Off the coast of Svalbard, it is not uncommon to see whales. Most often, they are belugas, or minke whales, but humpback whales and fin whales are also seen regularly around Svalbard. In the last few years the blue whale has also become more common. This is the largest mammal in the world! The bowhead whale and narwhal are also present, but they are still extremely rare.

Copyright: Roy MangersnesFin whales blows of the west coast of Spitsbergen, where they gather to feed. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes

White whale – beluga
Similar to the narwhals the white whale (or beluga) lives in Arctic waters all year round. They are both the only members of the family Monodontidae.

Known around the world as the beluga – the word derives from the Russian for ‘white’.

Calves are dark grey, but gradually lighten to white by adulthood. Sexually maturity is reached before this colour is attained.

Their Latin name Delphinapterus means “dolphin without wings”, and relates to the absence of a dorsal fin. It is a similar case for the narwhals and the bowhead whales and is considered an adaptation to living in ice-filled waters.

Compared to most other whale species the vertebrae in the white whales’ neck are not fused, allowing them to move their head up and down and from side to side.

White whales have a protective ‘cork’ layer that buffers the skin when bumping in to ice. This layer is shed as part of the annual moulting process.

Known as the “canaries of the sea” because they are so vocal, their whistle song can sometimes be heard by the human ear. Svalbard white whales however tend to be quiet a lot of the time.

Toothed whales are slow to metabolize pollutants. Therefore, white whales and narwhals tend to have very high concentrations of these substances in their bodies. These are at levels much higher than those found in polar bears, even though the bear is further up the food chain.

Copyright: Roy MangersnesA pod of white whales are cruising the shoreline in Adventfjorden, just outside Longyearbyen. They are regular visitors in the area. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes

Blue whale
The blue whale is the largest animal to ever have lived on planet Earth. It measures up to 32.6 m and weighs up to 145 000 kg.

Blue whales have been found in all the world’s oceans, and also in increasing numbers in Svalbard during recent summers.

Newborn calves are 6-7 m long and weigh 2-3 tonnes.

The tongue alone weighs as much as a female elephant (3000 kg), the heart 600 kg, and the aorta 25cm in diameter.

The blue whale blow can be more than 10m high.

Their sounds are the loudest and lowest in frequency made by any animal (188 db (ref: 1µPa at 1 m) and 17-20 Hz). Noise levels of 125 db and above are painful to the human ear.

Their diet consists almost exclusively of krill (small crustaceans), and in summer months the blue whale can eat about 4 tonnes each day.

Blue whale numbers were heavily decimated during commercial whaling; in the 1930-31 season alone, almost 30,000 individuals were killed. Fortunately numbers today are slowly recovering.

The Blue whale’s blotchy markings are unique for each individual, and the pattern enables scientists to identify individuals from each other. This knowledge might be used to study migration pattern and make population estimates.

Copyright: Roy MangersnesA Blue Whale is rising to the surface to take a breath, and a rainbow is formed. Expedition ship MS Origo is seen in the background. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes

Fin whale
The fin whale is the second longest of all whales and can live up to 100 years.

They have a unique asymmetric colouring of the lower jaw; dark on the left side, and white on the right.

Being the fastest swimmer of all the large whales the fin whale can swim at up to 50 km/h in short bursts. However when migrating travels at around 30 km/h.

A feeding fin whale can filter about 70 000 litres of waters in one gulp in less than a minute.

Calves are born in southern latitudes with warm water, migrating to higher latitudes in the summer months.

Details of migration routes of the fin whale is not yet known.

Interestingly there are documented cases of fin-blue whale hybrids.

A fin whale will virtually never show their tail fluke when diving.

Copyright: Roy MangersnesA fin whale is coming up to catch a breath in Hinlopen, with brünnich’s guillemots flying past. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes

Humpback whale
Humpbacks are one of the world’s best known singers, each population having its own unique song. These songs are performed by males during breeding season. The song is fairly simple initially, it becoming more complex through the season and further themes are added . The more complex the males’ song, the more attractive they are to females. A humpback song can last for days.

Megaptera- meaning great wings, refers to the huge fore flippers that can be up to one third of the animal’s total length.

Both the flippers and body are home to several species of barnacles and other small organisms.

Acrobatic, and known to jump completely out of the water humpback whales frequently swim on their back with flippers in the air. They can also use their tail and flippers to slap the water.

Humpbacks often show their huge notched flukes when diving. They have a unique colour, pattern and shape and can be used to identify individual whales.

Using these individual fluke patterns as identifiers it has been shown that most humpback whales feeding in Norwegian waters during summer travel to the Caribbean in winter to breed.

An individual white adult humpback has been observed several times in the Svalbard area. This is the only known specimen with this colouration in the Northern Hemisphere.

In Svalbard, humpbacks sometimes aggregate in flocks of several hundred to feed on capelin (a small fish species). When passing though such feeding areas, the whales’ bad breath (or rather fish oil) can be smelled long before the animal can be seen.

Humpbacks collaborate in groups of up to 10 to use a special hunting technique called ‘bubble netting’. Used specifically for hunting fish, the animals dive underneath the fish and blow air out of their nostrils while at the same time swimming in circles. They use strong sound to scare the fish towards the surface. The tight bubbles make a ring or wall around the fish, concentrating them in a small area. The whales then come up middle of this ring with their jaws open and gorge on the trapped fish.

Copyright: Roy MangersnesA breaching humpback whale east of Austfonna. Humpbacks show more of themselves than all the other whales in Svalbard. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes

Minke whale
The name derived from a German named Meincke who misidentified this whale species as a blue whale during a whaling trip in Norwegians waters. The whalers then started to call these small whales “Meincke’s whales”, to tease the poor German.

The minke is the smallest of the baleen whales living in the Northern Hemisphere.

They are solitary animals although concentrations of food can result in “groups”.

They never fluke when diving.

Minke breeding areas are unknown but it is thought to be somewhere at lower latitudes and likely far off-shore.

Genetic studies have confirmed observations that Antarctic Minke whales (until recently considered a subspecies of the Minke whale, but was formally split from Minke whale in the year 2000) cross the equator and enter Arctic waters – no other baleen whales do this.

These two species can breed and produce fertile offspring.

The Minke is the only species hunted in Norwegian commercial whaling, occurring both in Norwegian and Svalbard waters.

Almost all minke whales in Svalbard waters are female and they are shown to migrate northwards earlier than males.

After reaching reproductive age at around 8 years, the Minke whale reproduces every year.

Copyright: Roy MangersnesA minke whale shows its sharp back and dorsal fin while cruising through Kongsfjorden. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes

Learn more about wildlife on Svalbard
The information on this webpage is from the Amazing Arctic book by Eirik Grønningsæter. If you want to learn more about the amazing Arctic wildlife, order a copy of the book.