Full (Arctic) Circle

June 18, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Back in 2008 when I first travelled to Svalbard, my crystal ball never revealed that just under six years later I would find myself writing about having visited the fifth and final Arctic polar country.  Yet here I am doing just that.  And we saw narwhal - lots of them!


The trip started with flights down to Heathrow and over to Ottawa where I spent two nights.  In the intervening day, I went walking and discovered that Ottawa isn't really designed for walking far.  With many back-tracks due to roadworks and my GPS taking me the wrong way, I met few other pedestrians except in the city centre and by the time I caught a taxi back to my hotel seven hours later, I'd clocked up 10 miles (accurately measured by the GPS).  People seemed surprised, but it was good to stretch the legs after the long flight, and it enabled me to see and hear a few of North America's indigenous garden birds - red-winged blackbirds, American robins, etc.  I didn't take the camera with me though.


Two mornings later, I took an early flight up to Iqaluit on Baffin Island, capital of Canada's newest Province, Nunavut (1999) where there was a short stop before the second flight directly to Pond Inlet on the north of the island as the touch-down at Clyde River had been cancelled due to poor weather.  We were met by two of our guides and taken to meet some of the others in the group (more were already at Base Camp).  After a bite to eat, we hastened down to the town's library/village hall for a demonstration of traditional Inuit skills and practices such as high-kicking to reach a small piece of seal flesh on a rope, cheek-pulling, fire-lighting and throat-singing.  It gave us the chance to interact with the wonderful Inuit people who have a very gentle manner.  They speak slowly, smile broadly and are the most genial of hosts.


On 6th June, we set off in a convoy of skidoos pulling traditional Inuit qamutiks or sleds.  It was strange to glide over the frozen sea and every now and then we had to make a large zig-zag to bypass leads - channels formed by large cracks in the ice.  The sea ice is approximately 4-5 feet thick at this time of year, and thawing all the time, but it is not until August/September that Pond Inlet witnesses the fluid sea again for a couple of short months.



The trip out to Base Camp, a mile from the ice edge took 5-6 hours, and we'd been advised to wrap up warmly.  There were a couple of stops, one of which was to visit an ancient Thule settlement.  The Thule race was the precursor to the modern-day Inuit, thought to emanate more than 2,000 years ago from the Bering Strait and spread all the way over to Greenland.  As our only land-based excursion, we had the opportunity to walk up and around the low round stone houses with long wide slabs of stone as the lintels.  Snow buntings were singing away and I spotted a lemming zipping amongst the rocks, although it didn't reappear.  Further along, there were some ancient graves where some stones had been removed long ago, exposing skeletons for sufficient time for lichen to grow on them.  In such areas, the permafrost precludes any conventional excavation so stones are built up to form a grave above ground.  Towards the beach lay a huge rectangular container, thought to hold up to ten tonnes of whale blubber from more recent times when whalers sailed these waters.  As we were leaving, I spotted four of only six snow geese we were to see flying overhead.  I've only seen them in Russia before, so it remains a thrill to see them again.


In due course, we arrived at Base Camp, situated close to a trapped iceberg, where we met the rest of the group.  In total, we numbered just under 30 - 9 Chinese/Taiwanese, 1 Belgian and 1 Canadian guest apart from me.  I was the only Brit.  Of the staff, there were 5 Canadians from the lower provinces, 1 American, 1 German and around 8 Inuit Canadians.  Having been shown our accommodation - large dual-shared modern yurt-like tents - we were well-fed and because the sun never sets at this time of year, went straight out to the ice edge where that wonderful midnight light afforded the perfect setting to see our first narwhal.  The main reason for coming here was to see these elusive whales because they swim alongside the sea ice in their annual migration.  


Of course everyone wants to see the famous tusk or tooth, but we were to be disappointed in the main, and nor were we to see any other whales.  Narwhal tend to swim in groups and when they surface for air, they don't generally show the tusk.  In addition, we were informed that only the males have a tusk, although that was later contradicted with the advice that some females also have a tusk.   I took one or two shots with tusks, but seeing them was a rarity.  In addition to that wonderful evening light which is slightly brighter but not dissimilar to twilight, the ice and snow in the Arctic help to amplify any noise.  As such, we were advised to stay still and be quiet when the narwhal were close as they could hear any footsteps.  In return, we had the thrill of hearing their blowing echoing around even from quite some distance.  At times, we could hear them singing too.

The narwhal weren't always present and on one particularly beautiful day, activities included kayaking and snorkelling whilst one of the staff dropped a hydrophone into the water where we could hear the ringed and bearded seals also singing.  We never saw a bearded seal, but the ringed seals were curious and kept periscoping to check us out.  Meanwhile, the ice edge was rife with birds.  Predominantly thick-billed murre which I was later to discover are the same bird as the Brünnich's Guillemot which we saw in Svalbard, but also long-tailed ducks, plenty of eider and king eider, glaucous and Thayer's gulls, black guillemot, long-tailed jaeger/skua, black-legged kittiwakes, fulmar and even a ruddy turnstone. 


I had hoped to visit the bird sanctuary on Bylot Island, but the ice was thawing too quickly for us to travel there.  With that went the likelihood of seeing Arctic fox again as they don't tend to venture onto the sea ice, whereas the lure of potential sustenance through eggs would be quite high.  On one day, we returned to Base Camp and passed a narwhal carcass about a mile away.  The Inuit are permitted to hunt a small allocation of narwhal each year and having taken what they required, the rest was left for any passing polar bears.  We were surprised that it took nearly two days for the first one to appear, and it did so when only four people had remained to watch.  It quickly ran away when it realised Man was nearby, but we set up a rota to watch for more and to my delight, one appeared just as my shift began.  Unfortunately, it was in a very poor condition, in no small part due to what looked like a broken nearside front paw.  It was surrounded by the usual glaucous gulls and also three ivory gulls.  As our shift ended and we turned to walk back to camp, another bear appeared in the snow and apparently had a short fight with "Limpy" which Limpy won.  At least he managed to get a good feed because by the next day, much of the carcass had gone.


The week sped past.  I found it very cold at night, and it was strange to think of narwhal and seals swimming beneath where we lay.  During the day we generally had fair, if cloudy weather, although the first and last afternoons were very sunny, which included our long ride back to Pond Inlet.  We stopped again at the Thule settlement and this time we found a snow bunting's nest.  Shortly afterwards, we stopped at a gyr falcon's nest and were thrilled to see both male and female flying around.  It was clear that there were not yet any eggs as neither bird was on the nest, but a pair of snow geese flew past and the male gyr falcon immediately went on the attack to drive them away, not that they appeared to be trying to cause any problems!  What beautiful birds, and so rarely-seen.  It was one of the highlights of a wonderful trip.


The trip seemed to be over almost before it had started.  It left me with more fantastic memories of a very special region of the world.  I hope you enjoy the photographs: http://www.alexinthewild.com/p90979596



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