“There must be over 20 bowhead whales!” Exclaimed Graham Dickson, Chief Expedition Officer for Arctic Kingdom Expeditions.
It was August 2012, and while scouting a new area just south of Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut by boat with a couple of photographers on Arctic Kingdom’s trip “Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island” Dickson, and the photographers were witnessing the act of bowhead whales rubbing their 60’ long bodies on the rocks at the bottom of the ocean floor to scrape off their skin – a process also known as ‘molting’.
Bowheads rubbing in the shallow waters of the coast of Baffin Island allowed with snorkeler Todd Mintz approaching
One of the photographers, Todd Mintz, a Canadian photographer who has travelled with Arctic Kingdom to photograph polar bears, muskox and narwhal since 2010 couldn’t resist putting on his drysuit and floating in the water to witness the behavior underwater. He took this video with a GoPro camera mounted on his camera.
When asked what is was like to have a 100 ton whale approach to within 5 feet of him, Mintz replied, “That was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. I had no idea what he was going to do. I was frozen on the spot, and only remembered to take some pictures at the last second. That never happens.”
View from the boat when the bowhead whale surfaced
Mintz also managed to retrieve some bowhead whale skin that was floating in the water.
At the time Dickson and the photographers on board knew they were witnessing something special.
The fact that there were such a high concentration of bowhead whales in 30’ of shallow water is very rare as bowhead whales are known to be pelagic or deep water whales. Second, the water clarity was crystal clear and to our knowledge there has never before been such clear underwater photographs taken of bowhead whales. Third, the pieces of bowhead whale skin in the water, also to our recollection had not been seen before.
To verify what we saw, we consulted with the Canadian expert in bowhead whales - retired bowhead whale ecologist and researcher Kerry Finley. Finley has studied the Baffin Island bowhead whales since 1983 along the coast of Baffin Island mainly a few hundred kilometers to the north in Isabella Bay. He had not been to the location where we saw the rubbing activity.
"The place where whales go" according to local Inuit elders
After discussing the behavior of the bowhead whales with Finley and reviewing photos and video taken on the trip he commented, “Your photographers captured just the sort of image that we tried so many years to obtain…I had hoped to document the rubbing behaviour that I suspected was taking place but to no avail. It is interesting that you actually saw pieces of skin which I never saw. It is definitely molting behavior that you saw”.
Finley went on to say, “What you have found, could very well be a very special place for bowhead whale observation”
The bowhead whales were finning, logging (resting on the surface), tail slapping, and rubbing on the rocks in the shallow waters
Upon returning to the Arctic Kingdom base camp that evening one of the local Inuit elders came to our camp. We described to him where we went and what we saw. His response was simple – “Yes, you went to the place where the bowhead whales go”.
Apparently we are not the first ones to have ‘discovered’ the bowhead whales and where they go to molt. The Inuit people have known about them all along.
Arctic Kingdom is planning on returning Aug 2 to 6, 2015 and Aug 6 to 18 2015 to the “place where the bowhead whales go” along with our Inuit friends and we hope to repeat the encounter. 2016 dates are also planned around the same timeframe.
EDIT 2014: Arctic Kingdom returned in 2014 and observed the bowhead whale molting behavior with an excited group of guests.
There are still a few limited spaces left for interested persons who would like to join. For more details visit this page: “Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island”
Or Contact: Thomas Lennartz – [email protected]
By Michelle Valberg
Erik was from Austria. Robert and Kendra were from Hong Kong. Micki and Chuck were from LA, Joanne was Australian and Pat was a friend from Ottawa. Most of us had never met before, but we greeted each other like adventurers with a common goal: combing the western edge of Hudson Bay for mother polar bears and their months-old cubs. Stowing our gear and chatting excitedly, we boarded the VIA train in Churchill, Manitoba, bound for Chesnaye, 60 kilometres south. It was a slow ride south through the boreal forest, but with every kilometer clicking past, our anticipation grew. The spring 2013 Polar Bear Mother and Newborn Cub Photo Safari with Arctic Kingdom was about to begin.
Two hours later, we rolled to a stop in Chesnaye. Very late on a very cold March night when the temperature hovered at -30C, we stepped off the train onto the frozen tundra, with no station or platform in sight.
2 hour train ride from Churchill to the Lodge
There, the Lodge staff met and whisked us into their specially-designed Arctic vehicles - vans with special tracks instead of wheels. A quick 30-minute drive brought us to our home for the next seven nights. Ten adventurers were already at the lodge and they were buzzing with elation. That day, they’d experienced an amazing opportunity to capture, on camera, a polar bear and her cubs. Needless to say, our excitement and their stories kept us up until after midnight.
Our group from all corners of the globe - from Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Canada and the UK - heading out in the tracked van in search of mother and cubs
Day 1 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
At 9am the next morning, after a chef-made breakfast, we boarded the specially-equipped van. Parkas on, photo equipment at the ready, we crossed our fingers and toes in the hopes that we would see a mother and her cubs close to their den.
