We're very fond of our fauna!
Respect and admiration for the many beloved arctic creatures is a deeply rooted part of Inuit culture. Nunavummiut feel lucky that they live next to such species and they know that you will love to see them too! They welcome you here and will happily and safely guide you to pristine places where you can share in the thrilling experience of viewing some of the most exotic wild animals on the planet. Whether by dog sled or snowmobile excursion, by boat, ATV or small aircraft, on cross-country skis or by trekking on foot, experienced outfitters and guides in every part of Nunavut are proud to introduce you to the wonderful local wildlife!
The extraordinary diversity of unique animal species native to Nunavut is one of the prime attractions for people to this part of the world. It is believed that the very first human beings to ever visit this beautiful, severe wilderness territory arrived here to hunt big game animals sometime after the Pleistocene period of global glaciations that ended around 9000 BC. Those intrepid early people immigrated to these lands in pursuit of abundant wildlife resources such as caribou, muskoxen, geese, ptarmigan, fish, walrus, seals and whales.
The Inuktitut word for wildlife is ‘nirjutit.’ The root word, ‘nirjut’ in Inuktitut syllabics) means ‘game animal.’
The ancient, nomadic Inuit hunter-gatherer people recognized their own responsibility to conserve wildlife and protect their ecosystem. This traditional Inuit value is called ‘Avatittinnik Kamatsiarniq’ in Inuktitut, which means ‘respect and care for the land, animals and the environment.’ This longstanding cultural concept of living in harmony with nature and wildlife is still taught by Inuit elders to their children and grandchildren today.
Beluga | | qinalugaq
Bouncing in a boat on the sea alongside a pod of playful beluga whales is a boisterous, musical experience to enjoy!
The beluga or white whale (delphinapterus leucas) is an arctic species of marine mammal closely related to the narwhal. It is sometimes called the sea canary due to its high-pitched squeaks, squeals, clucks and whistles. Residing in both arctic and sub-arctic waters, pods of belugas often congregate near the mouths of rivers. They can sometimes be seen from the land, but the most enjoyable way to watch beluga whales in Nunavut is with a locally guided boat tour. Belugas are common to Nunavut communities along the western coast of Hudson Bay such as Arviat, Chesterfield Inlet, Rankin Inlet and Whale Cove, also near Foxe Basin, including the communities of Cape Dorset, Hall Beach and Igloolik, plus along the eastern shores of Baffin Island, from Qikiqtarjuaq and Clyde River as far north as Pond Inlet.
Bowhead || arviq
Watching these gentle giants of the north majestically gliding through Nunavut waters has always been a great solace and cultural inspiration to the Inuit!
The bowhead whale (balaena mysticetus), which is also known as the Greenland right whale, or arctic whale, is a massive, dark-coloured baleen whale. This leviathan can grow to 20 metres (66 ft.) in length and weigh up to 136 tonnes (300,000 lb.) — second only to the blue whale in body mass. Living year-round in Nunavut waters, two populations of bowhead estimated to total 1,000 whales reside in the Hudson Bay/Foxe Basin region and along the east coast of Baffin Island. Bowhead watching takes place from Nunavut communities such as Cape Dorset, Clyde River, Hall Beach, Igloolik, Kugaaruk, Pangnirtung, Pond Inlet, Qikiqtarjuaq and Repulse Bay. The bowhead is one of the longest-living mammals in the world (150-200 years) and it possesses the largest mouth of any animal.
Caribou | | tuktu
Few sights are more spectacular than witnessing a massive herd of these migrating beasts thundering over the tundra!
The most important land mammal to the Inuit is the caribou (rangifer tarandus) — ‘tuktu’ in Inuktitut — which has been hunted for food, clothing, shelter and tools by humans ever since the Stone Age. When Europeans arrived in North America and encountered these animals, they recognized them as reindeer — but bigger! More than 750,000 caribou live in Nunavut and the ancient migration patterns of the various herds (Bathurst, Beverly, Peary and Qamanirjuaq) are well known to Inuit hunters and guides. Communities such as Baker Lake, Cambridge Bay, Chesterfield Inlet, Kimmirut, Kugaaruk, Repulse Bay and Resolute can provide reliable caribou excursions.
