the fjords are swarming with whales. Whales live where their food is. They feed on krill, plankton and shoals of small fish, so they follow their food. Fortunately, some whales are also fond of certain places. This makes specific regions in Greenland particularly suited for whale safaris because the chance of whale sightings there is high. These places include Southern Greenland, the Disco Bay, near Maniitsoq and in the large system of fjords near the capital, Nuuk.

The majority of tourists plan a visit to the Disco Bay and the town of Ilulissat where you stand really good chances of getting close to the whales. The Ilulissat Icefjord is highly popular among whales as the large quantity of ice masses and movements in the water offer great conditions for finding food.

Read more about Whale watching

Two types of whales

Whales are divided into two suborders: baleen whales and toothed whales. In Greenland, you can meet both baleen whales and toothed whales.

Baleen whales
Among the baleen whales, we find blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales, bowhead whales and grey whales. Instead of upper teeth, the baleen whales have several long, narrow baleen plates, which the whale uses to eat. The baleen whales eat smaller animals such as krill or small fish. The baleen whales fill their mouth with water, which they then press out through the baleens using their tongue. Afterwards, a lot of small animals are stuck in the baleens providing food for the whales. Moreover, baleen whales always have two blowholes on top of their head.

Toothed whales
Toothed whales are characterised by their many small, pointy teeth. They hunt fish, squid or seals and use their teeth to hold on to the food. Opposite the baleen whales, toothed whales only have one blowhole on top of their head. Among the toothed whales, we find sperm whales, dolphins, killer whales, porpoises, narwhals and belugas.

Whale species in Greenland

Greenland is home to 15 species of whale. In southern Greenland, you will typically see fin whales and minke whales, but we have also come across sperm whales down there. The whales often appear at random when you are sailing between the towns. You are likely to spot humpback whales near Paamiut, Maniitsoq, Ilulissat and Aasiaat, and they are also found in large numbers in the fjords around Nuuk. Humpback whales, minke whales, fin whales and bowhead whales are a common sight in the Disco Bay. Whales also flock to Eastern Greenland where they enjoy the solitary surroundings.

You might be fortunate enough to meet belugas and narwhals at the northernmost coasts where in rarer circumstances you can also see blue whales and killer whales. Generally, approximately 15 different species of whale swim by Greenland in order to feast on the many other animal species the sea has to offer. Most whales commute back and forth between Greenland and the Caribbean, while three species – belugas, narwhals and bowhead whales – have quit commuting to remain in Greenland all year.

Below, you can read more about the six species that you are most likely to meet.

Greenland whale – the heaviest and oldest

Balaena mysticetus

With a weight of up to 100 tons, the Greenland whale is one of the heaviest whales and one of the species that weighs most among all species of whales in the world.

Some bowhead whales have been known to live for more than 250 years, and it is one of the longest-living mammals in the world! In Greenland, they are still surpassed by the Greenland shark, which can be more than 300 years old.

But not only the age is impressive: The bowhead whale can become up to 18 metres long, it weighs up to 100 tons and it lives in the most beautiful regions on earth: the waters surrounding Canada and Greenland.

The bowhead whale is an Arctic whale species, and in Greenland, it typically spends the months of spring near Qeqertarsuaq on the Disco Island before heading towards Canada in mid-May. You have particularly good chances of spotting the world’s longest-living mammal around April.

Compared to other whale species, the bowhead whale has the thickets layer of blubber (25-45 cm) and the longest baleen (3,5 m).

 

Humpback whale – The acrobat of the sea

Megaptera novaeangliae

The humpback whales are almost as large as the Greenland whale. They can be close to 18 meters, but they weigh “only” about 30 tons. That is why they are considered to be the acrobats of the sea among the great whales. They often come very close to the boats and are very curious so that you can get some incredible pictures of this amazing animal. When you see a humpback whale jumping and diving with the tail in the air, you will find that it is a truly unique and incredible experience.

The humpback whale is not considered to be particularly elegantly built, and its name comes from having a dorsal fin which resembles a hump.

The humpback whales have huge tail fins, and their very long mitts are the longest in the animal world. The tail can be up to 5-6 meters wide and has a beautiful and characteristic black-and-white pattern on the underside.

You will most often find the humpback whale on Greenland’s west coast near Nuuk, Aasiaat, Ilulissat, and Qeqertarsuaq. However, you will also be able to see them in the water around Sisimiut, Maniitsoq, and Paamiut from April to November.

