August 2014 - Arctic Kingdom Polar Expeditions

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Postcards from Our Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari: Part 5 – May/June 2014

August 12th, 2014 | By | Filed in Uncategorized

Story and Photo by Jane Whitney A light wind blew from the north. A few thick-billed murres and northern fulmers flew silently by. We had been waiting all day for narwhal to appear out of the mercurial waters. By 3 pm, the group wanted to return to camp and give the floe edge another chance after dinner. I asked if anyone wanted to stay. A lone woman admitted she’d love to. By the time the group left, there were 5 of us: Rita from Taiwan, Huang and Sun from China, our local guide Andrew and me. After the group left, the silence settled in, much like the local fog. We got up to take a walk along the jumbled ice at the water’s edge. Within 10 minutes of the group’s departure, Andrew signalled softly and there it was. Our first bear walking soundlessly toward us. Its black nose searching, its little ears perked forward. We had seen the fresh bear tracks with its pigeon towed front print followed by the larger rear track due to the heel imprint. The narrow groves on the snow came from the hair which makes the bear so quiet as it walks across the crunch of the snow. Polar-Bear-Jane-Whitney We are all quiet, the three others sitting on their stools, long lenses poised, shutters clicking. The north wind brings our scent to the bear, its black nose waving in the air. Its survival instinct sends the bear into the ice chunks along the water’s edge. Several times the bear takes to the water. We watch the yellow white head move along as the legs and paws swim forward. I hear the clicking of photos as the photographers move their stools silently. The bear comes out on some ice and shakes itself. Water droplets flying. Click. The bear is still trying to sniff out who we are, at times so loud it sounds almost like a funny bark. It comes up directly east of us, perhaps 50 metres away. Again it shakes itself free of water as it emerges from the water. A huge arc of water droplets. The bear turns to its right, hurrying. Not because of us, but because it has finally located the scent of the whale carcass. The bear’s gait is perfect. The little quick steps that remind me of a caterpillar cost the bear less energy yet help it move quickly across the landscape. The bear is still in full view, but past us, when everyone stands up to give me a long hug, tears streaming down their face. They are so moved by the intimate experience.

Postcards from Our Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari: Part 4 – May/June 2014

August 11th, 2014 | By | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic

Story and Photo by Jane Whitney We are standing at the margin of the sea ice called the floe edge in northern Baffin Island, 30 km from the nearest point of land. If there is swell in the open water, it will gently rock our snowy platform. We can see thick-billed murres swim underwater to feed underneath the ice where we stand. The high pitched call of the black guillemot reflected in the water blends in with the glorious silence. Floe-edge-Photographers---Jane-Whitney We are waiting, watching, hoping to see the narwhal. When they come, it’s like they’re there all at once. Their exhalations explode through the surface of the water followed by sounds of trumpeting, half snores, and squeaky doors before inhaling as they propell forward, their foreheads bulbous-shaped with the spermaceti to echo-locate their prey. Sometimes we’ll catch sight of the tusk from a male or the white of an older narwhal, originally thought to live as old as half a century, but may now be thought to be double that age span. Mothers and calves stop at the surface for the calf to nurse. Once the narwhal raises its heart shaped tail, it too will dive in the dark abyss under the pack ice in these rich feeding grounds off of Baffin Bay. And we know we have to wait another 15 to 25 minutes for them to reappear. We are spellbound. Jaws left wide open. Natahia, one of the women standing on the icy platform comments, “this is one of the best days of my life. It’s an experience that is hard to describe. It’s the peace of hearing the complete quiet with only narwhal everywhere you look.” Another spectator, Michael replies that he thought seeing 28 blue whales off of South Georgia was the best day of his life, but he changes his mind. “Seeing the narwhal surface from under the ice and stream pass is glorious but it is the setting of where you are that makes it magnificent. The pack ice you stand on can be cold under foot. The breeze off the Arctic open water can chill your hands. This whale takes you to this wild place of the High Arctic: the realm of a big wide open landscape, under a 24 hour sun, back dropped with 4000’ glaciated peaks. And you are kept warm by the genuine hospitality of the staff and the friendship of those you are traveling with."

Postcards from Our Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari: Part 3 – May/June 2014

August 11th, 2014 | By | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic

Story by Jane Whitney That familiar cry of a red-tailed hawk made me want to turn to see what it was but I had to keep watching the seal that we were approaching. When the seal’s head was up, we’d stop. When the seal put its head down, we’d walk, all in single file. Half way there Steve thwacked me on the back and whispered excitedly “gyr falcon”! I take my eyes off the seal to look. The pair of birds did have a quick wing beat but not fast enough for a falcon. Looking through our binoculars, we see they are rough-legged Hawks. One is carrying nesting material. Their distribution is indicated for southern Baffin Island, and west and north of us, but not for the northern edge of Baffin Island where we are.
Eider Duck  Photo credit: Michelle Valberg

Eider Duck
Photo credit: Michelle Valberg

We are en route to the floe edge. When we arrive, we hear the cry of the black-legged kittiwake, flying daintily in large numbers right in front of us. We are excited to see large groups of king eider. Northern fulmers glide by, silently. Many flocks of thick-billed murres pass, the sound of their wingbeat reminding me of a tabby cat hungrily lapping up milk. We see groups of 30 or more of pomerine and long-tailed jaeger, brandt, snow and Canadian geese. We see our first narwhal, then 3 more.
Murres

Murres

The wind is blowing some pan ice down and we watch as the smaller pieces of ice ride over on top of each other, bulldozing blocks of blue ice over the floe edge. The building of waves in the open water rock the pack ice we stand on, occasionally making us find our sea legs for balance. By the end of our first day we count 12 species of birds. As we leave, we look over our shoulder at glaucous gulls reflected in the Bahamian turquoise melt water.

Postcards from Our Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari: Part 2 – May/June 2014

August 8th, 2014 | By | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic

Story by Jane Whitney Sheattie-in-sunSheattie was born in an igloo 64 years ago. He is now one of the most respected hunters and elders in all of Baffin. He is our main guide as we go out across the pack ice to the floe edge. Quaima? Ready? He calls out with a smile. We will cross leads of open water where 5-foot thick pans of ice break apart. We will travel under cliffs of ancient rock and look across at the spectacular mountains and glaciers of Bylot Island and Sirmiluk National Park. We will pass by a towering iceberg frozen in the pack ice and watch seals lining the leads and individual holes. Robert Bylot sailed into this area with William Baffin nearly 400 years ago. They set the furthest north record of reaching 77° 45’ North. They named Lancaster Sound, which would eventually become the gateway to the long sought after Northwest Passage, and Smith Sound, the future highway to the North Pole. Two centuries would pass before another exploring ship would sail this far north. And yet Sheattie’s ancestors travelled to the floe edge, as we are doing today, for over a thousand years. The floe edge is where the ice pack meets the open water. Here, life flourishes, with flocks of thick-billed murres, king eiders, and black-legged kittiwakes. Narwhal travel close to the edge. Polar bear tracks show of their passing. The floe edge will be our home for the next week, in the land of the 24 hour sun.
Photo credit: Stephen A. Smith

Photo credit: Stephen A. Smith

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