Muskox || umingmak
A lucky encounter with these shaggy, bearded creatures may make you feel that you've been transported back in time!
Muskoxen (ovibos moschatus) are magnificent animals from the Pleistocene Ice Age. Noted for their long curved horns, thick coat and the musky odour of the males in their mid-August rut, they are more closely related to sheep and goats than to oxen. Their ancestors migrated into Nunavut about 150,000 years ago, alongside the now-extinct mammoth. Approximately 60,000 muskoxen, usually living in herds of 10-20 animals, can be found thriving in several parts of Nunavut. Communities such as Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven and Grise Fiord all have nearby resident muskox populations. Local guides know their migration patterns throughout the year and can arrange encounters with these herds. The wool of the muskox — called ‘qiviut’ in Inuktitut — is highly prized for its softness, length and insulating quality.
Narwhal | | qilalugaq
It is a magical event to witness the mysterious unicorns of the sea crossing their tusks into the air like swords!
The most unique whale inhabiting Nunavut waters is the narwhal (monodon monoceros) which lives year-round in the Arctic. Narwhal males are distinguished by a long, straight, helical tusk — a modified incisor tooth — extending up to three metres (10 ft.) in length from their upper left jaw. The exact purpose of this ‘unicorn’ tusk remains a scientific mystery. In winter, narwhals feed mostly on squid and flatfish at depths of up to 1,500 metres (4,921 ft.) under dense pack ice. In summer, they move closer to shore, which is better for viewing them. Usually travelling in pods of four to 20 animals, the narwhal is deemed vulnerable to climate change due to its specialized diet and narrow geographical range between Canada and Greenland. Narwhals can be enjoyed near the Nunavut communities of Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet and Resolute.
Polar Bear | | nanuq
To safely watch a gigantic snow-white polar bear wandering across the barrens, prowling for seals on the windswept pack ice, or gracefully swimming ahead of her cubs in frigid arctic waves is an unforgettable, supreme lifetime experience!
The polar bear (ursus maritimus) is the world's largest carnivore species found on land, as big as the omnivorous kodiak, but more powerful. ‘Nanuq’ (the Inuktitut word for polar bear) is an extremely dangerous, very patient and highly intelligent predator. An adult male polar bear can grow to three metres (10 ft.) in height when standing up and reach 720 kilograms (1,590 lb.) in body weight. Polar bears are excellent swimmers in the frigid Nunavut waters, travelling great distances across the sea ice to hunt seals along the floe edge. They are attracted to any potential food source, including bird nesting sites such as Akpatok Island, but also to the smells of campers cooking meals in remote locations. To safely see polar bears in Nunavut, from expert communities such as Arviat, Grise Fiord, Hall Beach, Pond Inlet, Qikiqtarjuaq and Repulse Bay, trust only an experienced guide or outfitter and use powerful binoculars and telephoto camera lenses.
Seal | | natsiq
Touring Nunavut in the spring when the sea ice breaks up you may be delighted by the curious expressions of seals popping their heads up out of the icy water to check you out!
The smallest, most abundant and most important marine mammal for both polar bears and the Inuit is the ringed seal (pusa hispida) that thrives year-round in arctic waters. It has distinctive dark spots on its coat surrounded by light grey rings, with a small, earless head and short cat-like snout. An adult ringed seal usually grows to 150 centimetres (5 feet) in length and 60 kilograms (132 lb.) in weight. They prefer to rest on large ice floes, breeding and raising their pups on the pack ice, migrating further north for denser ice, ranging as far as the North Pole. Yet, in the springtime, as the sea ice begins to break up, they can be spotted near every single community in Nunavut. They are the primary food source for ‘nanuq’ (polar bears). Human beings have also hunted them for food, plus clothing and tools, since 2500 BC. The current population of ringed seals is estimated to be around two million. Inuit subsistence hunters today harvest fewer than 30,000 ringed seals each year to help feed their families.