Just twenty minutes later. “There they are!” shouted our guide, pointing to a Momma bear feeding her cubs. From a respectful distance, we observed the tender interplay of nature and nurture. Once she was done, our guides positioned the vehicles and we clambered to get all our gear on and our photo equipment ready.
Tracked vehicles seem to watch over the tripods set up close to mother and cubs bear den
Stepping outside, the cold took our breath away. And yet…this is what we had come so far to see. We stood together, slightly unsure of what would happen. Even so, in that moment I thought, how lucky am I to experience this!
Waiting for mother and cubs to appear...any second now....
Lined up, our fingers on camera buttons, we watched, took photos and observed. The cubs tumbled over each other joyfully, with their mother nearby.
And then, the unexpected happened. Momma bear awoke from her rest, stretched, rolled onto her belly, sat up and sniffed the air in our direction. Slowly, she walked towards us. Our guides were immediately on alert and started their snowmobiles. She wasn’t aggressive in her approach—but she was curious.
Once the bears got too close, the guides moved in and gently suggested they head in another direction. The only sound over our overawed, pounding hearts was the quick click-click-click of our camera shutters as we captured each movement.
Perhaps convinced we meant no harm, Momma bear and her cubs went back towards their den to rest. As they slept, we chatted, moved in and out of the vans and tried to keep warm—the temperature by then was around -40C (-55 with the wind chill). And we marveled. On our first day, we had spent 10 hours watching this family. They had approached us four times, we had magic light and an all-around eventful day. We weren’t sure how any other day would compare.
Day 2 at the Newborn Polar Bear Cub Lodge
The next day, we searched fruitlessly for the family…but eventually, our guides located them later in the day. The babies played, slept and never strayed far from their mother’s side. They were adorable, and yet we had to remind ourselves that one day, they too would become the most fearsome predators in the Arctic.
Day 3 at the Newborn Cubs Lodge
The wind howled across the tundra, forcing the little family to hunker down. Even so, the light and setting were absolutely stunning. Momma bear put her face into the snow to sleep while the cubs played with each other. In between sniffing around and nosing each other, they crawled all over their mother, giving us unbelievable photographic opportunities. Once again, they approached us with interest.
Day 4 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
After such excellent luck, it came as no surprise that it ran out by the fourth day of shooting. Our guides had spotted three families, but they were deep in the park and the trek would have been too treacherous to make in our vans. We had beautiful light and spent a few hours sitting outside in the sunshine waiting for word from our guides.
But the day wasn’t a total loss: An extraordinary sunset morphed into a mesmerizing, noble display of northern lights early in the night. We definitely had nothing to complain about.
Day 5 at the Newborn Polar Bear Lodge
There are days in the North when it feels like you’re on a movie set. The light is gorgeous, the landscape was Hollywood perfect and the players all know their parts well.
The day dawned cold and windy, but a new mother and her very tiny, very new cubs fresh from the den emerged to explore the world around them. Everywhere Momma bear went, they followed. If she stopped to sniff the air, they stopped, too.
Polar bears use the small hilly areas to make their dens and there, we watched them sleep most of the day. Anytime we spotted movement, we would run to our cameras. It wasn’t the best day for shooting—the wind was strong and blew snow straight at us. But I don’t think any of us minded.
Day 6 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
Could anything top the week we had experienced? In the Arctic, nothing is a sure thing. There are too many variables, too much can change in a heartbeat. And yet, in many ways, our penultimate day at Wapusk was the best. Under the biggest tree for kilometers, our guides found the family. It was another beautiful background. After hours of sleeping, Momma Bear got up and walked in our direction with her cubs. Our guides warned her with their snowmobiles. She walked back to the tree and we watched her try to feed her cub. She took her big front paw and gently nudged him towards her. It was a tender moment that spoke volumes about how, regardless of species, our desire to both protect and feel safe. We want to feel loved. We want to be nourished.
At the end of the day, we had the unparalleled luck to have all three polar bears - mother with her two cubs - walked right past us. Trigger-happy and filled with excitement, we watched her walk away with her cubs close behind her. It was a fitting farewell and I was overcome. Tears ran down my face and I sobbed. I felt so blessed. I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing for so long. The Polar Bear Mother and Cubs Photo Safari trip had fulfilled my dreams.
The return back to Churchill was uneventful. Upon arriving on a bright, sunny day a bit warmer than what we’d experienced in Wapusk we had a dog sled ride and enjoyed the afternoon. But our hearts and minds were far away with the mother and newborn cubs that were back in Wapusk National Park.
ABOUT MICHELLE VALBERG
This was Michelle Valberg's first trip (of many) as an expedition leader with Arctic Kingdom.
Michelle Valberg is a globally recognized and celebrated photographer, whose quest to capture the beautiful and unique on camera has taken her to all corners of the world.
Valberg’s stunning, and at times haunting photographs are highly sought after by art collectors globally, and have been showcased in various exhibits and features across North America. In 2011, Valberg’s work was the subject of a critically acclaimed 3-month solo exhibition at the esteemed Canadian Museum of Nature.