Covering roughly four percent of the Earth’s surface, the Arctic Circle is the frozen crown of the planet, nearly eight million square miles of promised lands to the likes of adventurers, environmentalists and hermits. But what about the locals? Not the sparse human settlements mind you, but the animals that call the mountains, icebergs and frigid ocean home. You may think you know them, you might’ve seen them in a zoo or two, but witnessing them in their natural habitat is a different experience altogether—and adds substantially to that sense of wonder instilled by wandering well beyond beaten paths. For an introductory idea of what you’ll see and where, here’s a brief snapshot of the world’s northern neighbors.
Roughly the size of the American Midwest, Alaska earns the nickname “The Final Frontier” in full. While much of the frontier is only a few degrees of latitude from formally being designated “the Arctic Circle,” no one seems to have informed the weather, or the animals. Alaska is known for a bevy of larger- than-life wildlife—bears, gray wolves, moose, rams and caribou, to name a few. However, it doesn’t take a multi-day trek into the wild to catch glimpses of them. The beauty of Alaska is partly due to the scope of the expanse, stretching up to the edge of town.
Of the iconic inhabitants, the biggest name-draw of the bunch for you to discover is bears. Black and brown bears flourish in nearly the entirety of the state, as both are opportunistic omnivores. Telling the two apart can be tricky, especially if you go off of their names: Both bears can run the spectrum in full color, from cinnamon-brown to jet-black. The key to identifying which is which lies between their shoulders. Brown bears have a definitive shoulder hump. The best place to practice telling them apart is likely to be Herring Cove. Bears will gather here to fish and feed on the abundance of spawning salmon in the creek—present thanks to the nearby Whitman Hatchery. An elevated boardwalk and viewing platform provided the perfect vantage point.
While bears are kings of the forest, their domain stops at the shore. Beyond the lapping waves, all sorts of whale species are prominent within the coastal waters during the summer months—when migration is in full swing. Humpback whales are on their way back from Hawaii, gray whales are arriving from Baja California, and packs of orcas are on their way through the Bering Strait in search of food. Witnessing any break in the surface to breathe and perhaps playfully splash alongside a whale-watching sailing is a moment not soon forgotten. Seeing these graceful behemoths wave to you with their massive tail flukes is a marvel on par with the Northern Lights.
Finally, one can’t speak of Alaskan wildlife without mentioning the fabled bald eagle. Seen regularly soaring through the forest canopy, nearly any nature excursion brings with it the chance to witness these regal creatures in mid-flight or peaceful perch—but you can remove the uncertainty from the equation by paying a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center. A rehabilitation center in Sitka for a variety of birds of prey, touring the 17-acre campus brings you up close with the winged warriors in different stages of recovery. Seeing eagles, owls and hawks learning to fly again is certain to uplift spirits and available from a range of cruise lines.