Walrus | | aiviq
Witnessing these relaxed but sometimes irritable, graceful yet often clumsy behemoths basking in the sunshine and occasionally poking each other over the best sun tanning places is enormously enjoyable fun!
The walrus (odobenus rosmarus) is a large flippered marine mammal recognized by its prominent tusks of ivory, whiskers and great bulk. An adult bull walrus can reach four metres (13 ft.) in length and 2,000 kilograms (4,400 lb.) in weight. Walrus tusks — which are elongated canine teeth used for poking holes in the sea ice, for hauling themselves onto the frozen surface and for the violent dominance battles between rival bulls — can reach a length of one metre (3 ft. 3 in.) each. Walruses spend a significant proportion of their life (up to 35 years) on the sea ice in pursuit of their preferred diet of bivalve mollusks. They will dive hundreds of metres deep to the sea bottom to retrieve their favourite food and they can eat up to 4,000 clams in one feeding. Boat tours to see herds of walruses gathered on ice floes can be arranged in Nunavut communities such as Arviat, Coral Harbour, Grise Fiord, Hall Beach, Igloolik, Kimmirut, Kugaaruk, Pond Inlet, Repulse Bay and Sanikiluaq. A tasty Inuit dish is aged walrus meat — ‘igunaq’ in Inuktitut — a treat which elders say tastes like cheese.
Plants and Flowers
The plants and flowers of Nunavut are some of the most beautiful and tenacious residents in the territory!
Plant life is pretty precarious in Nunavut. Winters are long and summers are short. The average temperature is well below freezing for much of the year. The entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago receives such little precipitation annually it qualifies as a desert. The shallow soils of Nunavut are mostly acidic and very low in nitrogen. Plants must eke out a tough existence in a few meagre inches of earth, their roots confined by impenetrable layers of bedrock or permafrost that lie just below the surface.
Nunavut plants and flowers are remarkable for enduring these severe conditions, largely through a series of adaptations. Most tundra plants are perennials, which helps ensure their long-term survival. While even the strongest plants in temperate southern latitudes will succumb to freak frosts and blizzards, the beautiful flora species of Nunavut can be completely frozen one minute and thawed out the next as if nothing had happened!
Plants here also protect themselves against the elements by crowding together and creating small microclimates where the temperature is significantly higher than the surrounding air. This promotes photosynthesis and metabolism that would otherwise be impossible. That is why Nunavut plant life nestles into sheltered rock crevices and hugs the ground. What soil does exist upon the tundra barrens is rarely visible, because it is usually covered by a dense layer of mosses and lichens through which other herbaceous and shrubby plants can grow.
Some common Inuktitut terms for Nunavut plant life:
- wild flowerpiruqtusajaq
- berry plantkallaquti
- resinous fuel plantitsuti
- sedge ivik
- lichen (caribou moss)tingaujaq
- green mossurjuk
- white mossivissugaq
- purple saxifrageaupaluktunnguat
Major Species of Nunavut Flora
There are 200 species of flowering plants in the tundra meadows of Nunavut, plus an even greater number of lichens and mosses. Major flora species of Nunavut include:
Arctic cotton (eriophorum), also called cottongrass, is a sedge plant that thrives in acidic bog habitats. It grows abundantly in the tundra and its silky white plumes have long been collected by the Inuit to be used as wicks for the traditional seal-oil lamp known as a 'qulliq' in Inuktitut.
Arctic fireweed (chamerion latifolium), also called dwarf fireweed or river beauty willowherb is a nutritious species of flowering primrose plant. Inuit steep the leaves in water for tea and also eat the leaves, flowers and fruits raw, often as a salad. It tastes a bit like spinach.
Arctic white heather (cassiope tetragona) is a highly resinous dwarf shrub plant. The leaves are evergreen and its bell-shaped flowers are yellowish white with pink lobes. Inuit traditionally collected this plant for use as a bedding material in summer camps. Its branches are still widely used as fuel by Inuit families spending time on the land.
