Around 15 species of whale are regular visitors to Greenlandic waters, but only three of these - the beluga whale, the narwhal and the bowhead whale - remain in Greenland during the winter. Whale species such as the blue whale and killer whale are only rarely seen. During brief stays in Greenland in the summer season it is, however, usually completely different species that can be seen: the humpback whale, minke whale and fin whale.
In spite of being 18 metres (59 feet) long and weighing some 30 tonnes (66,000 lbs), the humpback whale is the acrobat amongst the large whales. Whales of all ages jump out of the water and flick their tails and flippers. The whale is easily recognisable on account of its humped dorsal fin and white flippers, and it usually lifts its tail when diving. Nuuk, Aasiaat and Qeqertarsuaq - as well as Sisimiut, Maniitsoq and Paamiut - are all particularly good places to see the humpback whale from April to November in its hunt for fish, squid and krill.
The minke whale, which is also called the lesser rorqual, is a relatively small whale that grows to a size of just 10 metres (33 feet) and weighs no more than 10 tonnes (22,000 lbs). Minke whales have been seen jumping out of the water, but in Greenlandic waters it is most common to see just the dorsal fin and spout. The whale is seen in fjords and along the coasts in South- and West Greenland up to Disko Bay - typically from May to October. Minke whales are, however, known for appearing at unusual places at odd times of the year. There are no whale safaris that are designed to look for minke whales in particular, but you can often see them on sailing trips.
The fin whale can be 27 metres (89 feet) long and is thus the world's second largest species, surpassed only by the blue whale. It can weigh up to 100 tonnes (220,000 lbs) and is occasionally seen on boat trips around Uummannaq in particular, but also around Qaqortoq and in Disko Bay, as well as very occasionally in Greenland's fjords. Fish, squid and small crustaceans make up its primary food source. The fin whale rarely lifts its tail when diving, but does occasionally jump out of the water and splash with its flippers in the water.
In Greenland you normally only see three species of whale during the winter and part of the spring season, but on the other hand the whales that you do see during this period are quite unusual whales that are not seen in many other parts of the world - namely the bowhead whale, narwhal and beluga whale.
The bowhead whale is an Arctic species that typically frequents the seas around Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island in spring before setting course in the middle of May for the northern part of Baffin Bay, the sea between Canada and Greenland. The bowhead whale can live to an age of 200, and in the 17th and 18th centuries was the whalers' preferred catch. The whale can weigh up to 90 tonnes (198,000 lbs) and have a maximum length of 20 metres (66 feet). Compared to all other whale species, the bowhead whale has the thickest layer of blubber (25-45 cm / 10-18 inches) and the longest whalebone (3.5 m /11.5 feet).
The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that typically weighs between 800-1600 kg (1750-3500 lbs). It is most well-known for its distinctive spiralling tusk which in some males can reach a length of up to 3 metres (10 feet) - in addition to a body length of 4-5 metres (13-16.5 feet). The tusks are used in mating combat, where the struggle can be so intense that the tusks sometimes shatter. In the Middle Ages narwhal tusks were traded like unicorn horns and were an extremely valuable commodity for trade between Inuits and the Norse settlers. In Greenland narwhals are most frequently seen in Melville Bay, in the area around Qaanaaq and in Northeast Greenland.
The beluga whale is, like the narwhal, a medium-sized toothed whale. It has a length ranging from 3 to 5 metres (10-16.5 feet) and typically weighs between 400-1500 kg (900-3300 lbs). The beluga whale is often seen in small groups of 5 to 10 animals, but has also been seen in groups of several thousands. The beluga whale can dive to depths of 600 metres (2000 feet) for periods of up to 15 minutes. Diving is typically performed with 5-6 flat dives followed by deeper and deeper dives looking for fish, squid and crustaceans. In Greenland beluga whales are seen between Maniitsoq and Disko Bay as well as at Qaanaaq and Upernavik.