In the frigid, remote lands above the Arctic Circle, adventurous cruisers will find not only spectacular landscapes -- deep fjords choked with ice, rugged snowy peaks, the sun shining throughout long summer nights -- but also Arctic animals, some of the world's most unique wildlife.
The extreme weather conditions in the Arctic have produced animals you can't see anywhere else in the wild, such as polar bears, musk oxen and reindeer. The best way to see Arctic animals (and in some cases the only way) is to board an expedition cruise ship and set off into the wild.
I did just that on a recent "Introduction to Spitsbergen" cruise with polar specialist Quark Expeditions to Svalbard, a far-flung Norwegian archipelago that's home to some 3,000 polar bears. Quark and other expedition lines also cruise to Greenland, Iceland and Arctic Canada, all prime spots to catch a glimpse of seals, seabirds and other Arctic animals. We've rounded up a few of our favorites -- as well as info on where to see them -- in the following slideshow.
--By Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor
Shop for Arctic Cruises
Why They're Cool: These nimble predators sport a white coat in the winter to blend in with the snow, but they turn more of a gray-brown color in the summer. They'll eat just about anything to survive, including rodents, birds, eggs and even the remains of seals killed by polar bears. Because they're small and well camouflaged, they can be tricky to spot in the wild.
Where to See Them: Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Why They're Cool: These lovable seabirds with their distinctive beaks (which get even brighter during mating season) can be found in various parts of the North Atlantic. It's fun to watch them fly, particularly the frantic flapping and splayed feet they use to break their momentum when they land. (Crash landings in the water aren't uncommon.)
Where to See Them: Iceland, Norway (including Svalbard), Atlantic Canada, Greenland, Faroe Islands
Photo: Mark Caunt/Shutterstock
Why They're Cool: Weighing up to 900 pounds, musk oxen are some of the biggest mammals in the Arctic. Despite all that bulk they're actually vegetarians, with a diet based on grasses, lichens and willows (during the colder months they have to dig under the snow to get to these goodies). Beneath their shaggy brown hair is a wool inner coat that helps them stay warm during long Arctic winters. They typically travel in herds.
Where to See Them: Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Why They're Cool: They're beautiful, they're rare and -- with climate change threatening the sea ice they rely on -- they're increasingly endangered. When trying to spot polar bears from a distance, keep in mind that their fur is an off-white color compared to the surrounding ice. (Fun fact: The animal itself is actually black under all that fur.)
Where to See Them: Svalbard, eastern Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Why They're Cool: Reindeer are the only species of deer for which both males and females have antlers. These must be regrown each year -- and they grow fast (up to two centimeters a day!). When they're new, the antlers look velvety because they're covered in soft fur; this eventually dries out and rubs off to show the underlying bone.
Where to See Them: Lapland, Svalbard, Greenland, eastern Iceland, Arctic Russia
Photo: Incredible Arctic/Shutterstock
Why They're Cool: With their big eyes, roly-poly bodies and inquisitive personalities, seals may be the cutest critters in the Arctic. There are a variety of species, depending on where you're traveling -- the ringed seal is the most common in Svalbard, while harp seals are plentiful in Greenland -- and many rely on sea ice for breeding and nurturing their young. Seals are the preferred source of food for polar bears.
Where to See Them: Arctic Canada and Russia, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard
Photo: Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock
Why They're Cool: Walruses are best known for their magnificent tusks, which can grow up to three feet long. They use their tusks to pull themselves out of the water, root for clams at the bottom of the ocean and defend themselves against polar bears. You may occasionally see walruses swimming, but they're easiest to spot when hauled out on a beach -- often in a big, noisy (and smelly!) group.
Where to See Them: Svalbard, Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia
Photo: Vladimir Melnik/Shutterstock
Why They're Cool: You can spot three different species of whale all year round in the Arctic: the bowhead, the beautiful white beluga and the elusive narwhal (with its unique tusk that can grow up to 10 feet long). You can also see humpbacks, orcas, minke whales and others over the summer, when they follow cool, nutrient-rich currents north from their winter homes. To find them, keep an eye out for spouts at the surface of the ocean.
Where to See Them: Open water throughout the Arctic
Photo: Paul S. Wolf/Shutterstock
Why They're Cool: Also known as Brunnich's guillemots, thick-billed murres are a common seabird throughout the Arctic -- and they have a hair-raising way of leaving their nests! The birds lay their eggs on narrow cliff ledges along the coast. At around three weeks old, before they're fully capable of flying, the baby birds take a flying leap off the ledge toward the sea below. While some make it safely to the water, others fall just short and face a bumpy landing on the ground, where they are often scooped up by hungry Arctic foxes.
Where to See Them: Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland
Photo: francesco de marco/Shutterstock
It's one of the most common cruising questions: When is the best time to cruise Alaska, Australia, the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Hawaii, Europe or the South Pacific? The answer depends on many variables. Fall foliage enthusiasts, for instance, will find September and October the best time to take that Canada/New England cruise, whereas water sports-lovers (and families) much prefer to sail the region in the summer when school is out and temperatures are warmer for swimming. The best time to cruise to Alaska will vary depending on your preferences for viewing wildlife, fishing, bargain-shopping, sunshine, warm weather and catching the northern lights. For most cruise regions, there are periods of peak demand (high season), moderate demand (shoulder season) and low demand (low season), which is usually the cheapest time to cruise. High season is typically a mix of when the weather is best and popular travel periods (such as summer and school holidays). However, the best time to cruise weather-wise is usually not the cheapest time to cruise. The cheapest time to cruise is when most travelers don't want to go because of chillier temperatures or inopportune timing (too close to holidays, the start of school, etc.). But the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise. As you plan your next cruise, you'll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your vacation schedule. Here's a when-to-cruise guide for popular destinations.