The arctic willow (salix arctica) is a tiny creeping member of the Salicaceae family. Fluffy willow catkins emerge before the snow disappears completely. The hairs of pussy willows are transparent, which conduct sunlight into the plant, warming it to several degrees above the surrounding air temperature.
Labrador tea (rhododendron tomentosum) is a wetland shrub plant of the Heath family with strongly aromatic leaves that can be used to make a delicious herbal tea that has been a favourite beverage of Inuit people for thousands of years.
Lapland rosebay (rhododendron lapponicum) is a small tundra shrub plant with a purple flower. The woody stem of a Lapland rosebay plant, which usually grows no thicker than a person's finger, may contain as many as 400 annual growth rings!
Moss campion (silene acaulis) is small, evergreen perennial wildflower also known as cushion pink. It is common all over the high arctic and tundra regions of Nunavut. As a low, ground hugging plant, it is often densely matted and moss-like. Thick clumps of this plant have a substantial taproot, which is edible.
The mountain aven (dryas octopetala) is a small evergreen shrub of the Rosaceae family. Its botanic name comes from the Greek words 'octo' (eight) and 'petalon' (petal), referring to the eight petals of its distinctive small white flower. Eight is common, but this flower also naturally occurs with up to sixteen petals. The Inuit named this flower 'malikkat' in Inuktitut, which means 'the follower,' because it moves throughout the day to always face the sun.
Mountain sorrel (oxyria digyna), also called alpine sorrel, is a species of flowering plant in the buckwheat family. It is most commonly found in the tundra around animal dens, bird roosts and old Inuit campsites where the thin arctic soil has been enriched with nitrogen. Some other Nunavut plants that employ this same survival strategy are chickweed and stitchwort.
Purple saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia) is the official territorial flower of Nunavut. The beautiful purple-to-lilac coloured flowers of this creeping, ground hugging plant are often the first flowers to appear in the spring. Purple saxifrages, called 'aupaluktunnguat' in Inuktitut, are the most northerly flowering plants in the world!
Wintergreen (gaultheria procumbens) is variety of creeping shrub that, as its name suggests, remains green throughout the year. This botanical characteristic is commonly now called evergreen. The round leaves of wintergreen plants are very tough in order to survive freezing, retaining their colour when dormant in order to maximize photosynthesis as soon as they thaw in the sunshine.
The yellow cinquefoil (dasiphora fruticosa), also called shrubby cinquefoil, is a shrub of the Rosaceae family. It often grows inside dense clumps of mosses and lichens that provide extra warmth and protection. Its bright yellow flowers appear in the spring once the snow has melted.
Alpine bearberry (arctostaphylos alpina) is a procumbent shrub that spreads along the ground from its main taproot without making any new roots. It has small white flowers and dark purple berries that are almost black when ripe. In the late summer, the foliage of this plant turns a brilliant scarlet red, colouring entire hillsides.
Blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) are perennial flowering plants of the genus Vaccinium. Harvested every summer in Nunavut for many centuries by Inuit women and children, these low-lying plants provide a small but sweet, abundant and highly nutritious fruit.
Northern cranberries (vaccinium oxycoccus microcarpus) belong to the same Vaccinium genus as blueberries, bilberries and huckleberries. The flowers are dark pink, with a purple central spike, growing on hairy stems. The fruit is a small pale pink berry with a refreshingly sharp acidic flavour. They are great for cooking!
The crowberry (empetrum) is a variety of dwarf evergreen shrub, which bears an edible fruit that looks similar to a blueberry and is smaller than an alpine bearberry. Black, plump crowberries are a favourite of the Inuit. Their many seeds give them a gritty texture.
Lichens (cladoniaceae) are not single plants — they are instead a symbiotic association of algae and fungi cells living together. The ubiquitous map lichen is named for its map-like appearance on rock faces. The rock tripe lichen is edible and Caribou moss, which is actually a lichen, is a winter staple food for caribou.
The territorial flower of Nunavut is the purple saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia). The Inuit name 'aupaluktunnguat' is the plural Inuktitut word for these vivid purple blooms.