The Best Places to See Penguins, Polar Bears, Narwhals, and More
Planning a vacation around a specific animal can be surprisingly fun. Not only will you have to contact a professional wildlife group in the area—they know all of the best viewing spots and the responsible way to interact with these animals—but the anticipation of finally catching a glimpse of a surfacing whale cannot be beat.
Whether you're spirit animal is a penguin, arctic fox, reindeer, polar bear, or the completely magical narwhal, there's a spot to find them all. Here are some of our favorite wintertime animal destinations:
Puffins — Faroe Islands
Puffins are not only one of the most popular animals to see in this arctic archipelago, but they’re also a local delicacy. These birds breed in large numbers in various areas around the islands, but head to Mykines—the westernmost island in the set of 18—for the best chance of seeing one.
Polar Bears — Svalbard, Norway
The best time to check out the polar bears in Svalbard—the island between Norway and the North Pole—is during the midnight sun from May to September. Considering there are an estimated 3,000 polar bears on the island (more than there are people!), you can count on seeing more than one if you join a guided tour. A guided tour is highly recommended given the large population. Natural World Safaris is a good place to start your research.
Penguins — Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town’s Boulders Beach is not only a great spot to spend a somewhat un-crowded day at the beach, but it’s also home to the only penguins you can find on the continent of Africa. This colony of penguins has been calling Boulders Beach home since 1983, when they first fell upon False Bay after migrating from Dyer Island. You can read more about these little guys and gals on the Cape Town Visitors website.
Narwhals — Nunavut, Canada
The Inuit culture is rooted in admiring its cold-weather creatures—the narwhal included. These whales live in the surrounding waters year-round and are wildly recognized by their long tusks. They’re easier to spot during the summer months when they move closer to the shore to feed, but they’ll swim up to 1,400 feet underneath pack ice to find a meal during the winter.
Seals — Cape Cod
Winter seal watching is a favorite activity for those living in and visiting Cape Cod during the winter. Harbor Seals and Grey Seals take in the warmer water during cold months, and take advantage of sunning spots whenever the sun decides to make an appearance. According to CoastalStudies.org, head to Stellwagen Bank near Boston, Monomoy Island in Nantucket Sound, along the Gulf of Maine, and across beaches in Maine and Massachusetts.
Humpback Whales — Hawaii
Whale watching has become a tourist attraction in Hawaii, and there are no shortage of tours that will take you to the best viewing spots. These majestic animals can be spotted on the shores of any of the Hawaiian islands, but the warmer shallow waters are where they prefer to frolic. The most popular time to see these whales are December through May, according to Go Hawaii.
Reindeer — Tromsø, Norway
No trip to Tromsø is complete without a ride on a reindeer-led sled. You can visit reindeer farms all winter long, and even feed these furry friends. There are plenty of tour groups that will help you meet some reindeer on your trip. Tromsø Arctic Reindeer is a tour operator that will not only give you a history lesson into the Sami culture and history of this part of Norway, but they will also teach you about herding, give you a tour of a reindeer farm, and take you on a reindeer sled ride.
Arctic Foxes — Iceland
If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of these elusive foxes hopping through snow dunes along the country’s main Ring Road. There’s also an Arctic Fox Center in the Westfjords where you can visit and learn more about the quirky species.
Snowy Owls — The Great Lakes, U.S.
Snowy Owls make an annual appearance throughout the Great Lakes region of the United States after flying south from their Arctic breeding grounds. If you’re wondering where you can expect to see them, Project SNOWstorm has been tracking the birds for years, resulting in the most detailed account of their migration patterns.
Orcas — San Juan Islands
Off the coast of Washington lies the San Juan Islands—a great spot for whale watching. Orca Whales live in the waters year-round, but you’ll also be able to spot humpbacks, gray, and minke whales. There are plenty of tour operators ready to take you out to the best viewing areas. Check out the Visit San Juan website for more information.
Walruses — Alaska
If you’re looking to spot the Pacific Walrus, head to Alaska—it’s the only spot in North America where you can spot them. According to Alaska’s visitor website, Cape Seniavin, Round Island, and Cape Pierce are the best spots to check out these animals. If you’re planning on cruising this region, there’s also a good chance of spotting one—especially if you’re passing through the Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, or Chukchi Sea.