Minke whale

Balaenoptera acutorostrata

The minke whale is one of the smaller whales in the family of baleen whales. Their Greenlandic name is Tikaagullik. It is usually “only” up to 10 meters in length and weighs less than 10 tons. The minke whale can be seen in the fjords and along the coast in South and West Greenland, including the Disco Bay, from May to October.

However, the minke whales have been seen in many places around Greenland at other times of the year.

Acutorostrata, which is the species name of the minke whale, means pointy snout, which also describes them very well. Their fins and stomach have very distinctive white markings that make them easy to identify.

The minke whale can swim quite fast. You may find that they stick their heads up above the water to check their position or even jump up and out of the water.

Minke whales have different personalities. You can meet the curious individuals who will follow the whale watching boat for a long time, while others are shyer and stay a little at a distance. The minke whale is also special in that they do not show their tail fin when diving.

The Narwhal – the whale with the twisted tusk

Monodon monoceros

The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale, typically weighing from 800 to 1,600 kilos. It is mostly known for its odd appearance. The whale has a long tooth on its nose. The tusk is twisted, always counter-clockwise, and this tusk is one of the whale’s canine teeth. In rare cases, one may find that the males have two tusks or, very strikingly, none at all.

A fun fact about the narwhal is that they change color with age. You do not experience this often with whales. You will see that they get lighter, the older they are. The young are blue-gray or black, the adults gray-gray, while the old narwhals are almost white.

In Greenland, the narwhal is most prevalent in the area around the Melville Bay near Qaanaaq, as well as in north-east Greenland. They spend their entire lives in Arctic regions, and it is believed that up to 90 % of the world’s narwhales live near Canada and Greenland.

Narwhal is important in the traditional way of life of the Inuit. Their meat is a delicacy in Greenland, and mattak – the skin from the narwhal – is among the greatest delicacies in Greenland.

The teeth of the narwhals are sought after and formed the basis for the myth of unicorns. You will probably also see beautiful carvings in whale tusks if you visit Greenland’s museums.

The beluga whale

Delphinapterus leucas

Like the narwhal, the beluga whale is a medium-sized toothed whale. These two species of whales are also related to each other. Beluga whales often live in smaller groups of five to ten whakes, but is also seen in very large flocks. Their head is flexible and allows them to make different facial expressions, so in some pictures, it looks like they are smiling at the camera.

In Greenland, they are quite common and can be seen in the seas between Maniitsoq and Disco Bay, and in the areas close to Qaanaaq and Upernavik.

The whale becomes lighter with age. The young beluga whales are greyish, while the older whales become whites.

After several studies, scientists have discovered that the beluga whale can mimic human speech.

 

The fin whale

The fin whale is quite a sight. It can grow as long as 27 metres and is thus the second longest species living in the world today – the longest being the blue whale. It is no lightweight either, weighing up to nearly 100 tons.

Especially near Uummannaq but also in the water around Qaqortoq and in the Disco Bay, we often spot fine whales on boat rides.

The fin whale only rarely lifts its tail when it dives, but on a good day you can experience how it thrashes around above the surface.

Which whale is the largest in Greenland?

The biggest whale in Greenland is the blue whale, but you have to be very lucky to see it.

We have made a travel guide on whales if you would like to read more. (coming soon)

The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources conducts research into Arctic ecosystems and how they are affected by climatic and human impacts. The research primarily focuses on living marine resources such as fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds as well as land-based resources, including land mammals and vegetation. The institute’s website holds lots of information about Greenland’s animals.

 

Whale spotting

The fjords around Nuuk swarm with whales. Use a photo album with pictures of whales spotted near Nuuk. In that way, you can keep your own record of which whales you spot and thus perhaps help the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Find a photoalbum with the whales seen in Nuuk here.

Outstanding whale experiences

Greenland is incredibly versatile. You can experience everything from fluttering northern lights, golden midnight sun, impressive glaciers to lush meadows, deep fjords and fantastic wildlife.

The Big Arctic Five is a collective term for five of the most popular experiences in Greenland. The whales in Greenland make for one of these experiences – and with good reason. First of all, Greenland is home to a great number of whale species including some of the really big ones. Moreover, Greenland is still a relatively small-scale tourist destination, allowing both nature and culture to keep up.

Therefore, the whales have not had to relocate to more peaceful waters. They still return to the same place where they have always gambolled, to the great delight of all who enjoy watching them at close range.